Geo-political tug-of-war between east and west in Ukraine

Protesters at the barricades outside government buildings in Kiev today. Photo: Reuters

Ukraine is caught in geo-political tug of war, between west and east, and a future that takes it ever closer to the European Union or the familiar and powerful embrace of the Russian bear.

At the moment these opposing forces threaten to tear this vast country apart. Polls show a majority looking west for inspiration but a substantial minority, Russian speaking, hanker after the security of Moscow.

Some are nostalgic for the years of comforting protection within the Soviet bloc. But this isn’t just about national identity and aspiration, intractable thought they are. The country’s economy is in deep, debt driven trouble and desperately needs a boost. Whether it would have got a hand up from a free-trade partnership with the EU is now a theoretical question only.

President Viktor Yanukovych’s abrupt U-turn in refusing to sign an agreement many years in the making is the spark to the current crisis.

Riot police and protesters clash during a rally in support of EU integration on Sunday. Credit: Reuters

Instead, under heavy pressure of financial carrot and stick from President Putin’s Moscow, Ukraine is apparently intent on following a Russian model. Yanukovych is playing for high stakes and believes that with Russian support he can secure victory when he next comes up for election in 2015.

But his hard-line stance against demonstrations has only fanned the flames of protest further.

The official opposition insists those responsible for the violence are agent provocateurs intent on creating a crisis that justifies a government declaration of a state of emergency.

Some suspect the hidden hand of Russia, though Russia is officially staying well clear of the controversy.

Protesters yesterday climbing the gate to the presidential administration in Kiev. Credit: Reuters

To some British eyes, it might seem strange that so much unrest can be caused by a country trying to join the EU. But what they want is the freedom, democracy, and rule of the law they believe, rightly or wrongly, the EU offers.

For these people this is the unfinished business of the Orange Revolution of nearly a decade ago. While successive leaders have striven to find a balance between the troubled empires on each border, none has yet delivered on that vision.

A forced choice between east or west won’t be any easier.

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