How did Ukraine get into a tug of war between Russia and the EU?

The World
Demonstrators at a rally at Independence Square in Kiev

People supporting an EU integration attend a rally at Independence Square in Kiev December 4, 2013.

REUTERS/Gleb Garanich

Russian President Vladimir Putin has a vision. He wants to create what he calls the "Eurasian Union," and Ukraine is a key piece of that vision.

"There is no doubt that we've seen a heavy-handed Russian approach to these agreements and there's no question that the Russians, on a gradual and determined basis, tried to stop the Ukrainians from signing the deal with the European Union," says Andrew Weiss, vice president of studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Weiss, who was director of Russian, Ukrainian and Eurasian affairs for the Clinton Administration, says Putin's Eurasian Union would be a set of political and economic structures, similar to the EU, that Russia would dominate. Putin wants to get all the former Soviet bloc countries into this union and Ukraine is the most desirable piece, mainly because it is the biggest of the post-Soviet countries, by far. 

But Putin will have to pay for this vision, says Weiss. For one thing, Ukraine's economy is in trouble, just as Russia is suffering from low economic growth. He thinks Russia will have to subsidize the Ukrainian economy.

"I think Ukraine is just a month or two away from some form of economic calamity," Weiss says. "There's something here that doesn't totally add up. Putin seems to be putting geopolitics above shrewd economic sense."

On the EU side, Weiss says that the foreign ministers of Sweden and Poland have been the main drivers of bringing Ukraine into the European Union's sphere. Other core EU players, like Germany, France and Britain, have generally been indifferent.

"What you ended up with was an EU initiative that was overly ambitious, delivered very little short term benefit for Ukraine and set Ukraine up for a sharp confrontation with the Russians," argues Weiss. There wasn't enough in the deal for Ukraine to break its economic ties with Russia.

Ukrainians themselves are divided over which partner to embrace. The protesters in Kiev are pro-Europe, but much of the country shares deep roots with Russia. And Weiss is worried for the Ukrainians.

"They are stuck," he says. "They have an economic crisis. They are facing, basically, running out of cash within the next couple months. President Yanukovych is up for re-election in 2015, and so the whole situation is veering very dangerously toward a very uncertain and very destabilizing conclusion."