Two major events in the unfolding Ukraine crisis will occur Friday. First, Russia's Federation Council will ratify a treaty with Crimea concluding Russia's formal annexation of the territory. Second, Ukraine will sign the political chapters of an association agreement with the European Union.
Both events show just how much the standoff between Russia and the West over Ukraine has escalated, leading the country to split in two. They also make the future uncertain for what is left of Ukraine. The government in Kiev is sure to face greater pressure from Russia while not being clear on exactly what to expect from the West.
In practical terms, Ukraine's inking of the political parts of the association agreement changes little, with the complete signing of the EU agreements not scheduled until sometime later in the year. But the symbolism of the act is huge. After all, the Ukrainian crisis began when former President Viktor Yanukovich rejected the association and free trade agreements in the lead-up to the Nov. 29-30 Eastern Partnership summit over the issue. This led to protests against the decision from pro-EU demonstrators that eventually expanded to general anti-government rallies, culminating in Yanukovich's ouster on Feb. 22.
An interim government under former opposition leader Arseniy Yatsenyuk replaced the Yanukovich regime. One of the main priorities of the new government has been to reverse the decision to suspend the agreements with the European Union. Now, less than a month after Yanukovich's ouster, the first formal step toward concluding these deals is being taken.
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While this is a cause for celebration in Kiev and among the government's pro-Western supporters, Russia sees it as a major affront. Moscow adamantly opposed the Western-backed uprising against Yanukovich and has firmly expressed its view that the new government in Kiev is illegitimate. Russian actions in Crimea came in response to the events in Kiev, with Moscow framing its steps as completely legitimate given how the new government in Ukraine took power and allegedly threatened the rights of ethnic Russians.
Still, Russian opposition has not persuaded the Ukrainian government to stop its integration efforts with the West, as the expected signing Friday shows. But Russia's intervention in Crimea is not the only response to be expected from Moscow. Just as it worked to dissuade Yanukovich from following through with the EU deals by enacting painful trade restrictions on Ukrainian goods, Russia is again showing that a blockade of Ukrainian exports to Russia could be forthcoming. Russia briefly barred Ukrainian trucks from entering Russian territory at certain border crossings overnight on Thursday, though by the afternoon it had started letting them in again. This move was likely meant as a warning of things to come.
The new government in Kiev probably will not reverse its pursuit of EU integration, something it has specifically cited it has a mandate to continue. But while Kiev's commitment to integration may not be in question, the West's commitment to Ukraine is.
So far, Western willingness to back the new government in Ukraine has not been convincing. Russia's military incursions into Crimea have gone without a significant response, but that can be expected given that Ukraine is not a member of NATO. U.S. and EU sanctions have been levied against Russia but so far have not deterred Putin. And while the West has pledged to offer concrete financial assistance to economically beleaguered Ukraine, very little has actually been transferred — and the larger sums pledged have come with painful austerity conditions attached.
Kiev has in principle accepted even these conditions, given that Ukraine needs the West more than ever. As the government proceeds with its EU integration efforts, this will necessarily incur greater economic costs from Russia. Moscow will also seek to destabilize the country via other methods, including by raising natural gas prices and stirring up ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine.
Weathering such moves will require tremendous Western support, both economic and political. While the European Union and the United States have demonstrated their ability to help a pro-Western government rise to power in Ukraine, they have yet to demonstrate an ability or willingness to sustain such a government and bring it firmly into the Western fold. The question of the West's commitment may therefore be just as worrisome to the new Ukrainian government as the certainty of Russian retaliation.