In a speech to the Bundestag on Wednesday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel welcomed Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko's announcement that a unilateral cease-fire would take place in Ukraine's embattled eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk. Merkel also called Russian President Vladimir Putin's decision to legally withdraw the threat of deploying Russian troops to Ukraine "psychologically important," adding that she expects more cooperation from Moscow toward a peaceful resolution of the Ukrainian conflict.
While such comments are unremarkable now, it is worth pausing for a moment to realize just how much things have changed as a result of the Ukrainian conflict — not only in Ukraine but also in the broader relationship between Russia and the West.
Just six months ago, the picture looked entirely different. At an EU Eastern Partnership summit in Vilnius in late November, Merkel told then-Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich that she "expected more." This was in response to Yanukovich's last-minute decision to suspend negotiations, which had been ongoing for several years, with the European Union to sign association and free trade agreements. Ukraine was seen as the main prize of the Eastern Partnership program, and its decision not to sign the deals was considered a major foreign policy failure for the European Union. The beneficiary was Russia, which only weeks later signed a major energy and economic assistance deal with Kiev to secure Yanukovich's loyalty.
But the competition did not end there. Immediately after the rejection of the EU deals, pro-European protesters in Ukraine took to the streets to demonstrate against the government's decision. These demonstrations were initially small, but when security forces cracked down — whether as a miscalculation by the Ukrainian government or with Russia's encouragement — the numbers on the streets swelled. The demonstrations became more anti-government than pro-European and persisted for several months. They eventually became violent and, by the end of February, toppled Yanukovich's government.
It remains unclear whether the uprising against Yanukovich was a genuine grassroots effort or, as Russia claims, a coup backed and engineered by the West. But what is clear is that both the European Union and the United States supported, and in certain cases provided financial backing for, many of the groups participating in the protests. That a pro-Western government emerged in Ukraine in the aftermath of the uprising was enough to validate the Kremlin's suspicions that the West was behind the unrest.
Given that Ukraine is of existential importance to Russia and that a pro-Western government in Kiev poses a national security risk to Moscow, the Kremlin did not take these events lightly. Moreover, the events seemed to take Moscow by surprise; there are now rumors in Russian media that Putin has purged many of the Ukraine analysts from the Russian security services. Russia had to take back some control of the situation. Hence the annexation of Crimea and the support of armed separatists in eastern Ukraine, which continues to pose a problem for the Ukrainian government.
But despite the loss of Crimea and the ongoing fighting in Donetsk and Luhansk, it is Russia that is on the defensive in Ukraine, not the West. For the moment, the government in Kiev is firmly oriented toward the European Union, as evidenced by its commitment to the association and free trade deals that Yanukovich rejected six months ago. Ukraine will conclude these deals with the European Union this Friday, and so will fellow former Soviet states and Eastern Partnership members Moldova and Georgia. Six months ago, the prospect that these countries would follow through with the deals was somewhat uncertain, but the Ukraine crisis has only strengthened the resolve of the Moldovan and Georgian governments to finalize the EU agreements. Likewise, the crisis has strengthened the willingness of the European Union, especially Germany, to commit to them.
But Russia is not out of the game for good. The signing of the deals by Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia does not include any guarantee of eventual or even potential membership in the bloc. Each of these countries' moves toward the West can still be stalled or even reversed, whether by Russia's substantial leverage in these countries, or by their own volatile internal political and security situations. Moreover, Germany, unlike the United States, is still concerned about pushing too far into Russia's periphery and jeopardizing its substantial business relationship with Moscow. Berlin has already made it clear that NATO membership for these states is off the table for now, and it is not exactly thrilled with the idea of an ever-expanding European Union either.
Therefore, the ultimate success of the shift toward the West of Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia and any other borderland states is far from certain. For the moment, the West has the advantage over Russia, but in geopolitics, and especially in this region, no alliance structure is permanent.