World leaders split over Ukraine

Putin and Obama vie with heads of EU for influence over Kiev turmoil

February 13, 2014 8:30AM ET
Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich, left, and Russian President Vladimir Putin at a Russian-Ukrainian summit in December.
Sasha Mordovets/Getty Images

The creeping anarchy in Kiev is a time bomb that threatens to set back the already troubled relations between Europe and Washington. The pressing question is how soon it explodes after the Sochi Olympic Games end.

The troubles began last fall with an economic dispute: President Viktor Yanukovich was faced with a stark choice between joining the EU and joining the Russian Federation. The agrarian, western part of Ukraine wanted to link across borders with Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and Bulgaria for easy access to European labor. The prosperous, industrial eastern part of the country aimed to stay with Moscow and 1,000 years of tradition. 

Yanukovich sided with the Kremlin and his close ally, Russian President Vladimir Putin. In November and December, there were peaceful mass rallies in Kiev’s Independence Square protesting Yanukovich’s decision. In January, the rallies turned violent and flared with bonfires ready-made for TV coverage.

The opposition was never united, however, and has factionalized. Some of its members are hatred-filled extremists who scream anti-Semitic, racist rubbish; others are ineffective dreamers.  

The three major players in the opposition are hostile to each other. The boxing champion and leader of the Ukrainian Democratic Alliance for Reform party (UDAR), Vitali Klitschko, is seen as glamorous and naive. The Fatherland Party leader, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, is viewed as a dutiful tool of the U.S. and billionaire philanthropist George Soros. The ultranationalist leader of the All Ukrainian Union “Freedom” Party, Oleh Tyahnybok, is seen as dangerous. The U.S. State Department reportedly favors the weakest of the three opposition leaders, the “liberal” Yatsenyuk.

‘A controversial judgment’

Independence Square is now reportedly a smoke-stained encampment of thousands of masked men in camouflage with truncheons, brass knuckles and iron chains, tending open fires and living in tents in winter temperatures. The whole area, a frozen battlefield bracketed by Soviet architecture, has been sealed off and surrounded by well-armed police.

The Kremlin has widely disseminated the opinion that the protesters are funded and encouraged by Obama administration toadies, such as Soros, a known supporter of the president and liberal causes. The Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, has complained of outside provocations and lack of Western media attention to the violence. “Why don’t we hear condemnations of those who seize and hold government buildings, who burn, torch the police, use racist and anti-Semitic and Nazi slogans?” he said.

Everyone is aware that Moscow controls the energy pipelines to Europe through Ukraine.

Washington has routinely batted away the Russian charge that it is interfering. But last week’s YouTube revelation of Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs Victoria Nuland conferring with the U.S. ambassador to the Ukraine, Geoffrey Pyatt, about influencing the opposition leaders provided blunt evidence for Russia’s claims.

The incident also gave the Kremlin an opportunity to taunt Washington. A Putin aide, Dmitry Loskutov, tweeted about Nuland’s worst moment on the recording, when she used an expletive to describe the European Union’s role in the Kiev drama. “Sort of controversial judgment,” Loskutov wrote.

U.S. State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki tried to return the sarcasm when she called the release of the covertly recorded Nuland a “new low in Russian tradecraft.”

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, however, was not amused. She found Nuland’s disdain for the EU and its foreign minister, Catherine Ashton, “absolutely unacceptable,” according to her press spokesperson.

Eurasian home

All the major players have now bared their teeth. The next phase in the drama could be messy and unpredictable. 

The Kremlin, on the one hand, firmly believes that the Obama administration is provoking the Kiev showdown in order to punish Putin for his intransigence in the Middle East. Moscow also believes that, in the clash over Kiev, the European leaders of Berlin, Paris and London, as well as of the smaller states, will accede to Moscow because of the theme Putin has been emphasizing of a Common Eurasian Home.

French President Francois Hollande is a potential stumbling block, due to his apparent allegiance to President Barack Obama. Moscow, however, views this as expedient because of Paris’ ambitions in the troubled Francophone former sub-Saharan colonies such as the Central African Republic. 

British Prime Minister David Cameron and Merkel, on the other hand, both support Moscow’s demand that Kiev remain in the Russian orbit and, I am told, want Washington to quit the field.

Ambitious Poland, which favors a fragmented Ukraine, is caught again between the demands of the Russians and the arrangements of the Germans and will, according to my source, go along with a subjugated Ukraine.

Also, everyone is aware that Moscow controls the energy pipelines to Europe through Ukraine.

The tents and opens fires in Independence Square will likely last through the Sochi games. After the NBC cameras depart the region, my sources tell me that the chaos in Kiev and western Ukraine will move Yanukovich to secure his office with force. There will be killings as well as mass arrests. Putin, I am told, will not involve Russian troops unless the Kremlin sees that Yanukovich is about to be overwhelmed by provocateurs and saboteurs.

John Batchelor is a novelist and host of a national radio news show based in New York City.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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