Foreign and Defense Policy, Europe and Russia

What exactly is the US interest in Ukraine?

Jordi Bernabeu (Flickr) (CC-by-2.0)

Jordi Bernabeu (Flickr) (CC-by-2.0)

Yesterday, I argued in the Daily Caller that “[t]he U.S. and Europe should continue to stand behind the Ukrainian majority, because our interests and theirs are now the same.” Daniel Larison of the American Conservative responds that it is hasty to presume that the protesters in Ukraine represent the majority and that by no stretch of the imagination are US interests the same as those of the Ukraine’s pro-Europe movement. Let’s take those two points in order.

Larison cites a late November poll that found 39% of respondents favor joining the EU, whereas 37% favor joining the Moscow-led Eurasian Customs Union. In other words, a dead heat. That is a markedly different result from the one reported by the WSJ and most American outlets, which found 45% support for an Association Agreement with the EU while only 14% want to join Putin’s bloc. Compared to six months earlier, support for the EU was roughly the same, but support for joining the Putin bloc had fallen by half. Regrettably, I’m in no position to judge the credibility of the different pollsters. But multiple years of results from a third pollster, Razumkov, indicate that joining the EU has been a majority position since Yanukovich took office, whereas the Customs Union has less than 35% support and is falling.

Razumkov’s presidential polling – current through October – shows Yanukovich leading the pack with 18-20% while various opposition figures poll in the teens. It would be interesting to see a December poll – would opposition leader and boxing champ Vitaly Klitschko have taken a firm lead? In any event, the opposition total is much higher than Yanukovich’s 20%. When it comes to approval ratings, Yanukovich is completely upside down with 14% strong support and 56% strong opposition. Klitschko’s numbers aren’t great, yet again, the results seem to be a month old.

Aside from polls, I think it’s worth considering anecdotal evidence that Yanukovich can’t muster effective counterprotests on his own behalf, even in his political heartland. Prof. Alexander Motyl of Rutgers reports in Foreign Affairs, “In Donetsk, Yanukovych’s stronghold, the authorities had to cancel a pro-regime demonstration when it became clear that the turnout would be embarrassingly small.” Other press reports I’ve come across have indicated a similarly lackluster interest.

So, is it crystal clear where the will of the majority lies in Ukraine? Perhaps not. Yet I think the bulk of the evidence is on one side.

Now on to the second question – how much congruence is there between US interests and those of the Ukrainian majority? Larison writes, “Unless one has a very expansive definition of U.S. interests, it seems unlikely that there is much overlap, and even then it would be a stretch to say that these interests are the same.” I think Yanukovich’s resignation (or early elections) – the #1 demand of the protesters – is precisely in our interest, even if one defines it in a less than expansive manner. Freedom for Ukraine is part of our global interest in promoting free and honest government, but I suspect Dr. Larison recognizes no such interest. More narrowly, defeating Yanukovich would be an embarrassment for Putin, which brings one to a key weakness of Larison’s analysis: the failure to come to terms with Putin’s fundamental hostility to the US. He writes that siding with the protesters, “would not only create another avoidable irritant in the relationship with Russia, but it would also add another U.S. commitment overseas.” Whether it is Putin’s behavior abroad or his domestic propaganda, it should be clear that he is no friend of the US and irritating him might well be a sign that we’re doing precisely the right thing.

As for our “commitment overseas”, this phrasing suggests the US will have to rush in with billions to counter the $15 billion Moscow has promised Yanukovich. But is a bailout what the Ukrainians in the streets are calling for? What they want is a Ukraine tied to the West and becoming part of the West. They shout “Ukraine is Europe!” Of course, if the Russian bailout breaks the protesters’ momentum, it may call into question this analysis.

With regard to the bailout itself, Ukrainians shrewdly suspect there are strings attached: “I know only one place where there’s free cheese — a mouse trap,” Arseniy Yatsenyuk, head of jailed ex-Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko’s party, said at Independence Square yesterday. “We want to hear what [Yanukovich] gave in return.”

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