After the bloodiest day in Ukraine in 23 years, a standoff has developed between Russian-backed riot police loyal to Ukrainian President ViktorYanukovych and pro-EU protesters who want to oust Yanukovych.
We asked Ian Bremmer, president of Eurasia Group and author of “Every Nation for Itself: Winners and Losers in a G-Zero World,” for some insights on what has become an uncertain and volatile situation.
Business Insider: Will you describe in simple terms what’s at stake here?
Ian Bremmer: The international stakes center on the (lack of) credibility of Western engagement in a strategically important international hotspot. Russia’s President Putin is determined to keep Ukraine in Russia’s economic orbit, and he’s not concerned about international criticism of his direct involvement in propping up Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych’s embattled government. Meanwhile, the Europeans and Americans are no more interested in taking on risks and complications here than they were in Syria, and the Russians know it.
The Europeans will move toward some form of sanctions, because they can’t stand by and do nothing while Ukrainian protesters are killed on television. But there will be little follow through beyond that because, frankly, Ukraine is far too weak, economically and institutionally, to join the EU for the foreseeable future. The US will say the expected things and express the expected concerns, but this is far from the top of anyone’s agenda in Washington, however sympathetic administration officials may be with the protesters.
The Ukrainian people are the latest victim of an international system that lacks crucial leadership.
BI: Is Putin nervous yet? What are his options at this point?
Bremmer: Not so nervous to avoid this during the Sochi Olympics. Putin is watching this closely along with everyone else and trying to decide how to intervene most effectively. The tool of choice still appears to be a Russian pledge to buy $US2 billion in Ukrainian-issued Eurobonds to buttress Yanukovych’s government. But Russian aid remains on the sidelines while things get murkier on the streets of Kiev and other Ukrainian cities.
We should be clear that civil war or the introduction of Russian troops is not on the horizon, at least not yet. But there is a sizable minority population of ethnic Russians living in eastern and southern Ukraine, and Putin will not back off as long as he believes he has viable options to intervene in Ukraine’s politics.
BI: There are reports of areas declaring independence from Yanukovych’s government and the army on standby. What is the worst-case scenario?
Bremmer: The absolute worst-case is the breakup of the country some have feared since the fall of the Soviet Union. Ukraine is not Syria. There are both ethnic Ukrainians and ethnic Russians who are proud of their young country, who want peace, stability, and good relations with both Russia and Europe. There are also military figures and powerful, politically connected businessmen who can abandon the government and push things toward negotiations that might oust Yanukovych and create some viable compromise, at least for the near term. But for the moment, Yanukovych appears to be on offence, and things will get bloodier before they get better.
BI: What, if any, leverage does the EU and the U.S. have?
Bremmer: They have the power to condemn what’s happening. There can be some limited European sanctions, though there is plenty of resistance to that among European governments. The time to help the Ukrainians was before the violence started — and Europeans missed the chance to draw a line that they were prepared to defend with cash and pressure.
The IMF may eventually become directly involved again, but it would take time to negotiate a meaningful agreement, and Yanukovych’s government is fully occupied with trying to impose its will on the streets rather than to look West for financial aid.
In short, Europeans and Americans have far less leverage than the Russians do — and even the Russians lack the power to ensure the longer-term outcome they really want.
BI: What do you expect to happen in the next couple of days?
Bremmer: You’ll hear a lot of strong-sounding statements from Europe, but Ukraine’s violence has taken on a life of its own. Ukraine’s most powerful businessmen can abandon support for Yanukovych if they choose. They’ll be watching to see if protesters from western Ukraine are able to flood central Kiev and push Yanukovych’s back to the wall. They’ll be watching to see if Yanukovych’s decision to replace the army chief can ensure the army’s loyalty. And they’ll be watching to see if ethnic Russians living in the Yanukovych-friendly eastern regions begin to turn on their president in the name of ending the violence.
These are the things we should be watching too. For now, things are only likely to become more grim.
Follow Ian Bremmer on Twitter.
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