Fresh from his history-making decision to snub the EU’s association agreement, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych is coming down heavily on the side of a “strategic partnership” with Russia. The BBC reports that this week Yanukovych flew to Sochi in Southern Russia for “surprise talks” with Putin:
In Sochi, Mr Yanukovych discussed “preparation of a future treaty on strategic partnership” with Russia, his press service said.The talks covered various economic issues, the statement said, without elaborating.Mr Putin has been urging Ukraine to join Russia’s customs union with Belarus and Kazakhstan – a union whose entry terms are far less demanding than the EU’
But despite this visit, the Russia-Ukraine relationship is still very much in flux. In Kiev, thousands are still protesting the original decision to turn down the EU, and behind the public protests Ukrainian oligarchs are split over whether their country should throw in its lot with the Russia or not.Moreover, it’s not clear that Russia has the financial resources to make the deal stick. Putin is fighting the tide of history, because economic logic pulls Ukraine toward the much larger and richer markets to its west. The economic challenges to the Russia-Ukraine relationship become even more intense when you view the Sochi story in light of the rest of Yanukovych’s trip. Right before flying into Sochi, Yanukovych was in China to ask for financial aid from the country. China declined to announce any aid packages, and now Putin has to buy Ukraine on his own.This incident also illustrates limits on Sino-Russia coordination: China isn’t going to risk its relationship with Europe to help finance Putin’s neo-imperial project. While Russia and China are both interested in reducing US power, the two largest land powers in the world are jealous of one another and China in particular gets so many benefits from participation in the global trading system that Russia can’t count on it for support.So Putin is on his own with Ukraine, and the big question is whether he can buy off enough Ukrainian oligarchs to make the country come back to the fold permanently, all the while carrying the responsibility for Ukraine’s faltering economy. Ineffective and uncoordinated US and EU policies have given Putin a huge opportunity, but we don’t yet know whether Russia has the financial resources and Yanukovych has enough popular support to parlay that opportunity into a long-term deal.