The guilty verdict in the trial of Yulia Tymoshenko marks the beginning of a new phase in Ukraine’s relations with its most important partners: Russia, the European Union, and the United States. The Ukrainian authorities are playing an all-or-nothing game, but it’s still unclear what they hope to achieve.
In fact, President Viktor Yanukovych has fallen into the trap he set for Tymoshenko. The trial’s masterminds expected to kill two birds with one stone: neutralizing their most influential political rival ahead of the upcoming parliamentary elections and, ultimately, the next presidential election, while at the same time creating a quasi-legal foundation for revising the gas agreements with Russia. The latter seems to have been the main motivation. After all, Tymoshenko was brought to trial for the gas contracts she negotiated with Gazprom after talks in Moscow in January 2009, not for the various murky aspects of her eventful business and political career. The contract she negotiated helped put an end to a serious crisis caused by Ukraine’s unprecedented failure to deliver Russian gas on to Europe. The sentence she received (seven years in prison and a huge fine) is surprising even by post-Soviet, let alone European standards.
A powerful politician and a highly sophisticated populist, Tymoshenko has actually outwitted her opponents. She literally provoked them into detaining her; after that, the authorities, anxious to save face, could only dig in their heels. For Yanukovych, the outcome was uniformly negative. Tymoshenko’s supporters and sympathizers are mobilizing in Ukraine. The fact that the trial was politically motivated is clear to everyone. In Europe and elsewhere there is general outrage. The European Union wants to finalize a free trade agreement with Ukraine, but Brussels cannot simply look the other way as an opposition leader is given a harsh sentence on such dubious grounds.
As for Russia, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s unequivocal denunciation of the verdict speaks for itself. He understands that the trial was essentially about Russian gas supplies and that he was one of the targets. A source in the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry even suggested that Tymoshenko was the former KGB officer’s agent of influence. All this suggests that Russia and Ukraine’s gas relations are likely to grow even more complicated. On top of everything else, the Ukrainian leaders, for some obscure reason, regularly promise in public that they will soon come to terms with Russia on revising the gas supply contracts although there is no progress in sight on that front.
What’s next? The Ukrainian leadership has little room to maneuver. They can, of course, retreat. Yanukovych has hinted that the verdict was not final, that the defendant would appeal, and that it was a shame that the trial was interfering with European integration. Yet, overriding the sentence means bowing to outside pressure, as this would be a fatal blow to Kiev’s reputation. It is possible to let the court of appeal soften the sentence, but this will not solve the problem. The only remaining option then is to keep pushing on.
The private arguments they will use on the EU are more or less clear: by giving Ukraine the cold shoulder, you will push us into Russia’s embrace; we will have no choice other than the Customs Union. The leadership in Kiev has a great deal of faith in Ukraine’s immense geopolitical and strategic importance and obviously hopes that European and U.S. reluctance to let Ukraine drift towards Russia will trump all other considerations. This kind of logic was already put to the test by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, with the result that his country’s relations with the West are in tatters, while the Belarusian-Russian pendulum keeps swinging from scandal to reconciliation.
In reality, Kiev cannot begin to draw closer to the Customs Union even if it wanted to (which is a doubtful proposition in itself). A resolute move in Moscow’s direction will cause a rift in Ukrainian society and a political crisis. Fair or not, the majority of Ukrainians regard their country’s relations with the EU and Russia as a zero-sum game. Yet, choosing either side would antagonize much of the public. Viktor Yushchenko made a go at NATO and EU integration. The results of his presidency are self-evident. Yanukovych is inclined to resort to the classic Ukrainian tactic of vacillation, which has been used by all former presidents with the exception of Yushchenko. Having quarreled with the West, Alexander Lukashenko may start drifting towards Russia, and Belarusians will offer no resistance. Yanukovych cannot do the same without risking utterly destabilizing the political situation in Ukraine.
But the most interesting question is what Russia intends to do. Moscow wants Ukraine in the Customs Union and the prospective Eurasian Union, but it will not try to achieve this goal at any cost. Nor will Russia make concessions on gas contracts. It has become a matter of principle. The recent progress on Nord Stream and efforts to achieve a political deal on South Stream are aimed at depriving Ukraine of its transit trump card. But the European position is likely to be a hindrance in this sense. Seeking a reduction in gas prices, the European Commission launched an attack on Gazprom in Europe. The demand is echoed by almost all of Russia’s customers in Europe, including Turkey, which has already announced that it will not renew one of its contracts. This could play into Kiev’s hands, but it could also prove an obstacle. If Russia is forced to make concessions to EU countries, it will become even more determined not to cede an inch on the Ukrainian front.
Generally speaking, it looks like Russian-Ukrainian relations have reached a fork in the road. Yanukovych has put an end to the illusion that Ukrainians will elect a truly pro-Russian president, opening up two possibilities for the near future. Either Russia induces Ukraine to follow the path of Belarus through a combination of tough bargaining and resistance, on the one hand, and a gradual rapprochement accompanied by the handoff of important assets, on the other; or it will slowly lose interest and begin looking for alternatives, both for gas transit and other things. The second scenario seems impossible for now given the deeply held belief in Russia that Ukraine is a special and exceptionally important partner in historical, cultural, and other respects. But moods change quickly in the post-Soviet space, and no scenario should be ruled out.