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Is a Thaw Possible in Frosty Ukraine?

In his epic 2007 novel Ice, the award-winning Polish science fiction writer Jacek Dukaj describes an alternative history in which World War I never happened, Poland is still under the rule of the tsar, and the Russian Empire is almost entirely covered by a mysterious frozen substance. This “ice” enlarges outwards, freezing not only the ground, but also history and philosophy, resulting in the preservation of old political systems. As a consequence, it becomes impossible for people to differentiate between truth and falsehoods. Everything is either black or white — there is no room for a grey in-between sphere.

Frozen fountain, Kyiv, Ukraine. Author: Aleksej Leonov. Source: Flickr.

Frozen fountain, Kyiv, Ukraine. Author: Aleksej Leonov. Source: Flickr.

Dukaj’s parable appears strangely similar to the ongoing confrontation in Ukraine. Tensions between the pro-democratic opposition and President Viktor Yanukovych’s state apparatus are mounting, resulting in violence and chaos across the country. Former President Leonid Kravchuk has said that Ukraine is on the verge of civil war, and appealed to both sides to take responsible actions.

The question is whether any consensus can be reached given the different interests dividing the ruling clique and the people on the streets.

And what would be the reaction of Russian President Vladimir Putin, for whom preserving power and freezing the status quo is a key political objective?

What is clear is that protests in Ukraine will not peter out unless the opposition’s demands are met. These demands include early presidential elections, the release of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko from prison, a return to the 2004 constitution, and Ukraine’s accession to an Association Agreement with the European Union. The leaders of the opposition, representing three parliamentary parties (Batkivshchyna, UDAR, and Svoboda), are playing hard ball. They have not agreed to abandon demonstrations even though Prime Minister Mykola Azarov resigned and the Verkhovna Rada (Ukrainian parliament) adopted an amnesty law for protesters, which, in any case, was conditional and far from perfect.

But the continuing stand-off also tests the transatlantic community’s ability to forge a concerted response. When U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Victoria Nuland said recently that Europe and the United States required a transatlantic renaissance, she may not have known that her words would be tested so swiftly.

Washington is stepping up on financial sanctions and, in fact, is putting more pressure on Yanukovych and his band than the EU.

By contrast, Catherine Ashton, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, has said that sanctions should be used with moderation.

For its part, Brussels sent a European Parliament observer mission to Kyiv, signaling that it did not want to actively participate in the conflict. Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk has perhaps been an exception among European leaders, meeting with his counterparts in Europe to convince them that free and democratic Ukraine should be the center of Brussels’ attention. Even though a certain type of the Marshall Plan for Ukraine is not under serious discussion at the political level yet, EU officials underscore that the Association Agreement is still on the table.

A passive approach by Western leaders toward Ukraine works in favor of Russia, which through restoring trade sanctions against Kyiv and threatening to renegotiate the Kremlin’s financial aid, has forcefully pushed Yanukovych to bring demonstrations to an end. By destabilizing Ukraine, Putin has tried to ensure that his economic and political objectives in the region are secured. He knows, for example, that without Ukraine, the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union does not stand a chance.

The ice from Jacek Dukaj’s book could be interpreted as a metaphor for the supremacy and domination of a single power intent on preserving the status quo, against those that seek to be free from it.

Russia believes that Ukraine, once a part of the Soviet Union, should remain committed to Moscow. Kyiv, however, is fiercely resisting the advancing ice storm. Is a thaw now possible?


Michał Romanowski is a program coordinator at the German Marshall Fund of the United States in Warsaw.

This article was originally published on GMF Blog

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