The Bear Hug

Vladimir Putin is cheering Ukraine's stiff-arm to Europe. But can Kiev also keep Russia at arm's length?

Kiev is burning! Okay, that's not quite true; I'm just trying to get you to pay attention to something other than Iran. But tens of thousands of demonstrators are, in fact, facing riot police in Ukraine's capital in the first truly mass protests since the Orange Revolution of 2004. What they are demanding is Europe. And what they're getting instead is Russia. It may not be as big a deal as Iran, but it's a very big deal.

The demonstrations were provoked by a last-minute decision by the government of President Viktor Yanukovych to suspend preparations for a trade agreement with the European Union five years in the making. On Thursday night, Yanukovych awkwardly attended what was to be a signing ceremony in Lithuania for the so-called Association Agreement, which would have established virtually free trade with Europe while bringing vast amounts of technical assistance from European governmental bodies. But Russia's president, Vladimir Putin, threatened Yanukovych with economic ruin if he did so; and Yanukovych blinked.

The Ukrainian drama is only one episode in the larger geopolitical and cultural drama playing out along the border between Eastern Europe and Russia. Putin cannot, or in any case will not, accept the westward gravitation of former Soviet states. In 2008, he went to war in order to punish a refractory, devoutly pro-Western Georgia. Last summer, Russia carried out a trade war with Belarus, a rather abject Russia ally, and it has pressured Armenia and Moldova, as well. Over the summer, as Ukraine prepared to conclude the trade deal with Europe, Russia temporarily sealed the border to imports; in October, Gazprom, the oil and gas colossus, threatened to cut off the supply of natural gas if Ukraine didn't pay past bills. By such brutal rules do the neo-tsarists in the Kremlin play the game of statecraft.

For the university students and professionals and civil society activists who have filled Kiev, the EU agreement is a proxy for a "civilizational choice," as Olexiy Haran, a professor of political science at Kyiv Mohyla University, puts it. For them, it is Europe vs. Russia. But the demonstrators in the squares of Kiev are no more "Ukraine" than those in Tahrir Square in 2011 were "Egypt." Ukraine is a huge country whose western border abuts Hungary and Slovakia and whose eastern edge juts hundreds of miles into Russia. It lives in both worlds. When I suggested to Lincoln Mitchell, an expert in the region at Columbia University, that Ukraine was being pulled westward by soft power and threatened to the east by hard power, he corrected me: "Russia has soft power in Ukraine," he pointed out. "If you're in the east, you're living with Russian media and culture and language."

So while the stakes are civilizational for the middle class in Kiev -- and perhaps for Putin -- ordinary Ukrainians probably just want to start living more like Poles and Slovaks. The reason they're not doing so is that over the last decade Ukraine has suffered from dreadful leadership, first from Viktor Yuschenko, who led -- and is then is seen to have betrayed -- the Orange Revolution, and now from Yanukovych, an incompetent and corrupt figure who has done severe damage to the economy while allegedly hugely enriching a small circle of businessmen from his hometown of Donetsk. In between came Yulia Tymoshenko, whom Yanukovych defeated and then imprisoned on corruption charges after a Soviet-style trial.

So the beneath the mighty geopolitical battle is a tale of fecklessness. Yanukovych has claimed that he is helpless before Russian blackmail, but the truth is that his own bumbling leadership has made him an easy target for Putin. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) stopped disbursing $15 billion when the Yanukovych failed to come through on promised reforms. And the president and his prime minister made wild demands of the EU, perhaps imagining that their leverage was vastly greater than it was. They seem to have belatedly woken up to the fact that Europe wasn't just going to turn Kiev into Paris overnight. In recent weeks, both have made desperate dashes to Russia, where they appear to have secured a promise to ease trade restrictions and keep natural gas flowing.

The problem, at the root, may be that Ukraine's leadership class, while yearning for European-style prosperity, defaults to Russian-style authoritarianism. The EU thinks of itself as a community of values, and demanded as pre-conditions to the trade agreement that Ukraine embark on a path of democratic reform. Among other things, the government had to create the conditions for an independent judiciary and transparent elections, and release Tymoshenko, who needed surgery for an acute back problem. Yanukovych, and his captive parliament, stalled, and then refused. Yanukovych is not about to release his chief rival with elections coming up in early 2015, even at the cost of losing a precious agreement with Europe. Indeed, Haran argues that the real reason the president can't afford to alienate Putin is that he needs the Kremlin's support for the election. On the other hand, he adds, "it's very dangerous to rely on Putin."

The collapse of the trade deal leaves Ukraine in an in-between space which may prove very hard to sustain. The reason is that while Europe is quite content with the light embrace of mere association, Russia wants to wrap its allies in a smothering bear hug. For Putin, as for George W. Bush, you're either with us or against us. "With us" is a very small category. Putin has invented a counter-EU he calls the "Customs Union," which is so exclusive that it now has but three members -- Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Russia. Putin aspires to expand his little club into a Eurasian Economic Union by 2015, and he wants lots of new members, including Armenia, Kyrgyzstan and, of course, Ukraine. There is reason to fear that this body may look less like a union than an imperial court, to which lesser sovereigns come to pay tribute.

There is little enthusiasm for Putin's club either in Ukraine or in the government in Kiev. But now Yanukovych, having bowed before Russian pressure, has to avoid the full Russian embrace. He might soon find that Ukrainian exports to Russia are once again being mysteriously held up at the border. Meanwhile, with economic output falling, Ukraine could soon face a financial crisis. And, absent real economic or political reform, he won't be able to turn to the EU or the IMF. It could get pretty lonely in Kiev. 

But what about all those hopeful folks filling the streets of Ukraine's cities and towns, wrapping themselves in the EU colors of blue and yellow? They're going to be disappointed, as they've been disappointed since 2004. The "color revolutions" of Ukraine, Georgia, and Kyrgyzstan, have not realized the hopes born with them, as the revolutions of Eastern Europe and the Baltic states have. But neither have those hopes been snuffed out. Psychologically, says Olexiy Haran, the demonstrations mean that "it won't be so easy to turn the country to Russia or to falsify the elections of 2015." By that time, Yanukovych's Party of Regions may have worn out its welcome. The opposition's leading candidate is Vitali Klitschko, the heavyweight boxer (and current WBC champion). And Klitschko, like the rest of the opposition, is committed to deeper integration with Europe.

As Lincoln Mitchell points out, no party in Ukraine since 2004 has built a consensus that unites east and west. The country can't move forward so long as it consists of two mutually exclusive camps. And so what looks at first glance like a titanic battle between Europe and Russia -- a civilizational battle -- is in the end a struggle among Ukrainians to recuperate the euphoric vision of 2004.


Terms of Engagement

'The Worst of the Worst'

A U.S. ally is treating a would-be nation as a prison camp -- and we're doing nothing about it.

King Mohammed VI of Morocco, descendant of the Prophet, Commander of the Faithful, arrived in Washington this week for his first meeting with President Barack Obama. One does not lightly perturb such a personage -- and there is no reason to think that President Obama will do so. Morocco is one of the most steadfast allies the United States has in the Middle East, as well as a silent partner of Israel. The Moroccans feel under-appreciated; the president is eager to show that he cares about his friends, not just about bad actors like Iran. This will be a comity-fest.

But there will be a ghost at the banquet -- the very famished and battered ghost that is Western Sahara. Morocco claims this barren wedge of desert, from which Spain, the long-time colonial master, withdrew in 1975. A civil war between Morocco and the Polisario Front, which represented the Sahrawi people, ended in 1991 when the United Nations brokered an agreement by which the people of the region would be permitted to choose either independence or autonomy. That referendum has never been held, and Morocco intends never to hold it. What's more, Moroccan security officers beat up the Sahrawis whenever they have the temerity to demand their rights. And the Obama administration doesn't know what to do about it.

What is confounding about Western Sahara is not the question of where justice lies. The Security Council endorsed the referendum plan and established a mission, called Minurso, in order to put it into effect. Morocco stalled for years, and in 2003, James Baker, the U.N. secretary-general's special envoy, came up with yet another plan which gave the Moroccans a much better chance of winning the referendum. The Security Council endorsed that plan as well, but Morocco flatly refused to stage a vote for independence, even one it might win.

This rank colonial injustice by a former victim of colonialism is reminiscent of Indonesia's repression of East Timor, save that in 1999 the Indonesians allowed a referendum on independence to go forward -- and then unleashed its thugs when it became clear the vote was going the wrong way. There is every reason to believe that Morocco would commit similar atrocities rather than surrender the region. But it's not about to make the Indonesian mistake. King Mohammed and his father before him, Hassan II, have always treated Western Sahara as a matter of national integrity. When I was in Morocco in 2012, I could barely find anyone, including harsh critics of the regime, who believed that the Sahrawis had been deprived of their rights, much less their independence. The king is thus free to do as he wishes. Both the United States and France have consistently supported Casablanca even while paying lip service to the U.N. process.

Thanks to Moroccan intransigence, the debate has shifted over time. In 2007, the Security Council called on the two sides to reach a solution through negotiation. A dozen meetings since then have produced nothing; both parties simply re-state their position, at which point one of them often walks out. This, in turn, has produced a further shift: The Polisario Front, despairing of progress, has tried to call world attention to Morocco's brutal treatment of the Sahrawis. Demonstrations are suppressed with brutal force; Moroccan and Sahrawi journalists know that they risk prison if they even raise the issue of independence. Freedom House has called the human rights situation in Western Sahara "the worst of the worst."

And this is where the Obama administration enters the story. The Polisario Front and its many supporters, both among African states and humanitarian organizations, have sought in recent years to add human rights monitoring to Minurso's mandate. This past April they persuaded Susan Rice, then U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, to do just that. Morocco responded as if it had been stabbed in the back. First a joint military exercise with the United States was abruptly cancelled. Then the king called Obama to bitterly complain of meddling in his country's affairs. Obama overruled his envoy, and Minurso's mandate was renewed without a human rights component. And yet Morocco had been put on notice that the United States would no longer blithely accept its contempt for the rights of the Sahrawis. Or had it?

Rice is now national security advisor, but there is no sign that the United States is prepared even to ruffle Morocco's feathers. Nicole Bibbins Sedaca, a lobbyist for Independent Diplomat, a non-profit that provides diplomatic guidance to the Polisario Front, among others, says that what the Obama administration learned from the incident this past April was, "We need Morocco more than they need us. We need them to be happy and on board." Sedaca says that human rights will not be part of the president's discussion with King Mohammed. That may not be technically correct; I got the impression from a conversation with an administration official that Obama may urge the king to strengthen the "capacity" of his own human rights bodies, which is the kind of painless request one makes of autocratic allies.

There are several reasons for this strategic reticence: Morocco is a tranquil place at a time when the Arab world is having a nervous breakdown; Morocco has not offered so much as a foothold to al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), which has spread across North Africa. The Obama administration, intent on building a transnational response to the transnational threat of terrorism, certainly needs Morocco more than it used to, if not more than Morocco needs the United States. A letter from nine former U.S. ambassadors to Morocco put the matter bluntly, asserting that the United States should openly side with Casablanca's "common sense" solution on Western Sahara "so that the international community can move on to more urgently needed solutions to the more pressing problems in the region." The letter doesn't even mention the Sahrawis. Why should it? They don't matter.

And yet there is a serious argument that, as a matter of national self-interest, Morocco needs to stop treating Western Sahara as a prison camp: Autonomy can not be a lasting solution unless it is attractive. Otherwise, Morocco will have a sullen populace, and perhaps at least a low-grade rebellion, on its hands for the foreseeable future. Attractive autonomy might even work. William Lawrence, a North African expert at George Washington University, says that Sahrawi civil society does not march in lockstep under the Polisario banner. "The bigger agenda is not independence or not, it's good governance or not, it's human rights or not, it's social and economic and political progress or not."

No one knows for sure if that's true, since even talking about independence is a crime. What is clear though, is that, on the one hand, the king won't permit a vote on independence, and, on the other, rubbing people's nose in the hopelessness of their own situation is an excellent way of encouraging rebellion. And with AQIM wandering around the Sahara, rebellions can be a lot more dangerous than they used to be. Ergo, Morocco needs to find a policy in between letting Western Sahara vote for independence -- even though it should -- and cracking skulls.

The Sahrawis want the same thing that publics want all over the Arab world -- personal dignity, economic opportunity, accountable government. The turmoil that now wracks the Middle East is not going to subside unless and until states figure out how to furnish those fundamental human goods. Morocco is no exception, even if the widespread reverence for the king protects him from public anger. The White House needs to find a way to signal its support for this staunch friend while insisting -- privately, and at times publicly -- that Morocco extend fundamental rights to everyone whom it claims as a citizen.