Ukrainian president Viktor Yushchenko is hoping that standing firm against Russia in the dispute over gas prices will bring him closer to Europe, Bloomberg’s James M. Gomez and Agnes Lovasz argue. He may be sadly mistaken.

Yushchenko’s rejection of Russia’s demand that his country pay more for Russian gas reinforces his message that Ukraine’s future lies in closer ties with the European Union, which meets today to look for ways to resolve the dispute, rather than with Russia, its neighbor and fellow former Soviet republic. The dispute comes as Ukraine is torn by infighting between top politicians, a sharp decline in Yushchenko’s popularity and a global financial crisis that prompted a bailout by the International Monetary Fund. The risk is that his tactics may backfire, weakening the country’s bid to join the EU and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

“When people in Europe look at Ukraine, all they see is squabbling, self-serving politicians, and they don’t have much sympathy in the West any more,” said Katinka Barysch, deputy director of the London-based Centre for European Reform. “The Russians have zero credibility but the Ukrainians don’t have much more,” she said.


Ukraine’s EU bid so far hasn’t been helped by the conflict. Czech Prime Minster Mirek Topolanek, whose country took over the EU’s six-month rotating presidency on Jan. 1, warned yesterday that the 27-nation bloc would have to toughen its response to the gas crisis if supplies are not restored by today. He said he spoke with Putin yesterday, adding that both countries may have to compromise.


Ukraine’s relationship with NATO hasn’t improved either, after the organization last month stuck by its April decision to offer neither Ukraine nor and Georgia a pre-membership plan. While bidding for support abroad, Yushchenko is losing friends at home as he regularly feuds with Prime Minister Yulia Timoshenko and prepares to run for re-election against Viktor Yanukovych, the pro-Russian opposition leader he beat in 2004.

As Euronews reports, EU patience is growing thin as much of Europe faces being without gas during the coldest part of the winter.

“They should solve this issue so that we can go on having trust in Russia as a supplier of gas to Europe. We are very important customers,” said European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso. He also stressed the importance of having trust in Ukraine as a transit country “because Ukraine is trying to be closer to the European Union.”

Whether Yuschenko is in the right here or Ukraine actually is stealing gas, as Russia charges, is mostly irrelevant in the short term. Europe wants its gas turned back on and Ukraine is seen as the main obstacle to that end. That’s not a position they want to be in.

James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council.