Former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko was recently sentenced to seven years in prison at the close of a corruption trial which was roundly condemned as highly political and deeply unfair. The verdict met with disapproval both abroad and in Ukraine, where protests have been stymied by government security forces.
Vitali Klitscko, leader of the Democratic Alliance for Reform and world heavyweight boxing champion, has referred to the decision as “political hare-kiri”—and in terms of foreign policy, he may well be correct. If Yanukovych wishes to maintain Kyiv’s recent trajectory out of post-Soviet space and into alignment with the West, the Tymoshenko verdict has made his goal that much harder. However, European and American policymakers would do well to remember that if Ukraine is denied a path westward, it will inevitably drift east.
Tymoshenko, who lost Ukraine’s 2010 presidential election to Yanukovych, was found guilty of “abuse of office” for signing a gas deal with Russia which, the government claims, was “disadvantageous.” Her sentence, a seven year prison term, a three year ban from public office, and a fine of $190 million, has prompted Ukraine’s justice minister, Oleksandr Lavrinovych, to claim the verdict was “fair,” but that the sentencing was “harsh” and should be reduced. Yanukovych himself has signaled that he may submit a revised version of Ukraine’s criminal code to the parliament which would effectively free Tymoshenko (though, no doubt, the fine and ban on office-holding would persist). It is unclear whether or not this would pacify Yanukovych’s critics.
Meanwhile, prominent officials from across Europe and in the United States have condemned the trial. The European Union has signaled that the creation of a “deep, comprehensive free-trade area” is now highly unlikely. In fact, the Rada’s deputy speaker has claimed she is prepared to recommend individuals of the Yanukovych government for quite the opposite: the implementation of asset freezes and travel bans by the EU. The Swedish Foreign Minister has claimed that this will “threaten [their] entire relationship” with Ukraine; Latvia reportedly canceled a meeting with the Ukrainian foreign minister over the verdict. Freedom House has downgraded Ukraine from “free” to “partly free.” Even Vladimir Putin, Russia’s current Prime Minister and soon-to-be triumphantly reinstalled President, expressed his discontent at the “anti Russian” decision. Finally, the spokesperson for the US State Department has proclaimed that, “The United States is deeply disappointed with the conviction and sentencing of former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko in a politically motivated prosecution. Her conviction raises serious concern about the Government of Ukraine’s commitment to democracy and rule of law.”
This is absolutely correct. Tymoshenko’s imprisonment is a politically motivated sham, and her sentence was inappropriately harsh. However, moves to isolate Yanukovych and his regime could backfire. Ukraine is a state divided by geography and history between Russia, to the east, and Europe, to the west; the word “Ukraine” itself means “borderland” in Polish and Russian. And Moscow, while displeased by the possibility that the Tymoshenko trial may lead to the demise of current natural gas agreements, stands to gain the most from any European-Ukrainian fallout.
The Russian-Ukrainian relationship, while complicated, is most easily captured by the trade in natural gas between the two countries. Russia exports an incredible amount of natural gas, as well as a large quantity of oil, to Ukraine and Western Europe. Until recently, the only viable route for Russian exports ran through Ukraine’s ironically named “Druzbha,” or “Friendship” pipeline. This produced two effects: while Russia held great leverage over Ukraine as the sole provider of its chief energy source, Ukraine was able to counteract Russian influence through its role as the only viable transit route. In the meantime, political, economic, and energy reform under Ukraine’s last presidential administration resulted in closer ties to Europe and the development of alternative energy sources, promising to weaken Russia’s grip on the former Soviet republic.
Contrast this situation with Ukraine’s landlocked neighbor to the North, Belarus, the so-called “last dictatorship in Europe.” There, an authoritarian regime led by Alexander Lukashenko relies almost exclusively on the Russians for economic assistance; Belarus recently sold its few remaining oil and gas pipelines to Russia in exchange for a desperately needed loan package. Belarus has no leverage over Russia in its energy relationship, and its political situation has made partnership with the European Union an impossibility. Minsk has little choice but to maintain economic stability (so closely linked to regime stability) by making nice with Moscow.
Today’s policy-makers must avoid the “Belarussification” of Ukraine. Russia has recently completed its new “Nordstream” pipeline through the Baltic Sea, bypassing Ukraine’s pipeline system and removing Ukraine’s most valuable form of leverage in negotiations with the Russians. In the past, if Moscow could not reach an agreement on gas prices with their counterparts in Kyiv, it had the option of simply shutting off the pipelines; however, since all Russian gas to Western Europe flowed through Ukraine, doing so would mean losing a vital source or revenue for the Russian government (not to mention further motivating Europeans to kick their Russian gas habit). Now, however, Moscow may be able to shut off the pipes with impunity.
Kyiv’s position is already tenuous. It will require a strong relationship with Europe to diversify Ukrainian energy sources and prevent Ukraine reverting to a Russian satellite; depriving it of much-needed capital by isolating it diplomatically and economically will only force Kyiv to search for that capital to the east, which is famously unconcerned with the human rights records and political regimes of its clients. Sanctions only work when there is no other source of the thing you seek to deny your victim; this is a lesson children learn at a young age, when they ask their father for something their mother has denied them.
Sanctioning Ukraine now only defeats the pro-Western opposition; it empowers those elements which would return Ukraine to the days of the 1990s, when it was a corrupt, impoverished Russian satellite covered with a thin-veneer of semi-democratic practices. Instead, the West should “hold its nose” when dealing with Ukraine’s regime while continuing to engage with Ukrainian civil society and NGOs working to protect human rights and democracy. In the Orange Revolution, Ukrainians proved that they would not settle for rule by a corrupt regime; but without Western aid, Ukraine may find itself going back to a future of politics dominated by Russian funded criminal oligarchs. The risk that Mr. Yanukovych, whose primary support base lies in the Russian-speaking Southeast, will seek a stronger relationship with Russia in order to cement a less democratic hold on political power is real. He has, after all, dabbled in authoritarianism before.
Dean Jackson is with the Council’s Office of External Relations.