MOSCOW — To hear Russian President Vladimir Putin say it, Russia and its biggest neighbor, Ukraine, are “one people.”
“We have common traditions, a common mentality, a common history and a common culture. We have very similar languages,” he said last month at the Valdai Discussion Club, the Kremlin’s annual meeting with Western thinkers. “In that respect, I want to repeat again, we are one people.”
Russia’s leader makes this argument because Ukraine and neighboring Moldova are at a historic crossroads: join a free trade pact with the European Union next month - or join President Putin’s Moscow-based Eurasian Union. For Moscow, a lot is at stake: after Russia, Ukraine is the second largest of the 15 former republics of the Soviet Union.
Russia faces an uphill battle. All of Ukraine’s major political parties and its three Orthodox Christian denominations favor going with the West.
So, Moscow recently gave Ukraine a taste of the penalties it faces for moving westward. The Kremlin tightened customs controls, threatened higher gas prices, and warned that Russian-speaking areas of Ukraine could secede and join Russia.
Here is President Putin again on Ukraine’s future outside his Eurasian Union: “If we introduce such limitations, these companies - and perhaps whole industries - will then face severe problems. That’s what we’re talking about, that’s what we’re warning about. We are doing so in good faith and in advance, without in any way encroaching on [Ukraine’s] sovereign right to take a foreign policy decision."
Political scientist Olexiy Haran at Kyiv Mohyla University says this tough talk is backfiring on the Kremlin.
“The Ukrainian elite, including President [Viktor] Yanukovych, does not want to be swallowed by Russia,” he said from Kyiv. “And they understand the danger of being too close to Russia.”
Now the major obstacle to Ukrainians realizing their dream of association with Europe is President Yanukovich’s decade-long political feud with opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko.
Tymoshenko, with her trademark golden peasant’s braid, is the darling of some Europeans. But she is the devil to Ukraine’s president. He narrowly lost to her coalition in the 2005 presidential election, and narrowly beat her in the 2010 presidential election. The next year, she was convicted of embezzlement and abuse of power and sentenced to seven years in jail.
Now the EU says: Free Yulia, or no trade deal.
Germany says it will take her in. Tymoshenko says she will go. Last week, a pro-Yanukovych newspaper carried a Tymoshenko photo with the headline: “Guten Tag, Berlin!”
But Yanukovych fears that Tymoshenko will return to Ukraine to run against him in the 2015 presidential election.
“He is afraid of Tymoshenko,” Haran said. “If she is freed, then she is able to participate in political struggle, in political life in Ukraine, and then potentially run in presidential campaign.”
One formula calls for Ukraine’s President sending Tymoshenko to Germany for medical treatment, but not pardoning her.
Oleksandr Sushko, research director of the Institute for Euro-Atlantic Cooperation, says that the only stumbling block between the EU and Ukraine is Tymoshenko’s continued imprisonment.
“There is no guarantee of freeing of Yulia Tymoshenko,” he said “And, there is no guarantee for signing of the Association Agreement with the EU - just because of this.”
He says there is no guarantee that she will be freed. He predicts the horse trading will continue right up to the November 27-28 EU summit in Lithuania.
Until then, the future path of Ukraine - east or west - depends on a bitter rivalry between two politicians.