Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has been vigorously trying to protect his sphere of influence, suffered a setback on Friday when agreements were signed to bring Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia closer to the European Union. The agreements were widely welcomed by the people of the three former Soviet republics as it would bring them closer to the European values of freedom and also economic progress through access to free markets.
As the crisis in Ukraine continues, the latest development is unlikely to be helpful in finding a solution. Putin has been acting on his own, paying no heed to European and American threats, and the EU and US, on the other hand, have also found that their options are not many. The European Union has threatened more penalties on Moscow beyond existing asset freezes and visa bans unless pro-Russian rebels act to ease the crisis in eastern Ukraine by Monday. But Putin is unlikely to relent as the stakes are high for him; he would not settle for anything that would diminish his influence in Ukraine, and Ukraine will not settle for anything that would tighten Moscow’s grip on it. This is a crisis that can be solved only if Russian president is willing to step back, and he has shown no intentions of doing so. Ukraine’s National Guard said yesterday rebels had used tanks and mortar shells to fire on a checkpoint near the separatist stronghold of Slaviansk, about 100km from the border with Russia.
Interestingly, it’s the business interests which is stopping the EU and US from imposing more sanctions on Moscow. For example, the National Association of Manufacturers and the US Chamber of Commerce are waging a campaign warning the United States not to impose unilateral sanctions on Russia because that might hurt US interests. Both are powerful organizations in the US and they argue that sanctions will not help achieve US goals. European companies too think the same. Although EU has drawn up a list of hard-hitting economic sanctions, it is still hesitating over deploying them because of fears among some member states of antagonising their major energy supplier.
It’s a sad truth of conflicts that business lobbies think differently from their political masters, and when they talk, the political class listens, or rather, is forced to listen.
Ukrainians have suffered enough since the crisis started, and unfortunately, there is no immediate end to the problem in sight. Putin must leave Ukraine to Ukrainians, and let them take the course they want. Most of the former Soviet republics are freely charting a future of their own and Kiev must not be deprived of this right.