In the weeks leading up to the European Union’s Vilnius summit in late November, it seemed all but certain that Ukraine was pivoting West. At the meeting, the EU and Ukraine were expected to sign an Association Agreement, which would have abolished trade barriers between the two and required Ukraine to undergo some EU-mandated political and economic reforms.

But then, days before the summit, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych announced that any agreement with the EU would have to be put off due to reasons of national security. Ukraine, its occasionally authoritarian president had concluded, would not be able to withstand the intense economic pressure that Russia would apply if he signed the deal. Russia’s aim? To goad Ukraine into joining its own Customs Union with Belarus and Kazakhstan, which would preclude association with the EU.

Yanukovych’s unexpected decision has made his job more difficult. Enraged citizens, carrying Ukrainian and EU flags, took to the streets of Kiev to demand that Yanukovych and his government resign. Protestors, mostly from the capital and the country’s Western reaches, have occupied Kiev’s central Independence Square and some administrative buildings for more than a week. For them, the EU is their country’s last hope for better domestic governance and protection of civil rights. They fear that Yanukovych’s latest move toward Russia will further entrench Ukraine’s dysfunctional and ineffective political elite and diminish the country’s independent national identity.

The revolution on Euromaidan, as the protest has been called, in reference to Kiev’s main boulevard, has a hard road ahead of it. It lacks real leadership, and the opposition parties that could fill that role are untrusted by the public and at loggerheads with each other. Still, the anger of a sizable part of Ukrainian society cannot be ignored or discredited. And Yanukovych has nowhere to hide. Even his support base in Ukraine’s east is disappointed. His unreliability—he was for the deal before he was against it—alienated his supporters long ago. Should elections be called, as the protesters insist, he would have little to no chance of winning.

Yanukovych is also in trouble with Russia and the EU. For a long time, he tried to play them against each other to negotiate better potential agreements with each. But Ukraine’s neighbors were losing trust in Yanukovych and his government even before his turnaround last month. Now his hands are tied by both Russia and domestic discontent. Whereas Ukraine’s bleak economic situation makes a speedy agreement with Russia on financial assistance a necessity, caving to Putin’s demands to join the Customs Union will only add fuel to the revolutionary fire.

Putin, for his part, is not concerned with Ukrainian domestic stability, nor does he think that Yanukovych is a particularly good partner. He is thus not likely to take pity on Yanukovych and accept the argument that the protests stand in the way of Ukraine’s accession to the Customs Union. Rather, Putin will offer advice and manpower to quell the protests while trying to delegitimize them as being instigated by outside powers. More than anything, Putin fears that the movement could spread to Russia. Meanwhile, if Yanukovych appears unready to meet Russia’s demands, Putin might well consider ousting him by supporting another leader who will be less of a bogeyman for the revolutionaries but still willing to bow to Putin’s whims.

Ukraine’s oligarchs, meanwhile, have rather benefited from the protests. Angry people in the streets come in handy as a lever against the lame duck Yanukovych, whose family has, at times, encroached on the oligarchs’ businesses. Last Saturday morning, when riot police suddenly beat up a small crowd of demonstrators, oligarch-owned TV channels broadcast the incident in full, again and again, with unusual persistence. The footage helped to galvanize the protests and acted as a warning shot to Yanukovych. If he is unable to satisfy the oligarchs’ demands, they may yet continue to support the protests.   

So what does all this mean for Ukraine, Russia, and the EU? Most important, the Ukrainian leadership’s incompetence has inadvertently helped the country’s civil society take a huge step forward after years of disorganization and ineffective opposition. The apathy that followed the Orange Revolution of 2004–05 has finally been shrugged off. Kiev’s streets are crowded once more, and it is unlikely that the revolutionaries will disperse anytime soon unless the government agrees to negotiations. Any settlement would probably involve curtailing the powers of the president in favor of the parliament and judiciary. If talks don’t happen, and if Ukraine’s leadership continues to crack down on the movement, the situation could spiral out of control. Unfortunately, there are no signs that Yanukovych is willing to start negotiations.   

As far as Russia is concerned, in the past few weeks the Kremlin has built significant influence over Ukraine’s political elite, but not over the country as a whole. In the short term, Ukraine might not have a realistic alternative to closer alignment with Russia. The country will again grow more dependent on its eastern neighbor, especially for energy, burning up the progress it made toward true autonomy over the past several years. But the fact that this prospect and poor governance have driven Ukraine’s people out to the streets is a bitter pill for Putin to swallow. Developments in Ukraine may well entice Putin to tighten the political screws at home. An early sign of that is the regime’s preparation of new charges against Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a jailed and charismatic former oligarch with political ambitions.

The EU, for its part, must now move on from its partner that never was. Yanukovych and Ukraine’s corrupt and highly opportunistic political elite never gave their true support to closer integration with the EU. It is therefore wrong to conclude, as some observers have, that Brussels could have tipped the balance in its favor by handing them more financial benefits or relaxing its requirements for reform. Ukraine’s leadership didn’t even take all of the opportunities that the EU did present. For example, the European Union offered to sell Russian natural gas to Ukraine at lower prices than Russia currently sells it to Ukraine. That would have weakened Ukraine’s dependence on Russia, yet Kiev did little to support the idea. If the EU had resorted to more tit-for-tat—to Moscow’s brand of politicking—it would have undermined what is attractive about its political model to begin with. Further, even if Ukraine’s leadership had signed the agreement at Vilnius, the treaty’s actual implementation would have been patchy at best, as the current leadership lacks the will to follow through on its commitments. Ukraine’s elites would have blamed their own shortcomings on the EU, resulting in a rift between the public and the Union.

The EU may seem to have lost a friend, but it might just come out ahead in this drama. Even now, Ukrainians are out on the street demonstrating in its name. In contrast to the Orange Revolution, in which protestors spoke out against particular leaders, today they are standing up for European values and ideals. As citizens in Greece and elsewhere burn EU flags over socioeconomic issues, the people of Ukraine should serve as a reminder that the EU’s core purpose is still relevant. At that is why the EU must continue to focus on winning over the Ukrainian public in the coming years. If all goes well, the 2015 presidential elections might just empower Ukrainian leaders more committed to working with the West. 

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  • JONAS GRÄTZ is researcher with the Global Security Team at the Center for Security Studies (CSS) at ETH Zurich.
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