How did Ukraine get into a tug of war between Russia and the EU?

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: I'm Marco Werman. This is "The World". The protests in Ukraine just keep going and they highlight how the country is deeply divided, its people tugged into very directions - east versus west. The allure of more prosperous ties with the European Union versus the traditional poll and influence of neighboring Russia. Andrew Weiss served as director for Russian, Ukrainian and Eurasian affairs in the Clinton Administration. He's now at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He says Ukraine is a top priority for Russia's President.

Andrew Weiss: Over the past year, Vladimir Putin has set a vision for what he's calling a "Eurasian Union" and it seems to be one of his big legacy projects and it's [??], it's got a customs union, it has something that looks like the European Commission which is the transnational bureaucracy that guides a lot of day-to-day life for citizens of the European Union. But what it really I think amounts to is a Russian-dominated set of political and economic structures. He very much wants every part of the post-Soviet space to be a part of this new governing arrangements and Ukraine is the most desirable piece. He felt that the EU had basically snuck in tried to create a set of arrangements with the Ukrainians that would have made that project basically impossible. The question though is at what price is Russia going to have to subsidize a very under-performing and kinda lousy Ukrainian economy which is right now on the verge of economic collapse. Russia itself is suffering from very low economic growth. So there's something here that doesn't seem to add up. Putin seems to be putting geopolitics above shrewd economic sense.

Werman: And you feel that that doesn't make sense for Putin? I mean put yourself in Putin's mind, what does he really want?

Weiss: At this point it's unclear. Putin has sort of developed I think a very negative view about Ukraine over the past twenty years. He's been quoted as saying he doesn't think it's a real country, he's been quoted as saying he doesn't think it's a real nation. The Ukrainians, for the past twenty years, have done a very job of basically ignoring that and preserving their independence and then trying to play its relationship with Russia as a card with the west to try to get more favors and benefits from Europeans, and in this case what we're seeing is that the Ukrainians basically threw their hands up and said, "We're tired of being played like this." But what the Ukrainians at this point are doing is I think they're stuck. They've got an economic crisis, they're facing basically running out of cash within the next couple of months. President Yanukovych is up for re-election in 2015 and so the whole situation is sort of veering very dangerously toward a very unstable and very destabilized conclusion.

Werman: What is so desirable about Ukraine do you think that other former Soviet Republics don't offer?

Weiss: It's the biggest of the post-Soviet countries by far. I think there are people in the European Union who basically want nothing to do with Ukraine and so you saw this initiative that was cooked up. It was largely pushed by two people - the foreign minister of Sweden, Carl Bildt, and the foreign minister of Poland, and they set up a series of initiatives to try to reach out to the countries, the post-Soviet space. The core European leaders, the Germans, the Italians, the French, the British, have generally been pretty different. And so what you ended up with I think was an EU initiative that was sort of overly ambitious, delivered very little short-term benefit to Ukraine, and set Ukraine up for a sharp confrontation with the Russians. The US, for the most part, has had no effect of Ukraine policy for the last six years. It has basically looked at the Yanukovych government with great disdain and basically said, "We don't want anything to do with these folks either."

Werman: I'm curious to know how much you think personal relationships enter this story. I mean Clinton and Yeltsin, there seemed to be something there, Bush and Putin famously stared into each others' eyes and seemed to see something. What about Obama and Putin? Is there a relationship, meaningful or otherwise, there?

Weiss: There's really no there there, and I think that's again one of the lamentable events of US relations with this part of the world. The President has tried, but basically been rebuff to kindle some sort of rapport with Vladimir Putin. And then you have the series of steps over the summer, the welcoming of Ed Snowden, the crackdown on NGOs, you basically ended up in a situation where this is no effective dialog between the two heads of state, between the United States and Russia, and so much of that relationship is guided by the rapport at the very top. So in the absence of any real dialog and the absence of any practical activities, I think US-Russian relations are going to remain adrift.

Werman: Andrew Weiss, thank you so much.

Weiss: Great to be here, Marco. I really appreciate it.

Werman: Andrew Weiss there with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.