When Ukrainian President Victor Yanukovich decided not to sign the association agreement with the European Union and instead opted for a Russian package of long-term economic support, many Ukrainians perceived this not to be a purely economic decision. Rather, they feared this to be a renunciation of Western cultural and political values, and – to put it mildly – were not happy about this development.
The Russian political system, characterized by a prepotent president, constrained civil rights, and a government controlling important parts of the economy through its secret service, is not exactly the dream of young Ukrainians. Russia can offer economic carrots, but these do not count much against the soft power of Europe that comes in the form of political freedom, good governance, and economic development to the benefit of not just a small group of oligarchs.
Hence, it was all but surprising when many young Ukrainians took their anger about Yanukovich to the streets. After protests that lasted for nearly three months, President Yanukovich fled the country, a temporary government took over, and chaos broke out on the Crimean Peninsula.
The dispute about Crimea has the potential to impede the relations between Russia and the West for a long time to come, in particular, if Russia enforces an annexation of the territory. Moreover, the tensions could quickly turn into a military conflict. The aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush was moved into an operational distance to the Crimea, accompanied by 20 smaller U.S. warships and 12 additional fighter planes will be stationed in Poland. Yet even if there will be no direct confrontation between official Russian and U.S. forces, Ukraine could become the battleground of a proxy war, a kind of conflict that was common in the Cold War era. In this respect, one can already read the writing on the wall: the new Ukrainian government begs the U.S. for supplying arms and ammunition, and while the Obama administration is still reluctant to give in to such requests, the call is supported by hawkish U.S. congressmen who might finally prevail.