Ukraine On The Brink

The situation in Ukraine is worsening, amid reports of dozens of people having been killed in clashes between security forces and protestors. The three-month old uprising appears to be reaching a critical point.

When governments are faced with mass opposition protests, it is necessary to consider the positions of key 'power centres' to determine whether the incumbent leader can remain in office. Typically, 'power centres' include the inner circle, the legislature, the judiciary, the military, the police, the business community, the media, the middle class, religious institutions, and regional authorities – although not all groups have the same influence. This will vary from country to country.

In a special feature in Business Monitor Online published today, we examine the roles of Ukraine's 'power centres' in relation to embattled President Viktor Yanukovych. The President has retained control of the legislature and security forces, but he may be losing support from powerful oligarchs, as well as regional governments.

Against this backdrop, we consider three broad scenarios for Ukraine's crisis in the near term, including:

  1. Yanukovych becomes increasingly estranged from Europe, taking Ukraine deeper into Russia's orbit, essentially making the country more like Belarus.
  2. Yanukovych loses the support of oligarchs and other influential groups, forcing him to step down, or at least initiate the transition to a new government.
  3. Ukraine becomes increasingly polarised, with political violence approaching civil war levels, and the country facing an outright split along regional lines.

As things stand, we think the second scenario is the most plausible. That said, we emphasise that the situation in Ukraine is very fluid, meaning that the other two scenarios cannot be ruled out.

What Is At Stake?

At stake is the future of a European country with 45mn people caught between Europe and Russia. Ukraine is a geopolitical 'pivot' state. Russia seeks to retain Ukraine within its own sphere of influence, so that it can project power in the Greater Black Sea region. Moscow fears that if Ukraine decisively turns towards the EU and the West, then it would lose substantial influence in western Eurasia, and that a westward-leaning Ukraine would become a means to contain Russia itself. Therefore, if Ukraine were to swing westward, the Kremlin would have an interest in supporting pro-Russian regions such as Crimea, or possibly the Ruthenians. This would substantially weaken the Ukrainian state.