Why Did Ukraine’s Yanukovych Give in to Russian Pressure on EU Deal?

Editor’s note: In an interview with PBS NewsHour‘s Judy Woodruff, Steven Pifer discusses the causes behind the mass protests that have erupted in Ukraine and explains the reasons why Ukrainian President Yanukovych chose not to sign the association agreement with the European Union. Read the full transcript and watch video of the interview below.

Judy Woodruff: For more on the protests and what it all means, I’m joined by former U.S. Ambassador to the Ukraine Steven Pifer, now a director and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

Welcome to the NewsHour.

So, tell us more about why these — these protests have been happening. They started, what, a week ago Sunday.

Steven Pifer, former U.S. Ambassador to the Ukraine: Well, 10 days ago, President Yanukovych’s government said it was going to suspend its effort to sign an association of unity that would have brought it to closer to the European Union.

And you saw it a week ago yesterday Sunday, 100,000 people on the streets of Kiev protesting that. The turnout yesterday was bolstered by the fact that there is huge outrage in the Ukraine over the use of force on Saturday morning. More blood was shed in Ukraine on Saturday and Sunday than in three weeks of the Orange Revolution. And there is a visceral reaction on the parts of the Ukrainians to that.

Woodruff: And why do they feel so strongly about this deal with the European Union falling apart, at least for now?

Pifer: Europe has a lot of attraction for Ukrainians. Polls show more than 50 percent of the Ukrainian population now would like to get closer to Europe.

And it’s because of the living standards, but it’s also because of rule of law. For a country where there is corruption, where crony politics, they would like to have a more normal democratic system, and that is the attraction of Europe.

Woodruff: But their leader, Mr. Yanukovych, has been under a lot of pressure from Russia, from Vladimir Putin.

Pifer: Right.

Woodruff: Why did he give in to that pressure?

Pifer: Well, I think there were a couple of things.

First of all, it wasn’t clear before the government made its announcement that it was suspending its work. It wasn’t clear that they had met all of the European Union conditions, because the European Union said, in order to do this, for the European Union side, there had to be certain criteria in the democracy area.

The other consideration was the pressure from Russia and concern that at least in the short term, the association agreement, which would have brought Ukraine into a free trade arrangement with Europe, would have had some dislocation costs for the Ukraine industry, although the payoffs in the long term would have been huge.

Woodruff: And so, for Yanukovych, was he seriously considering the E.U. arrangement?

Pifer: I think Mr. Yanukovych, he certainly wanted to sign the agreement.

And there were reports that some of his advisers were saying, if you sign this agreement, you could then campaign for reelection in 2015 as the man who brought Ukraine into Europe.

I’m not sure he understood what all of the implementation would require, but that was sort of a longer-term consideration, and he tends to think short-term.

Woodruff: And why — why are the Russians, why is Putin, in particular, so determined that Ukraine is going to remain within its orbit and closer to Russia?

Pifer: Well, there’s a couple of reasons, first of all, the long historical connections between Russia and Ukraine.

But, also, you have seen, I think, over the last several years under Vladimir Putin an effort to really reestablish Russian influence in the post-Soviet space. He doesn’t want to rebuild the Soviet Union, but he does want his neighbors, particularly Ukraine, to pay attention to Russians’ interests on big questions.

And I think from the Russian point of view, a Ukraine that signs an association agreement and implements it is going to be well out of Moscow’s geopolitical orbit.

Woodruff: But, as you — as you look at the terms of what they were talking about with the European Union, short term would have been difficult for the country economically, but long term they stood to gain a lot in terms of commerce…

Pifer: Exactly.

Woodruff: … and trade. Why was that not — why was that not enticement overriding the Russian offer?

Pifer: Well, again, I think the attraction certainly was there.

But when Mr. Yanukovych looked at it — again, I think he looks in the short term, and he saw problems both in terms of some dislocation to Ukrainian industry simply from joining a market with more competitive European industries, but he also saw the threat which the Russians have demonstrated over the last four months of perhaps economic sanctions and cutting off Russian — or the Russian market to Ukraine.

So, again, his short-term considerations led him to make a decision in terms of suspending the agreement that I think denied his country some huge long-term benefits.

Woodruff: So, now he has huge these protests on his hands.

Pifer: Right.

Woodruff: How much — how much of the population do these folks represent? I think you said over 50 percent. But if it — is it — is it possible to know how much of the population wants one thing or another thing?

Pifer: I mean, that is a difficult question.

I mean, most of the polls in the last several months have shown 50 — one even had 58 percent of the Ukrainians say that they wanted to see their country move towards the European Union and that they favored the association agreement.

The numbers are always — it’s hard to tell exactly how many people are on the streets, but there is no doubt that what we saw yesterday and then a week ago, these were the largest demonstrations in Ukraine since the Orange Revolution nine years ago. So there really has — there is chord out there on the public part that has been touched, and they are pushing hard.

Woodruff: And so what are the options at this point? They continue protesting, what does — what can Yanukovych — Mr. Yanukovych do?

Pifer: I think Mr. Yanukovych’s options have become more narrow.

There is no way — and I don’t think he was inclined to turn back towards Russia and the customs union. What his decision was, was to pause on the way to Europe, not reverse course. But perhaps the best course now is, can he find a way to do a political dialogue with the opposition and basically the street and try to find some kind of accommodation?

The longer this demonstration goes, though, and the longer the numbers stand out, it is going to be harder for him to do that.

Woodruff: Does he have the connections, the communication and the ability to have that kind of communication in negotiation to find a way out of this?

Pifer: I’m not sure he has the political disposition to get into that kind of dialogue, because it’s going to require a real sense of compromise. And he’s going to have to reach out to political opponents in order to find some kind of settlement. So it’s pretty tricky ground he’s on.

Woodruff: But you are saying he really has no choice, that he’s — he’s — he has to go in the direction of the Russian offer at this point.

Pifer: Well, I think, at this point, he’s limited.

He — turning back towards Russia is going to cause even more disquiet on the part of the Ukrainian public and the Ukrainian elite and also on the part of Ukrainian business. So, he’s limited on that point.

And, also, I mean, I think he’s now seen he can’t use force. One of the reasons why you have such a large number of people out on the streets is because of the use of force on Saturday. So, again, his options are becoming narrower and narrower.

Woodruff: Steven Pifer, former ambassador to the Ukraine, thank you very much.

Pifer: Thank you for having me.