Ukranians Face Choice Between EU And Russia

Thousands of Ukrainian protesters blockaded government buildings in Kiev Monday seeking to oust President Viktor Yanukovich. Demonstrations over the weekend drew as many as 350,000 people in the largest rally since the Orange Revolution. The protests came after Yanukovich decided to abandon a trade deal with the European Union and instead seek closer ties with Russia. Robert Siegel talks to Steven Pifer, former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, about the political landscape in the country and its relationship with Moscow.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Last night's protests in Ukraine were the biggest since the Orange Revolution of 2004. In the capital, Kiev, a crowd estimated at more than a hundred thousand demanded the resignation of President Viktor Yanukovych. Nearly two weeks ago, Yanukovych backed away from a deal that would have strengthened Ukrainian ties with the European Union. That was a deal that Russia strongly opposed. And the question facing Ukraine is, how close it will grow to Europe or how close it will be to Russia?

For more on Ukraine and its relationship to Russia, we're joined now by former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Steve Pifer, who's now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. Welcome to the program.

STEVEN PIFER: Thank you for having me.

SIEGEL: First, Yanukovych backed out of the E.U. deal, which thousands of protesters fault him for. Do you think those pro-European demonstrators represent the majority of Ukrainians on this or is the country more divided in that?

PIFER: Well, there is some division. But certainly, if you look at the polls over the last several months, they increasingly point to at least 50 percent of the Ukrainians wanting to see their country draw closer to Europe and the European Union.

SIEGEL: Meaning what? What exactly would be drawing closer to Europe?

PIFER: Well, I think, ultimately, they would like to see Ukraine as a member of the European Union because they look and they see the European living standards. And there's also, I think, a desire for many in Ukraine to have this sort of rule of law and democracy that prevails in most of Europe.

SIEGEL: And we're talking about a country, though, where in many parts of it people speak Russian as a first language. Relations with Russia are inevitable. Are there many pro-Russian Ukrainians?

PIFER: Well, there certainly are. And I think if Ukraine had its choice, what they would like to do is be able to draw closer to the European Union but still have a positive constructive relationship with Russia. What Moscow seems to be saying, however, increasingly is you can't have both. You have to make an either/or choice between the European Union or Russia.

SIEGEL: What does that mean for the Russians? What do they want Ukraine to do?

PIFER: Well, first of all, Russia - I think Russia was pleased to see Ukraine basically pause in its push towards Europe. But the Russians didn't get the big prize because the Ukrainians, for the last 10 days, have also been consistently saying they will not join the Moscow-led customs union. Russia would like to bring Ukraine back into its area of influence. And for many Ukrainians, and I even think for President Yanukovych, that's not where they want to go.

SIEGEL: Russia would want to see, what, Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, who else?

PIFER: Exactly. Russia has a customs union that now consist of Russia, Kazakhstan, Belarus. Armenia said that they will join. But Ukraine is really the big prize when you look in the post-Soviet space for Moscow. And then there's also, of course, the historical and cultural links between the two.

SIEGEL: Within the E.U., if Ukraine would make it, it would still be an independent country. Does Russia accept the independence above those former Soviet republics?

PIFER: I don't believe that Vladimir Putin wants to rebuild the Soviet Union in part because he recognizes that that would require huge economic subsidies by Russia to the other countries. But he certainly wants a situation in which the neighbors pay heed to what Russia wants on big questions. And for Russia, if Ukraine signs the association to be with the European Union and actually implements it, Ukraine is completely out of Moscow's geopolitical orbit.

SIEGEL: About 20 years ago, as the Soviet Union was breaking apart, a Ukrainian-American scholar told me that the Ukrainian's problem was that while Russians understood that Latvians and Lithuanians and Uzbeks were not Russian, they thought Ukrainians were really Russians who'd been corrupted by the Catholic church or some other European forces. And they just didn't buy the idea that Ukraine should be a part from Russia. Do you think that's at all true?

PIFER: There's a little bit of that. I go back to a conversation I had with a Russian deputy foreign minister who's a pretty sophisticated guy. This was probably 1994. And he said, you know, up here in my head, I understand that Ukraine is an independent sovereign country. But then he points to his heart. He says, here it's going to take a little bit longer for that to sink in.

SIEGEL: In a few weeks, the Winter Olympics will be in the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi, not too far from Ukraine. I guess, if all of this is in the news, it'll figure in what the world sees at the games.

PIFER: I think that's exactly right, and that's probably a restraining influence on Mr. Putin. He wants Sochi to be a huge celebration of Russia. He's invested a lot of his time and his energy in making this a success story. But if Russia gets involved too directly in what's going on in Ukraine, he may find that a lot of Europeans decide that they're not going to go that opening ceremony, and he may find himself very lonely when he's in his presidential box, watching that ceremony begin.

SIEGEL: Ambassador Pifer, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine. Steve Pifer, now with the Brookings Institution, thanks a lot for talking with us.

PIFER: Thank you very much for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIEGEL: This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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