Ukraine will not remain in Russia’s sphere of influence

James Miller, Opinions Editor

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Over the last several months a dramatic change in Ukrainian foreign policy has shocked the world. A country on the brink of westernization and modernization took a step away from Europe and announced that it was signing a trade deal with the has-been power of Russia. To answer the question of whether or not Ukraine will remain a part of Vladimir Putin’s sphere, we have to look at two key issues: one, whether or not the Ukrainian people can change the position through the polls, and, two, whether Russia is truly on the rise.

First, we have to examine whether Ukraine can change itself. The short answer is yes. There are enough opposition leaders in Ukraine to topple the existing government under Viktor Yanukovych. Numerous figures, the jailed Yulia Tymoshenko, Oleh Tyahnybok, Olga Bielkova, and the former boxer turned political front runner Vitali Klitschko all beat Yanukovych in polling. All of these leaders oppose and have called for withdrawal from the agreement Yanukovych signed with Putin. It is clear that the political will to dispose of the union with Russia exists.

In addition to domestic concerns, the world has to also be concerned with Russia’s ability to exert pressure on Ukraine and its apparent return to international power, as well. Over the past year Russia’s President, Vladimir Putin, has created a new Russian sphere, won an election by an enormous margin, successfully built up his pet project (the Sochi Olympics), and beaten back President Obama in Syria. In Syria Putin has kept his ally Assad in power and won the Forbes ranking of most powerful person in the world. Therefore, the question the West asks cannot be whether Russia has risen in stature, but whether it will continue to do so.

The answer here is far more complex. Russia’s continued growth depends on the US and China. The United States has withdrawn from intervention while continuing to speak out. If this policy continues, Putin can push back American influence and claim a victory. If the US either becomes more involved and is willing to act or withdraws completely, Russia will find itself overextended and will likely be forced to pull back, embarrassing Putin both domestically and abroad.

China is similar. If the US pulls back and China steps forward into its old role, Putin will similarly find himself in poor strategic position, claiming to be in control of world geopolitics when he is really at the whim of greater powers. In short, Russia’s ability to project power will be determined in Beijing and Washington, not Moscow.

On the whole, Ukraine is unlikely to remain in Russia’s control. Either a change in Ukraine’s domestic leadership or Russia’s political weakening internationally can topple the existing arrangement. That said, don’t underestimate Vladimir Putin. He has outsmarted successful businessmen and politicians alike.

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