The fight for Ukraine has now become a contest between the Russian president and the German chancellor. Putin won the first round. But Merkel and her fellow Europeans are grooming professional heavyweight boxer Vitali Klitschko to be their new strongman.
By Thursday of the week before last, it was abundantly clear that any friendship between German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich was finished. They were gathered at a festive dinner in the former palace of the Grand Duke of Lithuania, with the city of Vilnius decked out for Christmas, together with leaders from theEuropean Union and Eastern European countries. The truffled pastry hadn’t been served yet when the Ukrainian president launched into a rambling monologue about his country’s difficult relationship with Europe, on the one hand, and with Russia, on the other. But at some point Merkel interrupted Yanukovich and brusquely informed him that he might as well stop talking. “You’re not going to sign anyway,” she said bluntly. The Armenian president, who was sitting next to Merkel, looked up in surprise.
Russia has defeated the European Union in the latest round of the fight forUkraine. To be more precise, Chancellor Merkel lost the round against Russian President Vladimir Putin, with the Russian defeating the German in a technical knockout. Within several weeks, Putin had brought Ukrainian President Yanukovich into line with a mixture of overt pressure and tempting promises. As a result, Yanukovich did not sign an association agreement with the EU at the EU-Eastern Europe summit in the Lithuanian capital Vilnius, despite months of negotiations. For the time being, his country is now a part of the bloc of countries bordering Russia that Putin plans to join together into a Russian empire of sorts, from Vladivostok to the eastern border of the EU.
“The door remains open for Ukraine,” Merkel repeatedly emphasized after the debacle, noting that the Europeans were still willing to talk. It sounded like a losing contestant’s painstaking effort to save face. But it also suggests that the issue is not a done deal. And before the next round begins, the chancellor plans to bring a new player into the game: Vitali Klitschko. The tall heavyweight-boxing champion is to be groomed as the pro-European opponent of pro-Russian President Yanukovich, and the hope is that he will be the one to sign a pro-EU treaty, which they still believe will materialize.
While “regime change” is too strong a term for what Germany is seeking, it’s not entirely off base. Merkel’s center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the European People’s Party (EPP), a family of European conservative parties, have chosen Klitschko as their de facto representative in Ukraine. His job is to unite and lead the opposition — on the street, in parliament and, finally, in the 2015 presidential election. “Klitschko is our man,” say senior EPP politicians, “he has a clear European agenda.” And Merkel still has a score to settle with Putin.
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