Under political and economic pressure from Russia, Ukraine’s leadership has struck out firmly towards a strategic rapprochement with the EU, confirming unanimously the association agreement and free trade negotiated with the EU. Early in September, Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych spoke to the country’s parliamentarians about the adoption of laws necessary for the signature and ratification of the association agreement with the EU. The Supreme Council went to work on it right away.

Ten years ago, in the era of the Orange Revolution, who would have thought that Yanukovych and his main financial backer, Ukraine's richest man, Rinat Akhmetov, would become "the driving force" behind Ukraine’s swing towards the EU? Not many. No doubt the motive driving these characters to back this swing is certainly not any love for the values of European civilisation, still less a sign of Ukrainian patriotism, but rather more pragmatic interests combined with a savvy weighing up of costs and profits.

The business groups around Rinat Akhmetov, one hears these days, are working intensively with the big European companies to have them, in turn, put pressure on their governments not to block the signing of the association agreement with Ukraine.

Viktor Fyodorovich Yanukovych has now been tagged with a new nickname: “Vector” Fyodorovich, an allusion to the speeches in which he constantly repeats that Ukraine has already chosen the vector of integration with Europe

Viktor Fyodorovich Yanukovych has now been tagged with a new nickname: “Vector” Fyodorovich, an allusion to the speeches in which he constantly repeats that Ukraine has already chosen the vector of integration with Europe. But how to explain the current attitude of the Ukrainian leadership and of the major economic groups?

Russian protectionism

Kazakh and Belarusian businessmen are speaking more openly about what’s happening inside the Eurasian Customs Union: Russian firms, unable to compete on the world market with modern US or European companies, are beginning to practise internal protectionism and to “crowd out” of the market firms from the other members of the Customs Union that are active in the same sector.

The issue matters in Ukraine, because Ukrainian companies are direct competitors with the Russian companies, in particular in the food, chemical, automotive and metallurgy sectors.

Another factor that holds back the current political and economic elite from integrating into the Eurasian Customs Union is the absence of any legal and political guarantees that joining the trading bloc will lead to a lowering of the price of Russian gas. Although the Ukrainian industry is particularly dependent on the price of gas, and theoretically this can be a lever wielded by Russia in its relations with Kiev, it is obvious that the documents on accession to the customs union do not in any way guarantee the supply of energy resources at the prices paid on the Russian domestic market. This can only be a bilateral concession from Russia, and not the direct consequence of membership in the Customs Union.

Yanukovych has frequently felt deceived by Russia

What, then, are some possible Russian bilateral concessions to the Ukraine? The question of mutual distrust is important. Yanukovych has frequently felt deceived by Russia, and the so-called Karkhiv agreements of 2010 have left a great deal of resentment. In exchange for extending the lease on the [Russian] military bases at Sevastopol, President Yanukovych, freshly elected, had supposedly managed to negotiate a substantial discount on the price of gas. But Gazprom’s formula for calculating the price of gas transformed this agreement into a total fiasco for Ukraine’s president, and today Ukraine is paying the highest prices in Europe.

No new Armenia

In this context, the question of respect for principles and the country’s self-esteem matter. Betrayed more than once, and even humiliated (this summer, the Ukrainian president waited for three hours to meet with Vladimir Putin for a head-to-head talk that lasted only 15 minutes), Yanukovych wants to prove to the Russian leader that he can take independent decisions that do not necessarily abide by Russian interests. And he especially wants to prove that the Ukraine is not a new Armenia.

We must also add that the pro-European attitude of the president is strengthening his popularity in the west and centre of Ukraine, areas that have been generally hostile towards him – which may be particularly to his benefit in the presidential election of 2015.

The situation is therefore paradoxical. A political figure who recently promised to make Russian the second official language of the country, a man devoid of ideology and backbone, who ignores questions of Ukrainian identity and historical memory that would strengthen Ukrainian sovereignty, may become, by accident, the man who will go into the history books as the leader who concluded the “multi-vector" policy begun 20 years ago and who paved the way for Ukraine’s integration into Europe.