Ukraine is a nation torn between two competing influences: the European Union and Vladimir Putin. Step by step, Ukraine has been slipping toward Russia's orbit. Recently, the pro-Putin president, Viktor Yanukovych, took a large step toward hitching his country's cart to Russia's horse (err, bear): The government has rejected a free trade agreement with the EU, sparking massive protests that drew some 300,000 angry protesters to the streets. Many of the protesters took over public areas, such as Independence Square and the Cabinet Ministry in the capital city, Kiev.
The animosity is understandable. Russia has a long, sordid history of meddling in Ukrainian affairs. In the early 1930s, the Soviet Union, under the leadership of Joseph Stalin, purposefully starved three to six million Ukrainians in what has since become known as the Holodomor. In 2004, Viktor Yushchenko, a pro-Westerner who waged a successful campaign to win Ukraine's presidency, survived dioxin poisoning -- many believe that the Kremlin was involved. Then, in 2009, a dispute led to Russia turning off its natural gas supply to Ukraine.
Russia sees Ukraine as pivotal to its economic survival. Because Ukraine and Russia already have a free trade agreement, a new free trade agreement between Ukraine and the EU would likely allow European goods to make their way into Russia. That's something that worries Vladimir Putin. And history teaches us that when Mr. Putin is worried, people within his reach often turn up dead. So loyalty to Russia may not be the only thing on Mr. Yanukovych's mind. Even if dioxin or polonium-210 isn't on the table, punishing Ukraine with trade sanctions is.
But now, Mr. Yanukovych has something new to worry about: a possible revolution. As the Associated Press reports:
"Our plan is clear: It's not a demonstration, it's not a reaction. It's a revolution," said Yuriy Lutsenko, a former interior minister who is now an opposition leader.
Prime Minister Mykola Azarov apparently agrees, saying that the protests have "all the signs of a coup d'etat." For its part, the parliament plans to hold a no-confidence vote in the near future, possibly on Tuesday. (UPDATE: the no-confidence vote was held on Tuesday and failed.)
The future of Ukraine is with the EU, not Russia. Demographically and economically, Russia's future is bleak. Mr. Putin remains in control largely through bribing enough Russians (using oil and natural gas money) to support his regime. This is not the sort of country upon which Ukraine should be staking its future. If it takes a popular uprising to bring about this realization, so be it.
Early signs indicate that Mr. Yanukovych may have gotten the message. On Monday, he called the European Commission, which responded that the free trade deal would not be renegotiated. Even Angela Merkel rebuked the Ukrainian president at a recent summit, at which she said, "Good to see you here, but we expected more."
So do the Ukrainian people.