Less that two months after Ukrainian heavyweight boxing champion Vladimir Klitschko defeated Russian challenger Alexander Povetkin in a packed Moscow arena, Russia took its revenge on Ukraine. The Eastern European nation's president, Viktor Yanukovich, bowed to pressure from his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, and signaled that his country won't sign a key agreement with the European Union next week, opting instead to stay within Russia's sphere of influence.
The decision has driven Ukrainian intellectuals to despair. To them, the EU agreement meant a democratic, prosperous future and siding with Putin's Russia signifies a retreat to the Soviet past, or worse.
The association agreement would have opened the nation's market to European goods and serve as the first step toward Ukraine's full membership in the EU. The signing of the deal was to be the key event of the common market's Eastern Partnership Summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, on Nov. 26-27.
There were some strings attached. EU pressed Yanukovich to release his top political opponent, Yulia Tymoshenko, from prison and insisted that the Ukrainian parliament amend some key laws in time for the summit. The conditions seemed acceptable: Ukraine's ruling Regions Party even worked out a compromise to let Tymoshenko leave Ukraine for medical treatment in Germany. Yanukovich pressed ahead with preparations for the signing despite unprecedented pressure from the Russia.
Putin wants Ukraine to join its customs union with Kazakhstan and Belarus. In August, the Russian Customs service all but halted the movement of goods across the Ukrainian border in a demonstration of what would happen if Ukraine chose the European path. Later, Gazprom, the Russian natural-gas producer that supplies Ukraine, pressed for the repayment of more than $800 million in debts.
Cash-starved Ukraine, its international reserves dwindling to less than three months' worth of exports and two-year bond yields rocketing to 14 percent, couldn't ignore the pressure. Earlier today, the Ukrainian parliament threw out the Tymoshenko law, and the government formally announced it was suspending preparations for EU association. "In making this important decision, the government was guided by national interest alone," Deputy Prime Minister Yuri Boyko said. "In the past four months production has dropped significantly. Our analysis shows this has to do with shrinking trade relations with CIS nations," meaning primarily Russia.
Former Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski, charged by the EU with ensuringthat everything was ready for the Vilnius summit, regretfully acknowledged that the deal was off for now. "This is essentially a request for a break in negotiations until Ukraine settles economic matters," he said.
To many Ukrainians, these were eulogies at the funeral of their dream. "After this, there can only be dictatorship," TV anchor Vitaly Portnikov wrote on Facebook. "I hate these people," wrote journalist Darina Marchak. "The agreement gave us a chance and now it's gone." Publisher Leonid Tsodikov agreed: "Hello USSR in its most horrible, soiled and perverted form".
Vitali Klitscko, an opposition politician, brother to boxing champion Vladimir and himself a legendary prizefighter, threatened Prime Minister Nikolai Azarov with criminal charges for breaking off talks with the EU.
The social networks were abuzz with calls for a mass rally during the weekend, like the ones that 10 years ago temporarily thwarted Yanukovich's bid for the presidency. Then, hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets in Kiev, Ukraine's capital, in what came to be called the Orange Revolution.
Trying to calm the passions, Yanukovich insisted that Ukraine retained its European option. "Maybe the weather is not favorable at one of the stages of our ascent to the summit," he said.
For Putin, it was time to gloat. "This is (Ukraine's) sovereign decision on which we do not believe we have any right to comment," his press secretary Dmitri Peskov said disingenuously. Yanukovich flew to Russia twice in recent weeks for secret talks with Putin. The Russian leader must have felt free to comment on Ukraine's choices during those meetings.
Putin just can't seem to lose on the international stage in recent months. His tactics may be rough and his sarcastic voice may grate on Western ears, but he gets results. Ukrainians may wish he wouldn't, but though polls show the country is split roughly 60-40 in favor of the EU, mass protests are unlikely. The majority of Ukrainians are much more given to political apathy than in 2004, and the possibility of economic collapse engineered by the Kremlin shouldn't be discounted.
(Leonid Bershidsky, an editor and novelist, is a Bloomberg View contributor. He is also a former managing director at KITFinance Investment Bank. Follow him on Twitter.)