WASHINGTON - Ukraine may well be the geopolitical prize nobody can afford to win.
As the country begins the delicate climb out of the chaos that saw yet another political turnover, the U.S. and the European Union have had a look at the Ukrainian government's books. It's a grim picture that is testing the political will and financial wherewithal of potential Western benefactors.
"The real question now is how much of the burden of dealing with Ukraine is going to be European and how much the Europeans are going to be able to slough off onto the American taxpayer," said Wayne Merry, a scholar at the American Foreign Policy Council. Right now, he said, Ukraine is fairly low on Washington's list of priorities amid bigger problems in Syria, the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and nuclear negotiations with Iran.
Ukraine's acting finance minister, Yuri Kobolov, says the country needs $35 billion to cover this year and next. He is looking to Europe or the United States for help, hopefully within the next two weeks.
Jonathan Adelman, professor of international relations at the University of Denver, said he sees little chance of the Washington coming through at a time of budgetary difficulties, highlighted this week when Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel proposed to shrink the U.S. Army to its smallest size since the 1940s.
"There's going to be no enthusiasm here for the tens of billions of dollars it would take to bail Ukraine out," Adelman said.
Ukraine has major debt repayments coming up in June but analysts indicate it will have difficulty making it that far without help. A rescue with outside lenders can't be agreed until there's a government, and the Ukrainian Parliament has postponed the formation of one until Thursday.
The crisis in Ukraine blew up when President Viktor Yanukovych, at the last minute late last year, backed out of an association deal with the European Union in favour of a promised $15 billion bailout from Russia. That angered Ukrainians from pro-European central and western regions.
Russia's bailout is now on hold after the Ukrainian parliament voted Saturday to remove Yanukovych, who fled the capital and went into hiding after months of protests against his government. The country has only gotten $3 billion of the money.
EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said Tuesday that the EU and its member nations are ready to help bridge Ukraine's short-term financing needs until a new government can negotiate a full-fledged assistance package with the International Monetary Fund. She said it was important that Russia also help out.
But James Collins, former U.S. ambassador to Moscow and diplomat in residence at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said Russian President Vladimir Putin is likely to stand back and let the situation in Ukraine play out for the time being.
On Wednesday, however, Putin ordered massive exercises involving most military units in western Russia, although the country's defence minister denied the move was related to developments in Ukraine.
Ukraine, a country of 46 million, is torn between its pro-European western regions and its Russian-speaking east and south. The tensions date back to the dissolution of the Soviet Union and Ukraine's unexpected independence in 1991. In the Crimean Peninsula, protesters rallied this week against the new authorities in Kyiv and pleaded for protection from Moscow.
"A continuation of past policies pressing Ukraine to choose between East and West will almost certainly make this process more difficult and fraught," Collins said. "An approach providing Ukraine with breathing room and time is more likely to create a favourable environment for a positive outcome from Ukraine's next stage. Such a policy would serve the interests of Russia, the EU and the United States."
Merry said the Europeans may not have understood what they had unleashed by courting Ukraine.
"A lot of people in a lot of those capitals really —Berlin and Paris to name two — think that the European Union got too far out in front of itself, didn't think through what it was doing, got involved in what was a zero-sum position with Russia," Merry said.
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