Skip to main content

A demonstrator holds a torn portrait of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych and shouts "Coward!" during a rally in support of Ukraine's integration with the European Union in the center of Kiev on Nov. 29, 2013.Sergei Grits/The Associated Press

President Viktor Yanukovych has unwisely allowed Ukraine to tilt toward Vladimir Putin's Russia rather than toward the European Union. It was a choice between becoming another prosperous, democratic Poland and another basket-case, dictatorial Belarus.

Speaking last week with Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, he explained that he would not, after all, sign a painstakingly negotiated trade treaty with the EU, because "we had very big threats." He whined, "I've been alone for 3 1/2 years."

Mr. Putin has already imposed strong-arm trade measures upon Ukraine, with heavy hints of more of the same to come. But Mr. Yanukovych let it be known that, if the EU promised to pay the Ukrainian government $230-billion to help it adjust to the new relationship, he would sign the treaty.

In other words, Mr. Putin is using extortion to consolidate the Russian sphere of influence and its regional customs union. Mr. Yanukovych, for his part, has been trying to negotiate for the maximum bribe for his country.

Ukraine's public finances are in parlous shape. Its falling foreign reserves would barely cover three months' worth of imports. The EU has enough on its fiscal plate; what with Greece, Cyprus, Portugal, Italy and Ireland, it does not want to bail out a non-member of the club. And unlike Mr. Putin, the EU would not take part in an auction to buy influence.

In the very short run, Mr. Yanukovych's choice is understandable. In the long, it will be disastrous. He would have served Ukraine far better if he had helped bring his country under the influence of the rule of law and good governance. Ukraine would have a much better future tied to democratic Europe, rather than dictatorial Russia.