SINOGRAPH Ukraine creates arc of chaos
By Francesco Sisci
As if on a romantic double date, Europe is strolling nonchalantly toward what in reality is a risky pair of electoral appointments: the vote for the European Union parliament in Brussels and the presidential election in Ukraine, both scheduled for May 25. The combination of the two could multiply the many hazards each separately entails.
The most obviously precarious is the Ukrainian election. Here a thousand things can go wrong, so much so that either side (the
anti- and pro-Russian factions in the country) could claim the elections were disrupted.
In some ways Russian President Vladimir Putin tried to cool the tension by urging pro-Russian factions to call off a local referendum on secession in eastern Ukraine on May 11. However, he turned up in Crimea on May 9, in an apparent sign of support for pro-Russian faction in Ukraine. So pro-Russian groups didn't heed the call to stop the referendum.
Moreover, Americans claim Moscow has troops at the border ready to intervene, something that - Putin's words notwithstanding - could further encourage secessionists. Their presence could also prevent the intervention of pro-Kiev forces that might be too eager to intervene to gain more prestige and badges of honor in the West.
It is not completely clear what is in play there. Are the pro-Russians really loyal to their Moscow leader or do they have their own agendas and are trying to force Putin's hand? Or vice versa they could be being played by the grand puppeteer - Putin.
Certainly, the main parties - Putin on the one hand and the EU and the US on the other - seem to have all realized they have gone too far in Ukraine, but it is very hard to move back from the brink of the abyss. Nobody there seems eager to go to war over splinters of Ukraine and the respective short-term objectives (and their consequences) have all been achieved.
To make up for the Western threat of not buying Russian oil (by far Moscow's largest export), Putin was willing to make unprecedented concessions to China (See Ukraine crisis forces Eurasian evolution, Asia Times Online, Apr 30, '14).
A deal should be signed in Beijing during Putin's visit on May 20. This is something that might be costly in the long term to Russia as it could reawaken the old Russian fear of Chinese encroachment in Siberia. In the short and medium term, it can help Russia play Europe against China or vice versa.
In any case, the strengthening of the economic bond between Russia and China creates a whole new geopolitical dynamic in the world that could de facto unravel Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger's great gambit in the 1970s.
It could be in the interests of both Russia and America to de-escalate the Ukrainian tensions. If Ukraine flares, Russia could be hooked and too dependent on China, which is a far tougher customer than the EU. If that occurs, the US could be squeezed out of Eurasia, as this new Sino-Russian detente could dominate the continent.
In either case, China would risk being drawn totally inland, and 30 years of development along the coast and projection into the world would be at stake. This could be especially true as China is finding more problems with its sea neighbors, including Japan, the Philippines, and Vietnam.
That is: none of the main actors, America, Russia and China, has to gain a lot in pushing further with Ukraine.
Still, the Ukrainian genie is out of the bottle. Extremists of both sides lead the dance on the ground, working for bloodshed that might bring them to the fore and make them the indispensable hero for their own side. Therefore one would need a concerted effort to re-bottle this genie.
At the moment, the main component of this effort is missing: trust between the parties, something that will be hard to regain in a short time. In fact, Europeans and Americans blame Putin for the escalation of the crisis with his carving out of Crimea. To calm all of this, some kind of miracle would be required. This is perhaps what Vatican Secretary of State Pietro Parolin might have hinted at in a recent interview, when he said that Pope Francis could be willing to intervene in critical places and times to advance peace. 
But then perhaps a double miracle should happen - the ultimate proof for sainthood in the Catholic Church.
There is a second jeopardy in the old continent: the European elections, where anti-European forces for the first time could gain a large percentage of the parliament. The biggest danger comes from France and Italy, the countries that after Germany are the two main pillars of the euro zone. The French and italian economies are underperforming, which will blow fresh anti-euro winds in the sails of the EU election
In France, ultra-right Marine Le Pen could get 20% of the national vote; in Italy, out-of-the-box Beppe Grillo could even reach 25% of the vote. Their parties, on different sides of the political spectrum, represent a growing dissatisfaction with Europe in the heart of the European systemâ not at its periphery, as in Greece with its crisis.
Moreover, this takes place just as Europe could de facto be forced to adopt a greater role in what will be left of Ukraine after Moscow takes in Crimea and the eastern part opts out.
At a time when voices against the euro are growing louder in the euro zone of the EU, most likely the majority of Ukraine on May 25 will vote in a president vowing closer ties with Brussels. Then, the results in Ukraine, plus Le Pen and Grillo, could make the EU much weaker at a time when it actually needs to be much stronger.
This will not bring an end to Europe, but if in the coming months the economy meets unexpected difficulties. This could bring further problems in Italy, possibly now the weakest link of the euro area. No matter how much Le Pen wins, the French president will not fall in the next few months because of her success.
But in Italy things are different. Too big too fail yet with a political system too rotten to fix quickly, Italy is walking a narrow tightrope. Prime Minister Matteo Renzi governs with a very unstable majority, supported by a weaker yet essential Berlusconi and threatened by Grillo, who is gaining strength. This election could become a vote of confidence for the government.
Paradoxically, through a very strange and unpredictable chain of events, the vote in Italy could weaken the EU, and thus impact Ukraine, Russia, America's standing and, for the first time in history, its consequences will have an impact all the way to the East China Sea.
Francesco Sisci is a Senior Researcher associated with the Center for European Studies at the People's University in Beijing. The opinions expressed in this article are his own and do not represent in any way those of the Center.