In-Between Country
Russia Profile

The European Union Should Do Its Part in Keeping Up Ukraine’s Hopes of Westernization

Late last year, in the run-up to Ukraine’s presidential poll, Mark Medish of the Carnegie Endowment thoughtfully reflected on the “difficulty of being Ukraine.” The country’s President-elect Viktor Yanukovich cannot fail to agree with the influential American commentator’s musings, particularly when he starts considering his country’s options with regard to foreign policy.

Domestic discord and economic woes have dramatically highlighted what would appear to be a banal geopolitical fact – namely that Ukraine is a typical “in between” country.

Sandwiched between the European Union and Russia, Ukrainians seem to be living through a moment of truth of sorts – a painful realization of their heavy dependence on their two key neighbors. Gone are the hopes, exited by the Orange Revolution euphoria, for the country’s fast-track accession to Euro-Atlantic institutions; back is a sober understanding that Kiev would be much better off if it maintains good relations with both Brussels and Moscow.

Paradoxically, the previous five years have seen – mainly due to the erratic policies of President Viktor Yushchenko – the steady deterioration of Ukraine’s two most important relationships. Brussels was frustrated with the constant bickering and paralysis in Kiev, while Moscow was utterly annoyed by what it perceived as the Ukrainian leadership’s premeditated anti-Russian course.

Several factors will influence Ukraine’s international behavior under the newly elected president. First is the important shift in perceptions. The economic crisis has revealed the morass of Ukraine’s economy and domestic policy. The NATO membership issue is off the table for the foreseeable future, and the EU’s trust in Kiev’s ability to pursue comprehensive reforms needs to be (re)built from scratch. At the same time, Moscow is also recalibrating its stance vis-à-vis Kiev: to be sure, its vision of the two Slavic nations’ close affinity is still there, although the Kremlin’s pet idea of Ukraine forming some kind of “integrated entity” or “single economic space” together with Russia (as well as with Belarus and Kazakhstan) seems to be passé. Thus Ukraine has ceased to be viewed – at least for the time being – as a place where Russia and the West perennially lock horns in what was at times regarded as a cosmic geopolitical battle over this strategic piece of real estate.

This shift in perceptions entails a mixed set of implications. One thing is clear: Kiev’s international options are limited. The president-elect will have to deal with Brussels, which is highly skeptical of Ukraine’s ability to deliver, with Washington, which is preoccupied with non-European issues, and with Moscow, which is probably less paranoid about Ukraine’s “geopolitical loyalty” than it was five years ago, but still bent on expanding its influence. At the same time, the new situation appears to allow for more pragmatic and balanced relations with both Russia and Western countries.

Economic dire straits will nudge Kiev further toward realism and pragmatism. As far as the Ukraine-Russia relations are concerned, the new president simply cannot afford to be as antagonistic toward Moscow as his predecessor was. Bluntly put, Ukraine is broke. The energy truce between Kiev and Moscow signed a year ago didn’t break into a new gas war only because Ukraine miraculously managed to pay its gas bills in 2009. But in fact there are no miracles here: the International Monetary Fund (IMF) underwrote the Ukrainian government, which in its turn underwrote the bankrupt Naftogaz. There is no question that Kiev would have failed to pay $6 billion worth of energy bills last year but for the IMF’s financial assistance. Now the really big question is: who will help Kiev shoulder the estimated $9 billion worth of gas imports this year? It can only be either the IMF (if a special political decision is taken to this effect) or Moscow (if the Kremlin decides to lower the gas price – a decision that will naturally come with some strings attached).

At the same time, the Kremlin aggressively continues, with a little help from its friends, to pursue the realization of the Nord Stream and South Stream natural gas pipeline projects, whose key objective is to bypass Ukraine. Late last year Germany approved a $3.85 billion loan guarantee for the Baltic Sea pipeline, tripling its cash backing for a Russian-German venture. The fact that neither the global recession nor the collapse of gas prices has been able to deter Moscow speaks volumes about how politically important the two projects are for the Kremlin. True, the new pipelines will not be able to fully substitute Ukraine’s extensive gas transportation network, but they will significantly limit Kiev’s ability to use energy transit as a strategic leverage with Moscow.

Arguing that Kiev will be significantly constrained in its international behavior, however, should not necessarily imply that Ukraine’s elites are not sure about what their country’s foreign policy priorities are. These priorities have long been defined – integration with Europe. Ukraine’s “European course” – an ambition to join EU economic and political institutions – predates the Orange Revolution. In fact, Kiev has been pursuing pro-Europe policies – albeit at a varying pace and with a varying level of intensity – under all administrations since gaining independence in 1991.

Under the new president the pro-Europe course will undoubtedly persist: Kiev will continue negotiating a free trade agreement and association agreement with Brussels.  After all, if Ukraine’s squabbling elites can agree on anything, it is the vision of Ukraine eventually becoming a “normal European country” – which ultimately means becoming a full member of the EU.

Ukraine’s European aspirations, however, face two huge problems. First, the EU was seriously underwhelmed by Kiev’s previous performance and is now experiencing what has widely become known as the “Ukraine fatigue.” What seems to be particularly bad news for Kiev is that the feeling of frustration with Ukraine’s infighting and corruption has gripped not only the old core countries of united Europe, but also spread over the EU’s “eastern wing,” including the Baltic nations and Poland – the countries that used to be Ukraine’s staunchest supporters within the Union.

The name of the second problem is Russia. Within the EU, some key member-states appear to believe that engaging Ukraine cannot go too far lest Moscow gets seriously annoyed. So the lowest possible denominator the Union can settle on is the ambiguous formula stating that, for Kiev, “the door is neither open nor shut.”     

Now, we appear to be witnessing a true vicious cycle in the making. Ukraine’s dismal record in reforming its flawed political and economic system coupled with Europe’s angst about Russia’s geopolitical sensitivities discourage the EU from engaging Kiev and make many European policymakers think that Ukraine’s European bid is a completely hopeless affair. But at the same time, lacking any powerful external anchor, Ukrainian elites seem incapable of making a decisive breakthrough from the post-Soviet limbo on their own.

Most analysts agree that the factor that played an absolutely fundamental role in the democratic transformation of the East European societies in the 1990s was the process of their accession to the EU. Let’s face it: the painful reforms in the former Eastern Bloc countries succeeded only because at the critical juncture “supra-governmental actors were almost more important than domestic ones,” one cogent analysis argues. Indeed, accession to the EU was the best news for the former communist countries in the last 500 years, the leading American political scientist Ken Jowitt noted recently.      

This means that Ukraine critically needs more EU engagement, not less. At the same time, both the EU and Ukraine have to re-conceptualize their rules of engagement and, as some perceptive commentators suggest, stop confusing membership with integration. The former may well become the result of the latter. For the time being, however, the key is to elaborate a set of the EU-Ukraine integration projects (energy security, trade, transport corridors, border management and visa regime, climate change, education, etc.) whose implementation will help secure Ukraine’s stable development and gradual progress toward ever higher degrees of “Europeanization.”

Yet, strategically, Kiev does need an external anchor to encourage and stimulate the country’s Western-leaning direction. It would cost the EU virtually nothing to offer Ukraine the prospect of eventual membership. The Union’s failure to do this in the immediate aftermath of the Orange Revolution was variously characterized as a “lack of vision” or an “acute case of strategic myopia.” It’s high time for Brussels to correct its strategic eyesight.