Ukraine: A Western Policy For The Long Haul

WASHINGTON, DC -- When Viktor Yanukovych was elected president of Ukraine in February 2009, many Ukrainians hoped his election would end five years of divisive political infighting under former president Viktor Yushchenko and lead to increased political stability, reform and national unity.

Viktor Yanukovych

As Yanukovych had served as Prime Minister under President Leonid Kuchma, many analysts assumed that Ukraine would return to the multi-vector policy pursued at the time.

However, these assumptions, like many others about Yanukovych, proved to be wrong. Whatever his faults, Kuchma pursued a genuine multi-vector policy. He regarded strengthening ties to NATO as a means of ensuring Ukraine’s independence and sovereignty.

Under Kuchma, Kiev dropped its initial opposition to NATO enlargement and began to regard the membership of Central European countries in the Alliance, especially Poland, as having security benefits for Ukraine as well.

At the same time, Kuchma consciously began to strengthen Ukraine’s ties to NATO. Ukraine was the first member of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) to join NATO’s Partnership for Peace (PfP) and one of the most active participants in PfP exercises.

Ukraine sent a liaison officer to Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers, Europe (SHAPE) in Mons, Belgium and in May 1997 a NATO information office was opened in Kiev.

The most important achievement during this period was the signing of the Charter on a Distinctive Partnership with NATO at the Madrid Summit in July 1997. The Charter foresaw a broad expansion of ties between NATO and Ukraine in a number of key areas such as civil-military relations, democratic control of the armed forces, armaments cooperation and defense planning.

The Charter established a deeper relationship with Ukraine than with any non-NATO member — with the exception of Russia. Under Kuchma’s leadership, in May 2002 Ukraine officially announced its intention to join NATO.

The rapprochement with NATO was part of a carefully calculated political strategy — and it succeeded. Rather than leading to more hostile relations between Kiev and Moscow, as many critics predicted, Kuchma’s efforts to strengthen ties to the West contributed to the emergence of a more conciliatory Russian policy toward Ukraine.

President Boris Yeltsin’s decision to sign the long-delayed Russian-Ukrainian Friendship and Cooperation Treaty in l997 was in large part motivated by a desire to counter Ukraine’s growing rapprochement with NATO. It reflected recognition by Yeltsin that his delaying tactics were driving Kiev further into the arms of the West.

Yanukovych, by contrast, has pursued a series of policies that exacerbated domestic tensions and created the conditions for Ukraine’s drift back into the Russian economic and political orbit.

In late April 2009, the coalition headed by Yanukovych railroaded through Parliament a 25-year extension of an existing agreement, allowing Russia to base the Black Sea Fleet in Sevastopol until 2042.

The agreement was ratified without proper parliamentary oversight and in violation of a constitutional provision forbidding foreign bases on Ukrainian territory. It provoked a virtual riot in the Parliament and led to fist fights between members, the hurling of eggs and lighting of smoke bombs.

In return for extending the base agreement, Russia agreed to lower the price of imported gas by 30 percent, throwing out the January 2009 contract signed by former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko that ended a 17-day gas crisis.

However, due to the falling demand for gas, Russia had already begun renegotiating contracts in Europe and giving customers discounts. Thus, the 30 percent concession simply brought the price negotiated with Yanukovych down to current European average prices.

The gas agreement reduces the incentive for Ukraine to reform its inefficient and corrupt energy sector and commits the country to buying more gas in subsequent years than it may need. At the same time, it increases Ukraine’s economic and energy dependence on Russia, strengthening Kiev’s single-vector foreign policy.

On other foreign policy fronts, Yanukovych has withdrawn Ukraine’s application for NATO membership — a policy he supported as Prime Minister in Kuchma’s cabinet. This has reduced Ukraine’s bargaining leverage and room for maneuver.

While Yanukovych pays lip service to wanting Ukrainian membership in the European Union (EU), his lack of commitment to serious political and economic reforms make such a goal largely illusory.

Against this background, Western policymakers may be tempted to write off Ukraine. However, this would be a strategic mistake. The United States and the EU have a strong stake in keeping open a European option for Ukraine.

A reorientation of Ukrainian policy back toward Russia would shift the strategic balance in Europe and have a negative impact on the prospects for democratic change in Europe’s Eastern periphery, making it much more difficult for Georgia and Moldova to pursue their pro-Western course.

It would also have a dampening impact on the long-term prospects for reform in Belarus by creating an eastern Slavic bloc of nations suspicious of the West.

While it is hard to be optimistic about Ukraine’s political evolution at the moment, the United States and the EU need to take the long view.

Ukraine, like Turkey, is experiencing an identity crisis, torn between its eastern orientation promoted by the elites in its Russified eastern portions and a western orientation advocated by the pro-Western elites in Central and Western Ukraine. This dilemma will likely take time to sort out — at least a decade, perhaps longer.

As Ukraine struggles to define its identity and find its place in the new European security order, the door to Europe should be kept open. U.S. and European policy should be aimed at strengthening democratic institutions and promoting the growth of civil society, especially an independent media.

While the door to NATO should in principle also be kept open, the membership issue should remain on the back burner for the immediate future. Focusing on NATO membership for Ukraine now will only inflame the political atmosphere and make progress in other important areas more difficult.

Instead, in the near future Western policy should give priority to expanding trade, improving Ukraine’s gas transit system and strengthening democratic institutions and civil society.

The main threat to Ukrainian security is the slow progress of economic and political reform, corruption and weak democratic institutions and procedures. The EU’s Eastern Partnership is more capable of addressing these issues than NATO. Moreover, initiatives in these areas will be seen as less threatening by Russia and thus less likely to provoke strong opposition in the Kremlin.

This is not to suggest that the United States should neglect Ukraine or leave the heavy lifting to the EU. U.S. political and economic support for Ukraine will be vitally important.

However, this support should be closely coordinated with EU policies in order to ensure maximum effectiveness. At the same time, U.S. and EU policymakers should continue to firmly reject any policy based on a division of Europe into “spheres of influence.”

The goal of Western policy should be to overcome dividing lines in Europe and the post-Soviet space, not create new ones.

Source: Center for European Policy Analysis