Ukraine: Shifting geopolitics


EU membership officially remains a strategic goal for the pro-Russian Ukrainian government in Kyiv, but the country also wants to boost cooperation in other directions – particulary with Moscow and Asian countries. EURACTIV Slovakia reports from a discussion held recently at the Krynica Economic Forum in Poland.

"Ukraine does not need to choose between the EU and Russia," said Oleksiy Plotnikov, a member of the Ukrainian parliament, in a panel discussion held at the forum.

Like other participants on the panel, Plotnikov argued that the new government of President Victor Yanukovich had brought changes to the geopolitical orientation of the country.

Ukraine as a bridge

Maintaining close relations with the EU remains a guiding principle in Ukrainian foreign policy, with eventual EU membership a strategic aim.

This message was conveyed both by Leonid Kozhara, vice-chairman of the Ukrainian parliament's international relations committee, and Eduard Prutnik, chairman of the United World International Foundation, a Ukrainian think-tank.

What seems certain is that Yanukovich's government is not interested in NATO membership. Its new orientation is an "anti-bloc policy," stressed Kozhara, referring to opposition between the Western and Soviet blocs during the Cold War.

Viktor Yanukovich, Ukraine's new president, said during his first visit to Brussels last March that European integration was his country's top priority. However, he refrained from talking about possible EU accession. Days later, Yanukovich announced that Ukraine would not join military alliances.

But for Prutnik that does not rule Ukraine out of discussions about Europe's future security infrastructure. "We should abandon dreams of one-sided security environments," built for example solely on NATO, and "adopt a multidimensional approach," he argued.

The current government wants to position Ukraine as a bridge uniting the "global area" constituted by Europe and the Asian continent, said Prutnik. As a consequence, Kyiv is strengthening cooperation with Russia, as well as with Asian countries in the Shanghai Group, he said.

This new orientation is also justified by economic considerations, as Ukraine's economic development would appear to be impossible without cooperation with Russia. The main markets for Ukrainian goods and technologies lie to the East, noted Leszek Miller, a former Polish centre-left prime minister, who was also sitting on the panel.

Kozhara was less diplomatic. "Countries that lead economic development and which have the highest economic growth cannot be found today in the EU, but in Asia. The former government (of president Yushchenko) has ignored that," he stressed.

What final goal?

For Ukraine, EU membership is a long-term objective with an uncertain outcome, and the reason for this is insufficient will on the EU's side, former Polish PM Miller admitted.

After the Orange Revolution many promises were made, but they were rooted in wishful thinking rather than fact. The current government is more realistic, the former Polish PM said.

Professor Gert Weisskirchen, a former German MP, begged to disagree. He spoke in support of Ukraine's EU membership because he said it was a "genuinely European country". The only problem, as he sees it, is that Kyiv does not meet the necessary accession criteria.

Despite subsequent disappointments, he saw the Orange Revolution as evidence that "most Ukrainians, especially the young ones, want to be real Europeans".

For his part, Miller noted that it was possible to feel European without being a member of the European Union.

On a more pragmatic note, Kozhara said that EU integration remains Ukraine's strategic aim, but that the government was now concentrating on more realistic targets, such as a customs union with the EU and visa-free travel for Ukrainian citizens travelling to Europe.

Being part of decision-making

On its road to closer EU integration, Ukraine is gradually adopting the European body of legislation, even if it is sometimes economically prejudicial for the country to do so, explained Prutnik. His point was that Ukraine wants to somehow be a part of the EU decision-making process.

He called for the establishment of a joint high-level committee, with representatives of the EU and Ukraine, to discuss matters of bilateral interest.

Privileged Poland

Poland, which was a strong supporter of the Orange Revolution, is the main advocate of Ukrainian EU membership. However, Warsaw should not see the rapprochement between Kyiv and Moscow as a "betrayal," said Miller. Rather, Europeans should see it as another opportunity to improve Polish-Russian relations. The better these relations are, the greater Poland's influence over EU policy towards Russia will be.

Poland should not assume that it will forever remain a bridge between Ukraine and the EU, Miller continued. Ukrainian politicians know the way to Brussels without going through Warsaw, he said. However, Poland should remain the principal supporter of Ukrainian plans, he added.

Professor Weisskirchen also argued that Kyiv should preserve its privileged relations with Warsaw. If Ukraine is still genuinely interested in EU membership, it needs Poland, as well as Sweden, which are both ready to support the EU's new 'Ostpolitik', he argued. "You need a partner who understands you better. Poland is the key," said Weisskirchen.

Ukraine's new President Viktor Yanukovich, who is labelled by the Western press as pro-Russian, symbolically made his first foreign trip to Brussels (EURACTIV 02/03/10).

There, Yanukovich said that the key priority for his country is European integration. Yanukovich received strong support from EU leaders and neglected to call in at NATO headquarters.

Asked why he did not pay a courtesy call to NATO, Yanukovich hinted that the status of his country vis-à-vis the Atlantic military alliance was not going to change.

Following its independence, Ukraine declared itself a neutral state. It has a limited military partnership with Russia and has had a partnership with NATO since 1994. At political level, under the previous government it had been decided that the question of eventually joining NATO would be decided by national referendum at some time in the future.

Ukraine is an important energy route for Europe and is seen as crucial for the EU's long-term goal of securing its energy supply (see EURACTIV LinksDossier on 'Pipeline politics'). 

Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev made the historic mistake of donating Crimea to Ukraine. Now Russia rents the naval base of Sevastopol from the country, but the lease contract expires in 2017. Analysts have warned of tensions and even war over the future of the naval base (EURACTIV 19/09/08EURACTIV 19/08/09).

But last April Russia agreed to cut the price of its gas supplies to Ukraine by 30% in exchange for a 25-year extension of the lease of its Black Sea fleet based on Ukraine's Crimean peninsula (EURACTIV 22/04/10).

On 13 September Yanukovich visited Brussels again and assured EU representatives that disputes with Russia over gas prices, which in the past have led to cuts of supplies further west, would never happen again.

Yanukovich also spoke of "gradual integration" into the EU in a process which he described as "one of compromises and mutual concessions".

  • 13 Oct. 2010: Visit of Ukrainian Prime Minister Mykola Azarov to Brussels.

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