Ukrainian Weekly Korrespondent

Ukraine: Finding a Balance?

Editor's Note: Ukrainian President Victor Yanukovych, who took office in March, has said that he wants good relations with Russia and integration into Europe. In an article in the October 1 edition of the Ukrainian Weekly Korrespondent, Brookings Senior Fellow (and former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine) Steven Pifer notes that Kyiv has dramatically improved its relations with Moscow but must work harder with the European Union if it wishes to develop Ukrainian-EU relations and maintain a balance between Russia and Europe.

When I visited Kyiv in March, senior Ukrainian officials said newly elected President Yanukovych’s first foreign policy priority would be to repair relations with Moscow.  They quickly added, however, that the President would seek a balance in Ukraine’s relations with Russia and the West, somewhat reminiscent of the “multi-vector” foreign policy pursued by President Kuchma in the 1990s.  Six months later, it’s fair to ask:  what kind of balance has the Ukrainian government achieved?

There is no question about the improvement in Ukrainian-Russian relations.  Under the Yanukovych presidency, Kyiv extended the Black Sea Fleet presence in Crimea, forswore joining NATO, and entertained a variety of Russian proposals for joint ventures in the energy, nuclear and aerospace fields.  Senior Ukrainian officials met their Russian counterparts early and often.  There’s nothing wrong with this:  President Yanukovych won the election, Ukrainian voters presumably understood his foreign policy preferences when they voted, and Ukraine and Russia should have a good, stable relationship.

Finding balance is more difficult.  Given its decision to continue practical cooperation but tone down relations with NATO, Kyiv’s relationship with the European Union takes on greater significance.  President Yanukovych regularly stresses European integration, including in a September 23 interview with the Wall Street Journal.  But the progress Kyiv has made with the European Union seriously lags that with Russia.  One might ask:  is Kyiv trying as hard as it could?

To be sure, the European Union is no easy partner.  It has high demands for any country seeking a comprehensive free trade arrangement and rarely relaxes those demands.  EU officials have steadfastly—and, in my view, mistakenly—refused to give Ukraine a membership perspective.  Still coping with its latest wave of enlargement, the European Union has little appetite for reaching out to countries on its periphery.  And the Union continues to be preoccupied with managing the fall-out from the 2008 global financial meltdown and implementing the Lisbon Treaty, including establishing new foreign policy mechanisms.

What this means is that, if Kyiv wants to deepen the EU-Ukraine relationship, it likely will have to do most of the heavy lifting.  The Ukrainian government will have to press harder, do its homework diligently, and make more concessions that it would like in order to finalize an EU association agreement and comprehensive free trade arrangement.  Kyiv will likewise have to extend itself if it wishes to conclude a visa liberalization agreement.

Ukrainian officials need to be more mindful of democratic practices.  Concern has spiked in the West over the past four months over signs of erosion of democracy within Ukraine.  Too many reports emerge of pressure on the media.  The Security Service of Ukraine is too often fingered as an agency that regularly exceeds its legitimate authority.  These reports make it tougher for Kyiv to deepen its relationship with the European Union, which sees itself as a community of shared values, particularly shared democratic values.  President Yanukovych will find his stated goal of European integration much harder to achieve if his government is seen as not sharing these values.

Some in Ukraine may question whether, if Ukraine has to extend itself so much but will in turn meet, at best, only grudging engagement from the European Union, what’s the point?  That’s a legitimate question.   I would argue that it is worthwhile for Ukraine to go the extra mile.  An association agreement will bring Ukraine closer to the European mainstream.  A comprehensive free trade arrangement will open the largest and richest market in the world to Ukrainian exporters.  And a visa facilitation agreement will make it easier for millions of Ukrainians to travel throughout Europe.  These are real benefits, for the economy and people of Ukraine.  But the Ukrainian government has to decide that these benefits justify a more energetic engagement with the European Union—and then act accordingly.

There is one other benefit for Ukraine:  a balanced foreign policy would give Kyiv greater freedom of maneuver.  Again, there is nothing wrong with good relations between Ukraine and Russia; they are in Ukraine’s interest.  But Moscow has its own interests, which may not always coincide with Kyiv’s.  For example, why—despite the significant improvement in relations over the past half-year—does Russia continue to press so hard to build the South Stream gas pipeline, which will only divert gas that now transits through Ukraine’s pipelines?  It is Ukraine’s choice to make, but more balance would seem a smarter foreign policy than overdependence on a single vector.