Western diplomats in Kyiv believe that Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych attaches strategic priority to bringing Ukraine closer to Europe, particularly the European Union.

But Ukraine continues to backslide on democracy questions. Can the country move closer to Europe at the same time that it moves away from European values?

Yanukovych took office in early 2010 after defeating former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko in a hotly-contested presidential ballot. At the time, many in Ukraine and the West worried that the supposedly “pro-Russian” Yanukovych would turn Kyiv back toward Moscow. In fact, he has pursued a far more nuanced foreign policy.

True, the president extended the stay of the Russian Black Sea Fleet in Crimea and ruled out pursuing membership in the NATO military alliance.

He has made clear, however, his goal of concluding a free trade arrangement with the European Union while fending off Moscow’s persistent entreaties to join a customs union with Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan. Military cooperation with NATO continues, as evidenced by the June Sea Breeze exercise.

Yanukovych’s foreign policy goals appear logical. A free trade arrangement with the European Union would open the door for Ukrainian exporters to the world’s richest common market. Practical cooperation with NATO deepens Kyiv’s link with the leading Euro-Atlantic institution, even if Ukraine does not seek to join.

Meanwhile, Ukrainian and Russian interests do not always align. They bicker over the price of natural gas – a “zero-sum” game, as any price cut for Kyiv would mean lower revenues for Russian gas giant Gazprom. Moscow has stuck with its plan to build the South Stream gas pipeline under the Black Sea even though there is no new gas to fill it; if South Stream is ever built, it will take gas that would otherwise transit Ukraine.

Deeper relations with Europe and the West make sense in their own right for Ukraine, and they will strengthen Yanukovych’s hand in dealing with Moscow on problem issues. But how far can he develop those relations when he is increasingly viewed in the West as instilling a more authoritarian political system at home?

During Viktor Yushchenko’s presidency following the Orange Revolution, Ukraine’s executive branch missed opportunities and showed itself to be chaotic and often incoherent. But it was democratic.

Over the past months, American and European officials have joined independent observers and Yanukovych’s domestic critics in voicing concern about his retreat from democratic norms.

There is little doubt that the space for the independent media has become more constricted and civil society has come under pressure.

The Security Service of Ukraine operates domestically in a manner more reminiscent of the KGB than of a modern European security agency. Questions are growing about whether next year’s parliamentary elections will be free and fair – or rigged.

The ongoing trial of Tymoshenko has degenerated into farce. One can certainly question – as many have – the terms and wisdom of the deal that she struck with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to end their January 2009 gas spat. But that hardly makes for a criminal matter. The virtually unanimous view in the West is that the trial represents nothing more than a politically-motivated attempt to sideline the opposition leader.

All this will hinder Yanukovych’s foreign policy goals. The European Union is not just a trade bloc; it is based on shared values. Continued democratic backsliding will grow the gap rather than build bridges between Kyiv and Europe. Will senior European leaders want to meet with a Ukrainian leader whose domestic policies appear to have less and less in common with those of an aspiring EU state?

Those policies have already reduced to near zero the prospects of an invitation for Yanukovych to visit Washington. Some Ukraine watchers have suggested that Brussels should slow the conclusion of an association agreement and free trade arrangement.

Others ask whether it is time to apply visa sanctions against selected Ukrainian officials. Adoption of such measures now would be premature, but the fact that they have been raised should worry Yanukovych.

Such ideas will gain traction if Kyiv continues its current domestic course.
Senior Western officials reportedly have been very direct in cautioning the Ukrainian president that democratic backsliding will have consequences for his foreign relations, including for direct high-level engagement.

He should take the message to heart. If not, he could find Ukraine’s relations with the West sinking, his hope of drawing closer to the European Union fading, and himself an increasingly lonely player on the world stage.