Ukraine’s Perilous Balancing Act

Steven Pifer


Since Ukraine regained its independence in 1991, the primary foreign policy challenge confronting policy makers in Kiev has been to strike the proper balance between Ukraine’s relations with the West and its relations with Russia. Ukrainian presidents over the past 20 years have structured this balance with the purpose of fixing Ukraine’s identity on the European map, ensuring that Ukraine does not end up as a borderland between an enlarging Europe and a recalcitrant Russia, and gaining greater freedom of maneuver vis-à-vis Moscow. Such a balance has generally served Ukraine well, but maintaining it has always been tricky.

It is becoming even trickier in 2012. President Viktor Yanukovych, who took office in 2010, has overseen a democratic regression in Ukraine that complicates his effort to keep a balance between relations with the West and with Russia. His domestic political agenda, driven by tactical goals and personal animus toward his rival, former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, is hindering achievement of his professed strategic goal of drawing Ukraine closer to the European Union. And this comes at a time when Europe and the United States are preoccupied with other questions and have less time and patience for Kiev.

Yanukovych is playing a geopolitical game in which he appears to assume that the West, and the EU in particular, will overlook his democratic backsliding and embrace Ukraine. This miscalculation risks throwing Ukraine’s foreign policy out of balance. It could gravely undermine Kiev’s bargaining position in dealing with a Russia that is prepared to play hardball with its Ukrainian neighbor.

The Overbearing Neighbor

Russia has been, is, and will remain a major factor in Kiev’s foreign policy calculus—as well as a player affecting that calculus. It could hardly be otherwise given Russia’s size and geographic proximity, the historical and cultural links between the two countries, and the economic ties that linger even two decades after the end of the Soviet command economy. Still, as those two decades have shown, Russia can be an overbearing neighbor. Most Ukrainian strategists thus have concluded that Kiev requires strong relations with the West as a counterweight. Moreover, the democratic values and prosperity enjoyed by the EU have long attracted many Ukrainians.

Since the Soviet Union formally disbanded in December 1991, the Russian government has sought to maintain significant influence in the post-Soviet space, in part through the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). Newly independent Ukraine’s first president, Leonid Kravchuk, adopted a cautious approach toward the CIS, concerned that Russia would use it to undercut Ukraine’s sovereignty. He moved quickly in 1992, for example, to assert control over the armed forces on Ukrainian territory rather than leaving them under a CIS command structure dominated by Moscow.

At the same time, Kravchuk strove to fix a Ukrainian identity within Europe and gain freedom of maneuver in dealing with the Russians. He launched an effort to build links to institutions such as the EU and NATO, as well as strong bilateral relationships with the United States and key European states. In 1994, Ukraine began negotiating an EU partnership and cooperation agreement and became the first post-Soviet state to join NATO’s newly announced Partnership for Peace program.