In the Russian language, Ukraine has two meanings: one, the country of 43 million people that lies on the north coast of the Black Sea, and two, “on the border” or “borderland.” For most of the past 20 years, Kiev’s foreign policy aimed, and largely managed, to fix on Europe’s geopolitical map the first meaning rather than the second. Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich is now undoing that.
Ukraine became independent in 1991. In 1994, as Washington contemplated the enlargement of NATO, Boris Tarasyuk, Ukraine’s deputy foreign minister, met Strobe Talbott, the U.S. deputy secretary of state. Tarasyuk noted that NATO’s enlargement to include states such as Poland and Hungary would prompt a negative reaction from Moscow — and also raise a dilemma for Kiev: how could Ukraine avoid becoming a gray zone of insecurity, or a borderland, between an enlarged NATO and Russia?
Talbott agreed that the Ukrainians deserved a good answer to the question, and finding one became a priority task for the Clinton administration’s Europe policymakers. Washington moved to expand its bilateral relationship with Ukraine, establishing in 1996 a strategic partnership and a bilateral commission chaired by Vice President Al Gore and President Leonid Kuchma of Ukraine. One year later, NATO and Ukraine agreed to a distinctive partnership and set up the NATO-Ukraine Council to promote stronger links between Kiev and the alliance.
The goal was straightforward: to deepen ties between the West and Ukraine and thereby reassure Kiev that it would not find itself an isolated borderland as the enlargement of NATO and the European Union transformed Europe’s geopolitical landscape. In 2002, Kiev adopted the goal of joining NATO. While Ukraine’s relations with the European Union developed more slowly, they also acquired greater breadth and depth.
Following the 2004 Orange Revolution, Viktor Yushchenko made joining the Euro-Atlantic community his primary foreign policy objective and sought a membership action plan with NATO. He was considerably ahead of the Ukrainian public on the question of NATO membership, though Ukrainians strongly supported closer EU links. More critically, Yushchenko failed to address his country’s key domestic problems. A disillusioned Ukrainian electorate turned to Yanukovich in 2010.
On assuming office, Yanukovich stated that his first foreign policy priority would be to repair a badly frayed relationship with Moscow. He also made clear that Ukraine would balance its relationships with Russia and the West. He stressed the importance of deepening Ukraine’s integration with the European Union, most immediately through the negotiation of an association agreement and comprehensive free trade arrangement.
He regularly brushed aside Moscow’s entreaties to join a customs union with Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus. While some in the West regretted that Kiev no longer sought to join NATO, a closer Ukraine-EU relationship seemed a good answer to the question that Tarasyuk posed in 1994 about keeping Ukraine from becoming a borderland.
This is now in danger. The democratic backsliding that has occurred under Yanukovich, recently epitomized by the trial of opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko, threatens Ukraine’s links with the West.
EU officials have canceled one planned Yanukovich visit to Brussels. While negotiation of the association and free trade agreements may continue, their completion is in jeopardy. Parliamentarians from EU states say the agreements have zero chance of ratification as long as Tymoshenko remains in prison. As the European Union grapples with the euro-zone crisis, Yanukovich’s democratic backslide offers those Europeans who always were skeptical about EU engagement with Kiev a handy excuse to oppose it. In parallel, Ukraine’s relations with individual Western countries seem headed for a freeze, as Yanukovich is increasingly viewed as another Aleksandr Lukashenko — the Belarus strongman — rather than an aspiring EU leader.
Yanukovich seems to recognize the risks of isolation, especially for his dealings with the Kremlin. Ukrainians voice frustration that although Kiev in 2010 acted to address major Russian concerns, Moscow has done little on issues of importance to Ukraine. The Russian government, for example, continues to pursue a natural gas pipeline under the Black Sea that would take gas that now travels through Ukraine. The deterioration of Ukraine’s relations with the West will likely embolden Moscow to press Kiev harder.
Thus, on its current course, Yanukovich’s domestic repression will leave Ukraine precisely where it did not want to be: in a gray zone between Europe and Russia. Yanukovich may not intend this, but that does not matter. He is making Ukraine into the borderland it had long sought to avoid.