Since assuming the presidency in early 2010, Victor Yanukovych has tried to pursue a balance between strengthening Ukraine’s integration with Europe and maintaining a positive relationship with Russia. He has also sought to avoid having to choose between the European Union and Moscow. On one issue, however, he could not avoid a choice: Should Ukraine conclude an association agreement, including a deep and comprehensive free trade arrangement, with the European Union, or should it instead join a customs union with Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan?
Over the past several years, Yanukovych has consistently favored an EU association agreement, and Kyiv very much wants to sign the agreement at a summit meeting scheduled for Vilnius in late-November. The economics behind this choice make sense. Ukraine’s trade with the European Union already exceeds its trade with Russia, and the combined gross domestic product of the European Union is six times that of the Moscow-led customs union.
At the same time, Kyiv has attempted to keep this decision from becoming a geopolitical choice between East and West. It has not succeeded. Moscow sees this issue very much in geopolitical terms and applies a zero-sum calculation. The Kremlin regards Ukraine drawing closer to Europe as amounting to a major loss for Russia, which is striving to rebuild its influence in the post-Soviet space.
[The resignation of assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs Wess Mitchell] is surprising news, which seems to have caught everyone off guard. He doesn’t appear to have shared this news with his ambassadors, who were in Washington last week for a global chiefs of mission conference. His deputy is also slated to retire soon, which raises question of near term leadership on European policy at a time of challenges there.
[Wess] Mitchell was a strong supporter of NATO, particularly in Eastern Europe where he will be sorely missed. His departure comes follows the resignation of senior Pentagon officials – Robert Karem and Tom Goffus – working on NATO along with Secretary Mattis. Without this pro-alliance caucus, NATO is now more vulnerable than at any time since the beginning of the Trump administration.