An early December visit to Kyiv produced a glum picture of the challenges that confront Ukrainian foreign policy as 2012 draws near. For most of the 20 years since regaining independence, Ukraine’s leaders have sought to maintain a balance between relations with the West and relations with Russia. That policy has generally served the country well. Many in Kyiv now fear that that balance is about to come undone—with severe consequences for Ukraine.
The balance is in danger because Ukraine’s relations with Europe and the United States verge on a downturn. That results from a combination of developments in Ukraine, Europe and the United States.
Within Ukraine, the tenure of Victor Yanukovych as president has seen a marked democratic regression. The October 2010 local elections, activities by the Security Service of Ukraine and arrests of senior opposition leaders, among other things, have raised broad concerns in the West. Ukraine—the first post-Soviet state other than a Baltic country to win a Freedom House rating of “free”—earlier this year became the first post-Soviet state to lose that rating.
The West has focused recently on the trial, conviction and jailing of opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko. While many earlier this fall expected Yanukovych to heed European concerns and find a face-saving way to release her, the prevailing view now is that she will remain in prison, especially as the authorities have announced a stream of new charges against her. That will play badly in the West. Indeed, it should worry official Kyiv that the joint statement issued following the November 28 EU-U.S. summit meeting lumped Ukraine in the same paragraph as Belarus.
More broadly, the European Union finds itself preoccupied with the eurozone crisis at a time when a number of EU states, such as Germany, believe that EU enlargement has gone too far, too fast. They question how deeply the European Union should engage with Ukraine. Tymoshenko’s treatment and the broader democratic backslide strengthen those countries’ arguments for taking a cooler approach toward Kyiv. While the planned December 19 EU-Ukraine summit may proceed as scheduled, EU officials are considering ways to make clear their displeasure over Tymoshenko’s treatment.
In Washington, Ukraine barely registers on the radar. The crush of other foreign policy priorities—Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran and the pivot toward Asia—explain part of this, and U.S. officials had seen the EU-Ukraine relationship as the best ticket for integrating Ukraine into Europe. Washington will not engage at a senior level absent improvement in the democratic situation there. Among other reasons, with the 2012 election campaign looming, why would the president or vice president want to expose himself to the certain Republican criticism that a meeting with Yanukovych would produce?
All this means that Ukraine’s relations with the West are trending in a negative direction, which will throw the balance between the West and Russia off kilter. Unfortunately for Kyiv, that comes at a time when it will face pressure from Russia.
Yanukovych came to office believing that Ukraine should improve its relations with Russia, and he tried hard in 2010 to address Moscow’s concerns. But senior Ukrainians believe that the Russians have not reciprocated, and difficult issues remain on the bilateral agenda.
Take natural gas, for example. Kyiv seeks to negotiate a reduction in the price it pays Russia’s Gazprom for gas, fearing that price increases in 2012 will hit Ukrainian industry hard. Why Gazprom would agree to cut the price is unclear—unless a price cut could secure a share, perhaps a controlling share, in ownership of the Ukrainian gas pipeline system that Gazprom covets. At the same time, the Russians remain interested in building the South Stream pipeline under the Black Sea, which would divert much of the gas that Russia now transits through Ukraine.
Vladimir Putin, who will return next spring to the Russian presidency, last month sketched out his vision of a Eurasian Union. What such an institution might actually mean in practice remains to be seen, but it certainly suggests that Moscow continues to seek ways to increase influence over its neighbors. Putin stayed fully engaged on foreign policy issues as prime minister, so his resumption of the presidency may not mean strategic changes in Russia’s foreign course, but his style as president will likely entail more hardball politics. That will prove a challenge for Yanukovych.
The bottom line is that, absent a change in its domestic policies, Ukraine’s leadership will find itself having to deal with Moscow with a weakened hand owing to its flagging relationship with the West. The Russians see that and undoubtedly will seek to take full advantage. No wonder that Ukrainian foreign policy officials look forward to 2012 with trepidation. They face a tough year.