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ARCHIVES  Danyliw Seminar 2014
Nadiya Kravets
Harvard U, US,































Geopolitics: Ukraine, Russia, EU and the West



The Pro-Europe Turn and the Ukraine-Russia Conflict


Ukraine’s recent seeming oscillation towards integration with the European Union (EU), which was the outcome of the ousting of the Yanukovych government in February 2014, was not met with a tacit acceptance by the Russian government, as it happened in 2004, following the Orange Revolution. Instead, surprisingly to most observers, the Russian leadership reacted by destabilizing and later annexing the Crimean peninsula, and instigating and supporting the insurgency in Donbas. To understand this potentially causal link between Ukraine’s latest pro-European turn and subsequent undeclared war with Russia, one needs to unpack its significance for the Ukrainian and Russian polities, and relations between them.


Over the last two decades Ukraine’s behavior in the international arena has been defined in public and academic discourse as “inconsistent” or “oscillating” policy of “multi-vectorism”, leading one scholar of Ukraine, Paul D’Anieri, to conclude that Ukraine’s foreign behavior was “consistent in its inconsistency”. Ukraine tended to vacillate between greater cooperation with Western institutions frequently resulting in relative confrontation with Russia or, on the contrary, opposition to integration with the West, which translated into greater cooperation with Russia.


This observed oscillation was mainly a result of inconsistent decisions by the Ukrainian leadership, which drastically changed its preferences on many given issues within the span of a year, or two, sending conflicting messages about its foreign policy aims. The sources of these oscillations were mainly domestic as the changing groups of ruling elites attempted to extract political and economic benefits from its Western and Russian partners, while at the same time pursuing integration with the European and international structures, thus arguably democratizing polity and modernizing Ukrainian economy. The decision by the government of Mykola Azarov and President Viktor Yanukovych on November 21, 2013 to halt negotiations over the signing of the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade and the Association Agreements (DCFTA and AA) was part of this pattern. The government’s plan was to receive much needed loans from Russia to finance Ukrainian short-term debt and then go ahead and sign the agreement with the EU in the spring of 2014. The latest pro-European turn was initiated by the protesters on November 21, 2013, demanding the signing of the agreements with the EU and became the cornerstone of the government’s domestic and foreign policy following the ousting of the Yanukovych government and the election of Petro Poroshenko as Ukraine’s President on May 25, 2014.


Prior to the Euromaidan protests, the idea of integration and approximation with the European Union was mainly an elite and bureaucracy-driven process in Ukraine. The majority of the Ukrainian economic and political elites, including during the Yanukovych’s tenure, supported Eurointegration largely instrumentally, as means to modernize Ukraine’s economy and ensure that in the long run their businesses develop and prosper in the European and global free markets. Elite differences on this issue emerged in regards to the pace of the Eurointegration process, not the destination. Even when the Kremlin hardened its position on EU’s “expansion” into the neighborhood and introduced the idea of the Eurasian Union as a competing project, the Ukrainian governing elites continued to try and carve out accommodating stance as observers of the Russia-led Eurasian integration while continuing to pursue the EU. It should be noted here that Ukraine’s European integration is legally rooted in the laws passed by the parliament on July 2, 1993 (On the Main Directions of Ukraine’s Foreign Policy) and July 1, 2010 (On The Principles of Domestic and Foreign Policy). The last law passed under the leadership of Yanukovych, explicitly states that joining the EU is aim of Ukraine’s foreign policy.


Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, EUrointegration and approximation was also, to a large extent, a bureaucracy-driven process, led by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and like-minded mid-level officials in other parts of the cabinet. It has consistently pursued European integration, even when at times the policy was at odds with the stance of the political leadership. The result of this bureaucracy-driven process was weak implementation of the Partnership and Cooperation Agreement and later the Action Plan under the European Neighborhood Policy. The lack of political leadership both, in the executive and in the parliament, which was meant to set the strategy and operationalize the implementation on the level of state agencies, is the main reasons behind the haphazard Euro-integration prior to Maidan. However, it should be noted that substantial progress was done under the premiership of Yulia Tymoshenko and later also under the Presidency of the Viktor Yanukovych.


Political support of Eurointegration under the presidency of Yanukovych and the substantial role his administration played in raising the popular support for the DCFTA and AA is surprising, as he had the option of continuing Ukraine’s “declaratory” integration with the EU. Two factors seem to explain the support of Yanukovych government for EU integration. First, this policy was driven by the economic elites, including key actors and backers of the Party of Regions such as Rinat Akhmetov, whose strategy seems to have been a slow integration with the EU in order to expand markets and profits without loosing existing markets in Russia and the CIS. Second, groups advising Yanukovych on his presidential electoral campaign as well as planning his political future seem to have taken on board the idea that to win the elections and to be reelected for the second term, Yanukovych needed to rely on the younger, pro-European electorate in Ukraine, and signing the DCFTA and AA would be a major coup that would fuel his re-election. Thus, economic and political motivations explain the pro-European turn under Yanukovych’s presidency. The question that emerges then, is why was European integration in popular demand to an extent that it would figure rather prominently in the future electoral calculations of Yanukovych?  


Public attitudes to the European and conversely, Eurasian, integrations has been a point of contention since the first years of Ukraine’s post-Soviet independence. Namely, surveys conducted over this period and especially in the last decade indicate that the majority of Ukrainian public equally supported both integration projects and rejected the zero-sum choice that was presented to them by the EU and Russia. However, the rising pro-European sentiment in the Western and Central Ukraine is probably one of the reasons why the EU has entered Yanukovych’s re-election agenda, especially among the younger population (<40). This dynamic is especially evident looking at the national surveys on the question of the EU over the last decade, specifically in September and November 2014, where Western and Central macro regions of Ukraine would support EU membership in a referendum (75% and 46%, and 66% and 43% respectively). The support for EU membership in these macro regions is to a significant extent driven by the younger population (18-29), while support for the Eurasian Union (and conversely opposition to EU) in Eastern and Southern macro-regions is driven by the older population. It is interesting that the greatest supporters of Maidan throughout the country reflect this regional and generational dynamic. The post-Maidan increase in the overall popular support for Ukraine’s European integration vs. the Eurasian Union is likely the result of the regime repression during the revolutionary events, annexation of Crimea and of the subsequent conflict with Russia over Crimea and Donbas, where the perceived Russian aggression is fueling greater support for the EU and also NATO membership.


The recent pro-Europe turn in Ukraine seems to be qualitatively different from the previous pro-Europe shifts in Ukraine’s foreign policy as the Eurointegration is now substantively driven by the popular preferences. This is also reflected, following the May presidential and October parliamentary elections of 2014, in the increasing political will to implement EU approximation as a way to reform Ukraine and make it possible to apply for membership in the European Union by 2020. Ukraine’s Eurointegration has matured since the early 1990s from being mainly a top-down process to being in equal measure a top-down and a bottom-up policy. Russia’s failure to understand and accept the desire by the Ukrainian elites and much of its population to be part of the EU as a way to live a more prosperous and secure life is the main reason why it reacted so negatively to the attempts by the government of Viktor Yanukovych and Mykola Azarov to sign the DCFTA and AA.


Ukraine’s signing of the DCFTA and AA with the EU became the key point of disagreement between Ukraine-Russia-EU starting 2011-2012 with the return of Vladimir Putin to Russia’s helm and the launching of the Eurasian Union as an alternative economic integration project on the post-Soviet space. The EU’s neighborhood policy became securitized by Russia and no effective mechanism was found between Brussels and Moscow to resolve this zero-sum relationship. Commentators have coalesced around four explanations for why Moscow is reacting to Ukraine’s EU aspirations in such a hostile manner:


  • Geopolitical/security concerns (EU is the first step to NATO)

  • Ideational/neo-imperial explanations (Russia-led Eurasian Union cannot succeed without Ukraine; Ukraine as the birthplace of current Russian national identity)

  • Economic concerns (EU products will flood Russian markets, negatively impacting Russian products) 

  • Domestic political/regime stability calculations (demonstration effect from Ukraine’s EU approximation: political democratization and economic liberalization as a threat to Putin’s regime)

Arguably Maidan has amplified some of these concerns resulting in the annexation of Crimea and inciting and backing the insurgency in the Donbas.  


In conclusion, Ukraine’s recent pro-European turn was not geopolitical, rather meant to improve governance and economic prospects in Ukraine and began before the Maidan, and it is qualitatively different from the previous pro-Europe shifts in Ukraine’s foreign policy orientation. At present Ukraine’s European integration is both a top-down and a bottom-up process, making it more durable and likely that the approximation will be more successful than in the previous periods, potentially leading to the EU membership perspective. The reasons for Russia’s opposition to Ukraine’s EU integration are diverse and seemingly are driven by economic and political considerations. The recent decision by the EU and Ukraine to delay the full implementation of the DCFTA has alleviated the immediacy of the economic concerns, but did not solve the larger political/security dilemma. Currently, discussions are taking place around this problem and the conflict in Donbas and the way in which Russia’s acceptant of Ukraine’s EU choice could be a quid pro quo for neutrality in Ukraine’s security policy.


The issue of Ukraine’s potential NATO membership has been used in the explanations of the Russian leadership for annexation of Russia and implicitly linked to the current negotiations over Donbas. However, it should not be discussed in the context of Ukraine’s recent pro-Europe shift. Although there is a greater consensus among Ukrainian elites about NATO membership being a desirable goal, the geopolitical position of Moscow on this question over the last decade and especially since the Maidan events has taken this question off the government’s agenda.  

Nadiya Kravets
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