Ukraine is still being referred to as a country “between Europe and Russia” not only in ordinary public discourse and media, but by top officials and diplomats in the United States, the European Union and Russia, first and foremost, as well as in Ukraine itself. Why there is such an “in-betweenness”, two decades after the end of the Cold War?
In her opening remarks to the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations hearings on Ukraine on February 1st 2012, labelled “Ukraine at a Crossroads: What’s at Stake for the US and Europe?”, the US Senator for New Hampshire, Jeanne Shaheen, introduced Ukraine as one of the largest and most strategically located countries on the European continent, literally and figuratively lying “at the crossroads between Europe and Russia”. In a similar vein, she was followed with a testimony by Steven Pifer from the Brookings Institution, in Washington DC, criticising President Viktor Yanukovych’s domestic policies for seriously undermining Ukraine’s ability to balance its relationship “between the West and Russia”.
Balance or buffer zone?
“With weaker relations with the West,” Pifer argues, “Kyiv will find that it has less room for manoeuvre in its dealings with Moscow.” By stating that the overall goal of US and EU policy should be to face Yanukovych with the choice as clearly as possible and to crystallize the choice in his mind, Pifer strictly juxtaposes Ukraine’s friendlier and stronger relationship with what he calls “the West” on the one hand, and closer ties with Russia on the other hand. One could easily continue to enumerate examples where the US has posited that Ukraine has to balance its relations with East and West in terms of foreign and security policy. Considering such a black-and-white dichotomy, it is understandable why Ukraine is often denominated as a “grey zone” or “buffer zone”, and why Kanwal Sibal, an Indian diplomat and the first grand doctor of philosophy in India, might be right when he argued at the Kyiv Security Forum on April 20th 2012, that it will take a long time for the multi-polar world to become a reality.
The question is why buffer zones like Ukraine, keeping a safe distance between allegedly former enemies, have not disappeared since the fall of the Iron Curtain. One can agree with Steven Pifer that Ukrainian presidents and their administrations “have generally sought a balance in their foreign policy relationships between the West and Russia”. The balancing has been a common bone of content in mutual “West-Ukraine-Russia” relations. But one should also ask oneself whether the Ukraine has ever had another option but to balance and make such choices.
Who and why has nourished the realistic vision of the necessity to choose between the East and West? It is not just the United States. Politicians and commentators from all around the world continue to vehemently use the term “West” in their public appearances and keep the East-West dichotomy or some kind of “a neo-Cold War mythology” alive by referring to it directly or indirectly in international official and public discourse, ordinarily translated into concrete actions. Despite occasional showcases of US-Russia and EU-Russia reconciliation and attempts to build “strategic partnerships”, crucial decisions like voting on the UN Security Council resolutions and other important international moves such as building regional alliances have mostly reflected the traditional cleavage, with both sides are well aware of it. Behaviour of power hubs in the current EU’s Eastern neighbourhood in the realm of foreign and security policy, including energy security issues, is just one example.
On the one hand, the EU and Russia declare and make some steps to bind Ukraine closer to them (which tells us something about the genuineness of their growing together). On the other hand, neither of them is eager enough to solve the country’s integration impasse and neither the Euro-Atlantic community, nor Russia seems to have bothered the status-quo too much. On some occasions, their interaction inappropriately bypasses Ukraine. For instance, in relation to Russia’s pressure on Ukraine concerning the gas market and trade, Ukraine’s hopes of being supported by the EU-established and promoted Energy Community (of which Ukraine has become a full-fledged member) in negotiations with Moscow has not met with reality. What's more, Russian alternative pipeline projects (South Stream and Nord Stream), backed by some political figures from the Energy Community member states, diminish the importance of Ukraine as an important energy transit country.
Two decades after the end of the Cold War, the choice Ukraine faces should not be posed as “between Europe and Russia” or “between the West and Russia”, in other words, between the Euro-Atlantic integration structures and counter-structures driven by Russia. After all, “[i]n many respects, this is a false choice”. However, for Ukraine not to choose and stay in-between with respect to the foreign, security and defence policy and alliances – the way Ukraine pursues through declaring a so-called “non-block status” of the country – is not only less meaningful but, taking into account the neo-Cold War hints, coming to terms with being “a buffer zone” for an infinite time might, in fact, be more dangerous.
The country insecure(d)
In summer 2010, Verkhovna Rada (Ukraine’s parliament) officially abandoned the country’s aspirations to join NATO, in a move connected to the adoption of the law on fundamentals of Ukraine’s domestic and foreign policy by Yanukovych’s administration. According to the law, Ukraine is claimed to be a European “non-bloc” (“non-aligned”) state, being interested in the continuation of a constructive co-operation with NATO rather than in membership. There have been numerous discussions on what this non-alignment means. I dare to claim that first and foremost, it is a rhetorical construct to avoid irritating NATO and Russia. Despite some Ukrainians’ (not only politicians’) wishful thinking, in no way does it imply neutrality of the country. Decision-makers have often behaved as if they were preparing to be integrated with “the West” and Russia at the same time, depending on the issue under discussion; they have checked what both sides are doing and reacted accordingly. By doing so, have they not themselves disproved the viability of their construct?
Another thing is, as one NATO official pointed out, if the non-bloc status meant neutrality, Ukraine should be prepared to defend itself alone. But “non-bloc status or neutrality is costly” and Ukraine cannot afford it – not only because of finances, but due to the geopolitics which (especially the incumbent) Ukrainian elites, strikingly enough, sometimes formulate as their device rather than a setback.
In other words, as Nicu Popescu stated at the Kyiv Security Forum, the Ukrainian government poses itself as being of crucial importance for all regional power hubs and expects them to “pay” for winning Ukraine’s favour. They tend to proudly overemphasize the geopolitical significance of the country and deem that Ukraine can live like Austria or Switzerland which are deep inside Europe and not on its outskirts. The question posed by the Ambassador and long-standing, continuously pro-EU figure in Ukrainian politics, Mr Tarasyuk, is thus very pertinent in this respect: “How can Ukraine, in a non-bloc manner, [and constrained in terms of hard security] resist the growing global challenges…?”
Despite official declarations that Yanukovych has made in terms of EU integration as a main objective of Ukraine’s foreign policy, the security guarantees provided by EU integration, or in the case of Ukraine, closer economic and political association with the EU, are primarily of a soft nature: strong interdependence, unshakeable respect for the rule of law, mutual trust and intensive co-operation, sharing, adherence to common rules, norms and values of democracy and free market economy, and a good portion of negotiation skills and diplomacy, above all that.
Diplomacy, or lack of it
Ukraine hardly falls into these categories. In fact, it faces substantial difficulties to go along EU-performed lines. There is an essential problem in Ukraine even with the last category – diplomacy – which could be nourished well, irrespective of the extent of association with the EU. The very basic of diplomacy is communication and generally, Yanukovych’s administration is somehow not capable of communicating properly. Ukrainian elites refuse to communicate and expose themselves to questions, open discussions and potential critical remarks, not only by individuals such as analysts and scholars from abroad but also to domestic interlocutors at lower levels of politico-societal hierarchies. With a few exceptions, they usually avoid making their contact details public or offering them personally. At the moment, Ukrainian diplomacy adhering to governmental structures is a master in showing disrespect to others.
A recent vivid example is the 5th Kyiv Security Forum in April 2012. Bernard Kouchner, Karel Schwarzenberg, Nicu Popescu, Kanwal Sibal and others from all around the world managed to come to Kyiv to discuss Ukraine’s state of affairs in an international context, but the incumbent Ukrainian officials who were meant to speak somehow did not. The Kyiv Security Forum thus went without “official Kyiv”. One can also recall numerous occasions where Ukraine’s state “cream of the crop” representatives have appeared, made statements, held dialogue with Brussels, Moscow and other capitals, but have caused outrage through their performance.
Paradoxically, it is Ukraine where such diplomacy aspires to manage the country’s impasse and guarantee its security with its skills alone.
Veronika Pulišová is a research assistant and PhD student at the Institute of European Studies and International Relations, Comenius University in Bratislava.
The author’s work has been supported by the Ryoichi Sasakawa Young Leaders Fellowship Fund (SYLFF). She would also like to thank to Ms. Iryna Bochar and the Open Ukraine Foundation for inviting her to the 5th Kyiv Security Forum.