Grey zone politics: Why Ukraine needs creative international cooperation

With the EU, NATO, and their member states preoccupied with domestic challenges, Ukraine and its international partners need new ways to support the country’s security, resilience, and growth.  

Since the outbreak of the coronavirus, world politics has become more complicated with every passing week – especially for countries that are not yet firmly embedded into international security organisations. For states such as Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova, the geopolitical environment looks set to become even more challenging as 2020 wears on. Ukraine’s prospects for achieving its two major foreign policy goals – membership of NATO and accession to the European Union – have become more problematic during the crisis.

Following both the 2004 Orange Revolution and the 2014 Euromaidan Revolution, Brussels repeatedly disappointed Ukraine’s political and intellectual elites. In the wake of the Revolution of Dignity (as the Euromaidan uprising is known in Ukraine), the EU concluded a far-reaching Association Agreement with the country but did not formally abandon its noncommittal position on Ukrainian membership of the bloc. To be sure, the European Parliament has repeatedly called for a membership perspective for Ukraine – and neither the European Council nor the European Commission has explicitly ruled this out. Yet, the unusually far-reaching Association Agreements signed by Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova include no references to the option of EU membership.

It is true that Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova are far from achieving the governance standards required for EU accession. However, several countries in the Western Balkans have an official membership perspective despite being in a similar position to Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia in this area. The three Eastern Partnership countries continue to be hampered by their inability to move beyond a post-Soviet oligarchic form of governance. Nonetheless, this is not the main reason for Brussels’s stubborn non-commitment. Instead, the lack of a long-term strategy, an absence of political will, and excessive fear of Russia seem to be the critical factors that have prevented the Council and the Commission from formulating clear language on the possibility of Ukrainian, Georgian, or Moldovan accession.

The rising number of domestic issues in members of NATO and EU, as well as mounting tension within international organisations, are bad news for aspiring applicants. With the partial exception of Serbia, NATO and EU enlargement in the Western Balkans may still continue more or less unhindered – as North Macedonia’s recent accession to the alliance illustrated. Yet this is because the former Yugoslav republics and Albania are already partly members of, or surrounded by members of, NATO and the EU. As such, these nations’ successes in Western integration may have few benefits for Ukraine, Georgia, or Moldova – even though their failures could have negative repercussions for the membership prospects of all former communist countries that are not yet in the accession process.

Kyiv, Tbilisi, and Chisinau need to rethink the substance and implementation of their short- and medium-term foreign policy priorities

All this means that Kyiv, Tbilisi, and Chisinau need to rethink the substance and implementation of their short- and medium-term foreign policy priorities. They will certainly continue to view and work towards EU and NATO membership as their top aims. But they should consider the possibility that, in view of growing geopolitical instability, these goals may only be achievable in the long term. Kyiv, Tbilisi, and Chisinau should prepare for a prolonged period in a grey zone – an area outside international security organisations in which they are deprived of full Western integration.

The most obvious interim solution for Ukraine is to quickly strengthen its bilateral ties with countries that have, or may soon have, broadly pro-Ukrainian leaderships. Thus, Kyiv could seek to upgrade the little-known 2008 Charter on Strategic Partnership between Ukraine and the United States. In doing so, Kyiv could emphasise the respect for Ukraine’s borders, sovereignty, and integrity that the US famously expressed in the 1994 Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances (signed in connection Ukrainian accession to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons). Washington and Kyiv could update the 2008 charter to set out US security guarantees for Ukraine (until it accedes to NATO) that are clearer than those in the Budapest Memorandum, as well as a new package of security cooperation measures.

Such an upgrade of the charter would constitute a de facto or de jure new agreement between Ukraine and the US. Ideally, this pact would contain provisions approaching those of the 1953 Mutual Defense Treaty between the US and South Korea, or security guarantees similar to those Washington has given to other close non-NATO allies around the world.

Another strategy for Georgia and Ukraine as NATO applicants – and, perhaps, for Azerbaijan and Moldova, which have no ambition to join the alliance – would be to persuade Washington to increase its support for the Organisation for Democracy and Economic Development (GUAM), a grouping the four countries founded in 1997. They might even persuade Washington to create with them the equivalent of the Baltic Charter, which the US founded in 1998 with Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania – or the Adriatic Charter, which it founded in 2003 with Albania, Croatia, and Macedonia. A US-GUAM charter would be another way to upgrade Washington’s bilateral Charters of Strategic Partnership with Kyiv and Tbilisi, providing the four former Soviet republics with, at least, a modicum of international security.

Even before the pandemic, domestic developments in countries such as the United Kingdom, the US, Hungary, and France created uncertainty about the identity and future of NATO and the EU. In these circumstances, the two major Western organisations will become increasingly closed to new applicants. For years to come, efforts to integrate Ukraine into security organisations and the liberal democratic order will have to hit a moving target. Accordingly, Kyiv and its partners will need creativity, resolve, and flexibility in exploring new paths for international cooperation. These could lie in, for instance, existing multilateral formats such as the Three Seas Initiative, or in entirely new regional structures that embrace all of Central Europe.

Pavlo Klimkin is director of the Programme on European, Regional, and Russian Studies at the Ukrainian Institute for the Future in Kyiv. From 2014 to 2019, he was Ukraine’s minister of foreign affairs. Andreas Umland is a non-resident fellow at the Institute of International Relations in Prague, as well as editor of the book series Soviet and Post-Soviet Politics and Society.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


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