Ukraine: Waiting for Donald, worrying about the EU

Ukraine's prospects are under threat from developments on both sides of the Atlantic.

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Something is stirring in Ukraine. The most obvious cause is Donald Trump’s imminent inauguration on 20 January, and the widespread fear in Kyiv that his push for some kind of Yalta 2.0 agreement with Russia will be at Ukraine’s expense.

But another parallel cause is the fear that the European Union is losing interest in Ukraine. After Dutch voters rejected the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement at a referendum in April 2016 (though many were really voting about the Netherlands and Europe), the price of bringing the Dutch government into line was high. In fact, it took a triple reassurance just to get PM Mark Rutte to take the issue back to parliament for a vote to overturn the referendum result. 

Those reassurances came in the European Council’s resolution of 15 December, which declares that ‘the Agreement does not confer on Ukraine the status of a candidate country for accession to the Union, nor does it constitute a commitment to confer such status to Ukraine in the future’. Furthermore, it ‘does not contain an obligation for the Union or its Member States to provide collective security guarantees or other military aid or assistance to Ukraine’. And finally, it ‘does not grant to Ukrainian nationals… the right to reside and work freely within the territory of the Member States’. While this resolution does not roll back existing, modest, European commitments to Ukraine, it was interpreted as a major setback in Kyiv.

Partly as a result, disillusion with the EU in Ukraine is spreading from the margins to the mainstream. Support for ‘entry into the EU’ is still holding up as the most popular foreign policy option, at 49 percent as of September 2016, not too far down from a peak of 55 per cent in December 2015.But the image of an EU racked by crises and too preoccupied to care about Ukraine is chipping away at this plurality, as seen by the growing popularity of the ‘Eurorealism’ trope (as in, ‘Let’s be realistic, our prospects are not good’).

This view is both real and promoted by Russian stooges like the Opposition Bloc and fake ‘think-tanks’ like the Ukrainian Policy Fund. With the war in eastern Ukraine bogged down, Russia has shifted its attention and resources to winning the battle for hearts and minds. Fake letters from ‘ordinary’ Ukrainians and workers are launched online or in social media, and then fed into friendly traditional media controlled by local oligarchs. This multifaceted anti-EU campaign, including a big drive to restore the ‘normal’ levels of Ukrainian-Russian trade that Russia has been busily destroying these last three years, will only grow in the short term, as Russia switches from anti-US propaganda as it sees how its relationship with Trump pans out. 

‘Ukrainian Eurointegration’: The Ukrainians are barred entry to the locked doors of the ‘EC’(EU).

Whatever the cause, a series of commentaries and op-eds appeared over the holiday period airing previously heretical thoughts. Most controversial was the piece by leading oligarch Viktor Pinchuk in the Wall Street Journal on 29 December that recommended trading Crimea for peace in the Donbas and abandoning aspirations towards NATO and the EU. President Petro Poroshenko’s adviser Kostiantyn Yeliseyev produced a rejoinder in the Wall Street Journal on 4 January; Poroshenko also reportedly will not attend the traditional Ukraine event organised by Pinchuk in Davos. A collection of other rebuttals can be found here. But others have joined in on Pinchuk’s side, or close to it; some objecting to Pinchuk wanting to give away everything at once, others claiming that there was nothing heretical or treasonous about specific proposals, such as Vasyl Pilipchuk, head of the International Centre for Prospective Research, who argued for a 20-year moratorium on the status of Crimea, for Ukraine to stop ‘beating on the closed door’ of the EU, and even for a restoration of military and technical co-operation with Russia.

Another Ukrainian oligarch, Dmytro Firtash, currently still facing legal problems in Austria, has made similar noises to Pinchuk about reviving trade with Russia. Both men have a personal interest in their companies regaining access to Russian markets. But the campaign also anticipates and feeds a Trumpist agenda, when Ukrainians are profoundly split about how to approach his presidency after Trump’s string of pro-Russian comments and gaffes during the campaign. 

The first thing Kyiv did after Trump’s victory was quietly to drop the local investigation against his former campaign chief Paul Manafort, who also worked for exiled Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych. A second gambit was to build bridges with the ‘traditional’ Republican Party. On a visit to Kyiv in December, three United States senators, John McCain (R-Arizona) and Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina), together with Amy Klobuchar(D-Minnesota) promised that the US would not abandon Ukraine, and proposed even tougher sanctions on Russia. The group followed up once they were back home by launching a bipartisan bill in January that would toughen up Barack Obama’s belated reactions to Russian interference in the US election campaign, and encode some of his executive orders on financial support for Ukraine in law, making them more difficult for Trump to overturn. McCain, Graham and Klobuchar also visited Georgia and the Baltic States as part of their ‘reassurance tour’. But given McCain’s role in publicising accusations about Trump’s long-standing Russia links, the action may backfire. There were, hopefully exaggerated, claims that the damage to Ukraine-Trump relations had already been done.

Other Ukrainians have proposed aligning with Trump’s business instincts rather than confront his agenda head on, and the dilemma of whether to bandwagon with Trump or pre-empt his policies will only sharpen after the inauguration. According to Catherine Smagliy, who runs the Kennan Institute’s Kyiv office, Ukraine must ‘move away from the image of the victim, and focus on the development of economic and cultural cooperation. Don’t forget that the president is a representative of businesses, big business’, for which there could be big opportunities in Ukrainian industry, construction and agriculture.

Oleksandr Sushko of the Institute of Euro-Atlantic Partnership talks in a similar vein: ‘it is clear that we cannot carry on in the same rut. We need to propose new approaches, be more pragmatic. To explain and motivate the American side not only by Ukraine’s ability to confront Russia, but also by our ability to create an attractive investment climate, to become interesting for US investors. ’Significantly, not only has Kyiv announced a deal with the traditional Republican lobby group BGR, led by the former Republican Party leader and governor of Mississippi, Haley Barbour, to lobby Ukraine’s line in Washington; but BGR’s brief includes ‘strengthening US-Ukrainian relations and increasing US business investment in Ukraine’. This is the kind of language that Kyiv hopes that Trump will understand. 

But Ukraine will have to redouble its effort after Trump’s inauguration, if it is not to be left out in the cold. There is much more that Ukraine can do in a practical vein. Some optimists have even argued that Trump is an opportunity for Ukraine, to show that it is not dependent on external sponsors and can get its act together on reform. Most obviously, Ukraine can advertise its high defence spending to show its value-added in a Trumpist world (Ukraine has been spending 5 percent of GDP on defence since 2014, plus huge contributions from the voluntary sector).

Some have argued that ‘Ukraine itself should create defences strong enough to make large-scale war inconvenient and very costly for Russia’, hoping that even Trump might be swayed by global opinion if Russia crosses that threshold. But Ukraine cannot defend itself alone. NATO membership prospects were already distant and will recede further under Trump, although public support stands at 39 percent. There will therefore be a growing trend towards alternative ideas, such as building a Baltic-Black Sea Alliance of local states uncomfortable with Russian pressures.

This concept was originally launched by (mainly) Ukrainian and Polish thinkers in the interwar period, and was briefly popular again the 1990s before Ukraine’s would-be partners found a more direct route to NATO. Now it is revving up again, albeit in different forms. Poland’s new authorities emphasise building links in the mińôdzymorze (‘between the seas’), also now called the ‘ABC’ region (the triangle between the Adriatic, Baltic and ‘Czarne’, or Black, Sea). As a lesser alternative, there will be growing talk on both sides to allow for flexible partnerships across NATO boundaries – particularly between central European and Baltic NATO member states and east European partner states like Ukraine.

And then there is the EU, where Ukraine faces another difficult year in 2017. Potentially traumatic elections, ripe for Russian interference, in the Netherlands, France and Germany (plus possibly Italy and even the United Kingdom), will see continued obsession with migration from the Middle East and North Africa unfairly tainting Ukraine, too. As EU bureaucrats work on yet another reworking of the Eastern Neighbourhood Policy, Ukraine needs to show that the new Brussels buzzword of ‘stabilisation’ is not an alternative to reform. If Ukraine remains unreformed, it will remain unstable. 

Just as a ‘Yalta 2.0’ between Trump and Vladimir Putin will not enforce stability over the heads of small states, internal opposition from those Ukrainians who violently oppose it will increase. (We do not know the details of any putative deal, but the most likely elements –any deal on Crimea, any reduction of sanctions on Russia, any attempt to force Ukraine to make constitutional accommodations with the Donbas ‘Republics’ – will be bitterly opposed in Ukraine). 

Dealing with the EU will be completely different to dealing with Trump, however. Instead of talking business and realpolitik, Ukraine will need to get serious about tackling corruption and advertise some big reform success stories in the coming year if it is to improve relations with the EU. This may not be the top item on Trump’s agenda, but European public opinion cares more about whether Ukraine is worth saving; and Kyiv needs to do much more to make a convincing case in this respect. 

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


Senior Policy Fellow

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