The U.S. administration, several EU governments, and the OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe) have described the parliamentary ballot as a step backward for Ukrainian democracy, while U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton urged Kyiv to put an “immediate end” to “the selective prosecution and detention of political opponents.” Having ignored previous admonitions from Washington and Brussels, the Regions government mayinstead seek to tighten the Presidential grip and move Ukraine closer to the Russian and Belarusian political model.
It was hoped that the parliamentary elections, if conducted according to Western standards, would launch a new chapter in Kyiv’s relations with Europe and the U.S., by re-energizing the EU Association Agreement, sealing an enhanced free-trade accord with the Union, raising prospects for the release of International Monetary Fund (IMF) resources, and revamping relations with Washington. Unfortunately, Ukraine now finds itself caught between its own political failings, the EU’s internal preoccupations, and America’s strategic disinterest. With a more alienated West and a diminishing international reputation, Kyiv will have even less leverage to resist Russia's neo-imperial ambitions.
While Ukraine moves closer toward quasi-authoritarianism, the re-election of President Barack Obama will ensure that Kyiv is shifted further to the rear of U.S. foreign policy. In the past four years, Ukraine has slipped from the second tier of U.S. foreign policy priorities into a tertiary sphere of non-urgent international issues. This is partly due to Ukraine’s democratic regression and partly a consequence of America’s relegation of the broader Eastern Europe and former Soviet Union as a lesser geopolitical concern than the Middle East or South Asia and East Asia.
As a by-product of the Obama administration’s “reset” policy toward Moscow, launched in early 2009, Washington curtailed if not completely discarded its campaign to enlarge NATO and secure the post-Soviet neighbourhood within Western structures. This has left the Central and East European states bordering Russia more exposed and vulnerable to Moscow’s pressures and integrationist maneuvers. Whereas a Mitt Romney presidency may have challenged Russia on its regional ambitions and its internal authoritarianism, Obama’s softer approach is likely to continue during his second mandate.
Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, and Georgia are not priority interests for the current American Administration, whether in terms of democratic development, national sovereignty, or their strategic location. The focus has been on establishing a working relationship with Russia in such spheres as arms control, counter-proliferation, and anti-terrorism, even at the cost of neglecting or relegating new or aspiring allies.
The Ukraine-U.S. Strategic Partnership, signed in December 2008 during the waning days of the George W. Bush Administration, was intended to give structure and content to the relationship with Kyiv. However, the Partnership has not been significantly developed by the Obama White House, as there has been little impetus from either side. It was based on the assumption that Kyiv would make strides in strengthening democracy and the rule of law while more effectively preparing the country for eventual NATO accession in line with the final declaration at NATO’s Bucharest Summit in April 2008.
However, the “common values and interests” that the Partnership envisaged seem to be evaporating, with both Ukraine and the U.S. veering away from each other. Ukraine’s “values” have not included democratic development, while its strategic interests have diverged from the Euro-Atlantic path. It is difficult for the U.S. or any other country to defend Ukraine’s sovereignty if the government has chosen to expose itself more extensively to Russia’s pressure tactics because of its alienation from the West.
Since the Yanukovych administration took office in 2010, several meetings of the Ukraine-U.S. Strategic Partnership Commission have taken place, and three new groups were formed to focus on peaceful nuclear energy development, political dialogue and the rule of law, and science and technology. Although some high-level meetings have been staged, there is growing uncertainty whether these will continue and if the Partnership will have any durable impact.
Despite these setbacks, not everything is necessarily lost. If the Ukrainian authorities are serious about upholding the country’s sovereignty and maintaining their freedom of choice in international allegiances then more work must be done to develop the Partnership with America. In a recent report sponsored by the U.S.-Ukraine Foundation in Washington, leading American policy analysts listed a range of constructive initiatives for Kyiv. For instance, it can make better use of U.S. technical assistance in implementing defense reforms. It can also improve the business climate to attract American investment, including in key economic sectors such as high-tech industries, aircraft construction, hydrocarbon and nuclear energy, energy efficiency, alternative sources of energy, and agriculture.
A number of economic agreements can also be concluded by both partners, such as broadening the assortment of Ukrainian exports on the U.S. market; minimizing trade barriers; and further liberalizing the bilateral trade regime through conclusion of a Ukraine-U.S. free trade agreement. Washington can also increase technical assistance to help Kyiv attract foreign investment to develop Ukraine’s natural gas sources and thereby reduce its dependence on imported energy which comes at a political price.
The U.S. government can also intensify its efforts to develop the Ukraine-NATO dialogue. But a much more difficult decision for Washington in the aftermath of the Ukrainian elections is whether to urge the EU to proceed with an early signature and ratification of the Association Agreement and Free Trade accord. The administration will need to consult closely with Brussels, as it will not want to be out of step with its European partners.
Ukraine’s decision on its “non-bloc status” means that the authorities no longer aspire to join the Alliance or envisage closer integration with NATO. Although the rationale for neutrality was presumably to improve relations with Russia, Moscow views it as a sign of weakness in its offensive against NATO. Ukraine’s estrangement will also diminish Washington’s ability to offer political support for Ukraine’s assimilation into the EU. Under the Yanukovych-Party of Regions government no high-level Ukraine-NATO meetings have been held in conjunction with the last three NATO summits. This reflects both the lack of an agenda and an absence of political will. It may also indicate that Kyiv is succumbing to pressure from Moscow to distance itself both from the Alliance and from Washington.
If the new government wants to demonstrate its commitment to Ukraine’s independence and display to President Putin that it does not take instructions from his office, then it should reset its relations with NATO. Ukraine’s declaration of non-bloc status may not in itself hinder the content of Ukraine-NATO relations. Indeed, Kyiv can work more closely with incoming officials in the second Obama administration to intensify cooperation with the Alliance, including the country’s inclusion in NATO missions and activities.
Even without joining NATO, active participation in Alliance operations is a form of self-defense for Ukraine. It enables greater military and political inter-operability with the West as a shield against unwanted pressures from the East. Participation in the closing stages of the Afghanistan mission is one of the few arenas where the country can improve its international reputation and enhance its relations with Washington.
Kyiv can also become more actively engaged in regional security discussions and formulate clear Ukrainian positions on such questions as conventional arms control, European missile defense, cyber security, and Moldovan integrity. A domestic focus on reforming the security and defense sectors consistent with NATO standards will also substantially enhance the country’s prospects. For its part, the U.S. administration should not be passive but can reach out to the new government. It can offer advise on how best Ukraine can strengthen its practical cooperation with the Alliance and extend technical assistance to promote the reform agenda.
One additional development during 2013 provides Kyiv with an opportunity and a test of its commitment to Western values and interests. Ukraine’s chairmanship of the OSCE next year can either strengthen the country’s standing in the West or it will underscore that the government is sliding into the OSCE’s authoritarian camp led by the Russian Federation.
The main risks for the OSCE chairmanship are increasing evidence that Ukrainian democracy is eroding and falling short of the standards exhibited by the OSCE’s democratic bloc. To stem and reverse such presumptions, Kyiv should highlight the OSCE’s human dimension agenda, which includes democracy promotion. In particular, this means upholding the mission of the Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) in Warsaw as the primary monitor of democratic development and human rights throughout the OSCE region. In recent years, ODIHR has been under considerable attack from Moscow for exposing election violations in Russia and other post-Soviet states.
As OSCE chair, the Ukrainian government should also engage in initiatives on arms control and nuclear non-proliferation. It can thereby strengthen its reputation as a country that voluntarily surrendered its nuclear weapons and highly enriched uranium in order to advance confidence building and security throughout Europe and Eurasia. At the very least, it will keep Kyiv in the spotlight. Otherwise, continuing estrangement from the West will simply drive the country into Russia’s arms, and as we know from history Moscow finds it difficult to let go of allies that it has closely embraced.
Janusz Bugajski is a Senior Associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington DC and the author of 18 books on Europe, Russia, and trans-Atlantic relations.