Blank Stephen Strategic Studies Institute

Ukraine Between East and West

22 January 2013, 17:01

Disclaimer: The views expressed here do not represent those of the US Army, Defense Department, or the US Government

As Ukraine enters 2013 it confronts two profound, distinct, and unending crises. As Ukraine enters 2013 it confronts two profound, distinct, and unending crises. Yet while those crises are distinct ones they are linked together in three ways. First, Ukraine’s economy is in such distress that Kyiv is again applying to the IMF for a bailout loan.[i] And abroad Kyiv faces Moscow’s unrelenting pressure to join the Eurasian Union (EURAEC) and also sell to Russia control over its domestic gas distribution network. Either option means surrendering its economic independence to Russia and abandoning any hope of joining the European Union (EU), the only true guarantee of Ukraine’s democracy, independence, and future prosperity. But if it refuses either to join EURASEC or give up control of its domestic gas network Moscow will go ahead with the newly opened South Stream pipeline project and isolate Ukraine’s energy economy from Europe, depriving it of any leverage on Russia and forcing it into total dependence on Russia. Indeed, Moscow will probably do so as it is now too committed to South Stream to give it up. And that will leave Ukraine in abject and total dependence upon Russia and equally abject isolation from Europe.

We can see three sets of linkages between these crises. First, they both reveal the utter bankruptcy of the Yanukovych regime’s economic and diplomatic policies, while that regime’s lurch towards imitating Russia’s corrupt authoritarian governmental structure has so alienated Brussels and Washington that the EU has frozen talks on a  Deep and Comprehensive Trade Agreement and in Washington, opinion makers are even raising the idea of sanctions against Ukraine for its undemocratic policies. Second, the government’s retreat from democracy not only has failed to achieve meaningful economic progress it has also further weakened Ukraine, making it more vulnerable to Russian energy and economic pressures. Yanukovych’s policies only reinforce Ukraine’s weakness and the pervasive corruption that offer Russia endless opportunities to buy influence and threaten Ukraine’s independence, integrity, and sovereignty with impunity.

Third, these distinct but linked crises underscore the regime’s dangerous delusions about both Moscow and Washington. Clearly the Yanukovych government believed that if it made a deal with Russia, Moscow would then stop pressuring Ukraine further. Instead the 2010 deal surrendering control over the Crimea and its naval bases for 25-30 years in return for gas prices that were actually of no benefit to Ukraine, only confirmed Russia’s view that Ukraine was weak and incapable of ruling itself. This deal only strengthened the deeply rotted Russian elite belief, manifested in countless words and deeds, that Ukraine is not and cannot be a truly sovereign state and that its territory really belongs to Russia. Despite being a guarantor of Ukraine’s security, Russia in fact does not believe either in the desirability or viability of an independent Ukraine or in its territorial integrity and its policies and rhetoric fully demonstrate that revisionist attitude..

The regime’s equally misplaced delusions concerning the US are no less dangerous. Ukraine wrongly believes that its intrinsic geopolitical importance will persuade Washington to support it regardless of its policies. Kyiv apparently also argues that it can discount US rhetoric on democratization in the belief that this is merely a public position, not the true private posture of US leaders, and that there are divisions within the US government upon which it can play to ensure continuation of the status quo. Therefore it does not have to undertake any real reform since Washington or Brussels will rescue it form any Russian threat and need Ukraine more than it needs either or both of these capitals. Thus a recent article by former US Ambassador Steven Pifer argued that Ukraine’s presidential administration has decided to emphasize Kyiv’s relationship with the US by focusing on energy development and the recent tender to Chevron to explore for and develop shale gas. Kyiv evidently believes that “Washington would somehow ignore the decline of democratic values in Ukraine.”[ii] Sadly, nothing could be farther from the truth. Indeed this argument shows how completely disconnected from American realities is the government in Kyiv.

Indeed, for its part, the US government continues to emphasize engagement with Russia to solve global issues over the urgency of getting European and Eurasian issues right and having a policy towards the post-Soviet states that is truly strategic rather than an afterthought of relations with Russia. The visible fatigue, skepticism, and frustration that one finds in both Europe and Washington when Ukraine is mentioned owes much to Ukraine’s emulation of a Putinist structure of state criminality and authoritarian repression as well as the failure of governments since 2004 to realize the promise of the Orange Revolution.

Neither should the Yanukovcyh regime assume that America’s interests lie in keeping Ukriaine out of Russia’s clutches. Rather what Washington most fears is that Ukraine will regress to its own worst impulses and, continue to emulate a Putinist style of govenrment as is increasingly the case. In fact the oft-repated US line that it does not see or ocnduct a policy of geopolitical rivalries in the CIS agianst Russia accurately expresses the Administration’s policy. Washington’s main concerns regarding Ukraine are not geopolitical as Ukrainian government leaders seem to believe, rather they are democratization and liberalization. Therefore there is steadily diminishing tolerance for the Ukrainian government’s antics and increasing calls for sanctions against it due to its anti-democratic policies. Signifying this indifference to Ukrinae’s interests, on November 13, 2012 Assistant Secretary of State Phillip Gordon told a US and Balkan audience that the US would not support one or another pipeline in Europe or Eurasia over the other.[iii] In other words, Washington will not block South Stream despite its wholly negative implications for Ukraine and the Balkans. Thus the road for Russia on energy policy to threaten all of Eastern Eruope is wide open and unobstructed while Ukraine is literally on its own in the cold. Kyiv has nobody to blame for this outcome but itself.

This Ukrainian exercise in collective wishful or delusional thinnking overlooks Washington’s and Brussels’ visible unhappiness about the Yanukovych regime’s backslilding from democracy. Consequently there is little US interest in Ukraine, as the US election showed , or in meeting with Yanukovych. And when such meetings with high-ranking officials occur President Obama and his officials invariably raise the issue of Yulia Tymoshenko’s incarceration for purely political reasons and the general trend away form democracy despite Kyiv’s counter-arguments. Recent articles talking about buying less Russian gas, or exploring for shale gas, or interesting countries like Azerbaijan and Qatar to sell gas to Ukraine represent nothing more than an elite bluff. It takes years to negotiate and build pipelines and explloit gas deposits. But Ukraine does not have years. Such talk and newspaper articles may satisfy those people who do not know the reality of the gas business or the Yanukovych regime’s games and may fool the unsophisticated into belieiving that the reigme is energetically countering Moscow’s pressure. However, these games do not fool either Moscow or the governments in Kyiv, Brussels and Washington. The idea that the West both owes Ukraine support and will provide it but that Ukriane need not do anything seroius on its own to merit that support is a crippling but deeply rooted delusion. But delusions cannot stand up to real Russian threats.

Neither are the tenders to Chevron or Royal Dutch Shell for the exploration of shale gas anywhere near a genuine contract for such exploration. Indeed, they might yet turn out to be merely the latest in a series of Ukrainian moves promising to overcome the barriers to such investments that have not been kept. Indeed, Ukraine has a long track record of broken promises with both Western and Russian investors and suppliers while the barreiers to foreign invesmtent remain intact.

Until Ukraine does what it must do to save itself, namely create conditions that facilitate US and European investment in Ukraianian reform, support democracy at home, open up Ukraine’s energy sector to transparent behavior that encourages foreign investment, and actively integrate Ukraine into European security structures of all kinds – Ukraine will be lucky if the West shows any initiative at all towards it.  This also means that Ukraine must take its impending chairmanship of the OSCE seriously with regard to upholding the democratic Aquis of the Helsinki Final Act and subsequent Pan-European documents. Unless Ukriane moves away from its current anti-democratic trend and willingness to abet similar processes, e.g.m the abduction of foreign dissidents, it will not only forfeit its opportunity to enhance its reputaiton through the OSCE, it could also lead the West ot write it off completely as a viable partner after 2013. This is not an idle warning and the full seriousness of this threat must be understood.

Consequently Ukraine’s failure to overcome the pathologies — not too strong a word — of its current economic and political development can only increase the torpor in which EU and US relations with Ukraine are now immured. Kyiv’s failure to enact a reform agenda consigns Ukraine to economic-political backwardness and underdevelopment along with a certain detachment or isolation from the West, i.e. Europe. This failure continues to keep Ukraine a weak state that is steadily becoming relatively weaker compared with its neighbors and interlocutors. Accordingly this failure to embrace democracy and freer markets, including more efficient and transparent energy economics, ensures that Ukraine will remain permanently at risk of having both its effective and nominal sovereignty and territorial integrity reduced due to unrelenting Russian pressure and growing Western apathy. Therefore much of the burden for sitmulating a desirable change in US policy paradoxically rests upon Kyiv, not Washington. Another way of saying this is that Ukraine’s future relationship with the US and Europe rests largely in its own hands.

Moscow has often threatened nuclear, missile, and armed strikes against Ukraine. Vladimir Putin thretened to dismember Ukraine at a memorable interchange with President Bush in Bucharest in 2008 and President Dmitry Medvedev’s insulting attitude towards President Viktor Yushcheko and Ukrainian sovereignty is a mater of public record. As Ambassador to Russia Konstantyn Gryshchenko (now Foreign Minister) observed in 2009, Russia wants a totally subservient regency in Ukriane and has low regard for President Yanukovych while Putin actually hated (his word) President Yushchenko.[iv] Therefore Ukraine cannot count on Russia and Russian talk of the unity of Russian and Ukrainian history and culture, is just that, talk. The facts accord more with James Sherr’s observation that for Russian authorities “Samostoyatel’naya Ukraina Nikogda ne Budet” (There can never be an independent Ukriane).

Under the circumstances if Ukraine truly wants to remain a secure, sovereign, prospering European state, one whose teritorial integrity is respected, it has no choice but to adopt the European choice even if it doesn ot seek membership in the EU. The current temporizing with EURASEC, Russia’s customs and trade bloc, where Kyiv seeks to accept those clauses that allow it to participate but stay out of the organization is a fool’s errand and reflects not Ukraine’s strength but rather its weakness. That weakness is the direct result of the Yaukovych government’s efforts to build a quasi-Putinist system. While it may enrich the leadership and extend its term of office; it actually promotes Ukraine’s ongoing weakness, ensuring thereby that there wil either be another explosion like the Orange Revolution of 2004 or that Ukraine will in fact lose its independence, sovereignty, and its territorial integrity to Russian threats.

Ukraine’s economic decline underscores the bankruptcy of the government’s economic policy and the tremendous costs those policies impose on Ukraine. At the same time the regime’s delusions ensure that nobody wants to or will rescue it from its own misadventurs and those delusions. The consequences of those misadventures and delusions are already visible, ever greater vulnerability to Moscow’s pressures and domestic discord. Moscow and its clients in Ukraine may argue that the West has sold Ukraine out and that only Russia can assure its existence within EURASEC. But even the govenrment in Kyiv knows what membership in EURASEC or the handing over of Ukriane’s gas network to Russia really means.

In 1994 the then Supreme Commander of Swedish Armed Forces, General Ole Wiktorin, observed, in reference to Bosnia’s wars, “As a result of Bosnia and other armed conflicts we have come to accept war on European territory. The message is, in particular for a small nation, that if you do not take care of your security no one else may care.” [v] The Yanukovych regime’s misconceived econoomic, political, and diplomatic policies may obligate Ukraine to learn this lesson almost as painfully as did the states that emerged out of the former Yugoslavia. But Ukraine is truly an essential element in European security. A crisis that threatenes the effective loss of its capacity for self-rule or of its territorial integrity will generate profound repercussions across Europe and the former Soviet Union. President Putin’s admission in August 2008 that Moscow had been planning a war using separatists against Georgia since 2006 should remind us that we cannot take European security in general and Ukrainian security in particular for granted, especially where Russia is concerned. If the Georgian war does not show this then Russia’s creeping and covert takeover of the Crimea should dissuade anyone from believing that Moscow really accepts the status quo in Ukraine or Europe.  But unless Ukraine realizes that only it can save itself and only by its own exertions without succumbing to the delusions that it is magically entitled to Washington or Brussels’ support, then others may yet have to save themselves by even greater exertions and Europe by their example.


Dr. Stephen J. Blank has served as the Strategic Studies Institute’s expert on the Soviet bloc and the post-Soviet world since 1989. Prior to that he was Associate Professor of Soviet Studies at the Center for Aerospace Doctrine, Research, and Education, Maxwell Air Force Base, and taught at the University of Texas, San Antonio, and at the University of California, Riverside. Dr. Blank is the editor of Imperial Decline: Russia’s Changing Position in Asia, coeditor of Soviet Military and the Future, and author of The Sorcerer as Apprentice: Stalin’s Commissariat of Nationalities, 1917-1924. He has also written many articles and conference papers on Russian, Commonwealth of Independent States, and Eastern European security issues. Dr. Blank’s current research deals with proliferation and the revolution in military affairs, and energy and security in Eurasia.


[i] Olga Pogarzka and Edilberto L. Segura, “Ukraine: Macroeconomic Situation,” Sigma Bleyzer Investment Fund and Bleyzer Foundation, October, 2012

[ii] Steven Pifer, “Wishful Thinking About Washington and Energy,” Kyiv Post, June 27, 2012

[iii] The author was in the audience for this occasion. Also see Janusz Bugajski, “Russian Offensive in the Balkans,” Sarajevo, Al Jazeera Balkans Online, in Bosnian, Croatian, Serbian, November 24, 2012,  FBIS SOV, November 25, 2012

[iv] “WikiLeaks: Gryshchenko Says Putin Has Low Personal Regard For Yanukovych,” Kyiv Post,  March 8, 2011,–99234.html

[v] “The Jane’s Interview,” Jane’s Defence Weekly, October 15, 1994, p. 56.

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