Ukrainian Foreign and Security Policy: Towards a National Consensus

March 18, 2010

In a free and fair election in January-February of this year, Party of Regions leader Viktor Yanukoych was elected Ukraine’s fourth president. International organizations, such as the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe and the Council of Europe, as well as European and North American governments, praised Ukraine’s democratic conduct of the elections.

President Yanukovych has repeatedly stated that Ukraine cannot continue with the political instability that plagued Viktor Yushchenko’s presidency. Ukraine needs stability to undertake necessary and long overdue domestic reforms while improving its international image so as to attract further foreign direct investment (FDI) and international assistance.

For stability to take hold in Ukraine, President Yanukovych must achieve two vital objectives:

First, he must foster constructive relations among three different institutions of power: president, parliament, and government. Without stability among Ukraine’s three central institutions the country will continue to be plagued by the domestic instability of the Yushchenko era. In addition, President Yanukovych has stated his intention to improve the current semi-parliamentary constitution adopted in 2004 and which went into effect in 2006. His choice of Prime Minister—Mykola Azarov—and a new cabinet replacing the government of Yulia Tymoshenko, was approved by the Supreme Rada with surprising ease.

Second, the new president must pursue a national consensus on Ukraine’s foreign and security policies. Former President Yushchenko pursued a unilateral pro-Western foreign policy that Ukrainians did not support; his 2004 party political platform made no mention of foreign affairs, much less advocate the radical course Yushchenko would follow once in office.

In contrast, President Yanukovych was elected on a foreign policy platform of balancing relations between East and West, a policy supported by Ukrainian public opinion. As the American Institute in Ukraine (AIU) has noted, over 80 percent of Ukraine’s voters selected candidates in the first round of the presidential election, in one form or another, rejected the unidimensional, pro-western, pro-NATO, “Orange” orientation. In his first month in office, following visits to Brussels and Moscow, President Yanukovych has pursued the foreign policy that he outlined in his election program and which is backed by Ukrainian public opinion. President Yanukovych’s foreign policy recognizes that Ukraine is a regionally and linguistically diverse country.

Towards a National Consensus on Foreign Policy

Pragmatic players on the Ukrainian political scene have expressed a readiness to reassess and even reverse some of the controversial foreign policies of the previous administration in order to form a new national consensus on Ukraine’s role in the world, and, thereby, promote internal political stability. These include members of the Party of Regions, Sergei Tigipko and Arseniy Yatseniuk. These two candidates together received twenty percent of the vote in the first round of this year’s election and represent a new middle class voting phenomenon in Ukraine, and, therefore, an important constituency that supports reforms. In addition, Anatoliy Grytsenko, and others from the Our Ukraine-Peoples Self Defence bloc, as well as members of the pragmatic business wing of the Bloc of Yulia Tymoshenko have supported a reset of Ukraine’s priorities.

AIU believes a foreign policy consensus can be achieved in four areas of critical importance to Ukraine:

  • NATO. The most controversial question in Ukrainian foreign policy has been NATO and specifically the pursuit of NATO membership. Former President Yushchenko never included the word “NATO,” let alone the pursuit of NATO membership, in his 2004 or 2010 election programs. With no political mandate to do so, he adopted, as president, a radical posture on Ukrainian membership of NATO under the guise of “Euro-Atlantic” integration.

    Surveys conducted by the Razumkov Center between 2002-2009 show that public support for NATO membership did not increase during Yushchenko’s presidency, dropping to a low of 15.4% and reaching a ‘high’ of only 22.3%. A February 2010 poll by Democratic Initiatives and the Ukrainian Sociological Service found that 60% of Ukrainians opposed while only 21% supported NATO membership. In the Crimea and Donetsk, an unprecedented 94% oppose NATO membership.

    Considered in the light of good democratic practice, Yushchenko’s pursuit of NATO membership even in the face of solid popular opposition threatened Ukraine’s stability and constitutional integrity. It also led to a deterioration in relations with Moscow without precedent since the collapse of the USSR.

    Putting a definitive end to the misguided quest to draw Ukraine into NATO against the will of the Ukrainian people would improve Kiev’s relations not only with Russia, but also with key Western European countries such as Germany and France. AIU proposes permanent removal of NATO membership from the political agenda. This will only benefit Ukraine, not to mention America, Europe, and Russia. A clear message needs to be sent to Brussels and Washington that Ukraine’s answer on NATO is “NO,” and that the question will not be revisited in the future. While the exact mechanism – constitutional amendment, referendum, resolution in the Rada, presidential decree, some or all of the above – for taking NATO membership permanently off the table needs to be identified, the content must be unambiguous. An important immediate step would be for Ukraine to cancel the Annual National Program (ANP, a Membership Action Plan in disguise) and make it clear there will be no ANP in the future.

    Since January 1994, Ukraine has cooperated with NATO as part of NATO’s Partnership for Peace program (PfP). It can be argued that PfP has benefitted Ukraine in terms of military reform and restructuring, and that participation in it is not inconsistent with neutrality; after all, other participants in PfP do not aspire to NATO membership: Armenia, Austria, Ireland, Kazakhstan, Serbia, Sweden, and Switzerland, not to mention Russia. Also, as AIU previously has suggested, it would be important for Ukraine to establish a parallel, non-member cooperative status with the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO).
  • European Union (EU). If NATO membership has negligible support in Ukraine, the same cannot be said of joining the European Union. There is a strong consensus in favor of EU membership among elites and the general public. Between 2002-2008, support for EU membership fluctuated between a low of 40% and a high of 65% with those opposed less regionally concentrated than in the case of opposition to joining NATO.

    Ukraine has three critical issues to negotiate with the EU in the first two years of the Yanukovych presidency: visa free travel between Ukraine and Europe, conclusion of an Association Agreement and the establishment of a Free Trade Zone. These three steps will facilitate Ukraine’s integration into Europe and bring the country closer to the goal of membership. The European Parliament’s February 25, 2010 resolution recognizing Ukraine’s right to be an EU member should become a goal around which a national consensus could be built.

    Nevertheless, the Ukrainian government and Ukrainian citizens at large should have no illusions about Ukraine receiving an invitation to join the EU any time soon. The EU’s ability to assume new commitments is limited (witness the on-going Greek crisis and the travails of such member states as Ireland, Italy, Spain, and Portugal) and prospects for expansion over the next decade or more would seem unlikely. In the meantime, Ukraine should look to economic opportunities that can pay dividends sooner rather than later. This will entail strengthening economic ties to Russia and other former Soviet republics. During President Yanukovych’s March 2010 visit to Moscow, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin suggested that Ukraine join the CIS Customs Union with Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan.

    Kiev’s accession to such an arrangement is complicated by the fact that of the four countries involved only Ukraine is a WTO member, as well as by Ukraine’s on-going negotiations with the EU towards the establishment of a Free Trade Zone. AIU believes, however, that Ukraine should work with the WTO and the CIS Customs Union countries to facilitate Ukraine’s entry in the latter organization even while pressing the case of the rapid accession of Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia to the WTO. With respect to the EU, this could mean that the EU and Ukraine would have to negotiate a specific arrangement taking into account Ukraine’s membership of the CIS Customs Union, which itself could become a catalyst for progress in economic ties between the EU and the other members of the CIS Customs Union as well.
  • U.S. Ukraine’s relations with the US will continue to play an important role in Ukrainian foreign policy but will be given lesser emphasis than during the Bush-Yushchenko years. Under President Yanukovych, Ukraine’s relations with Brussels will be a greater strategic priority.

    Still, the US, although not a member, is an important behind-the-scenes supporter of Ukraine’s membership of the EU and is one of the nuclear powers, with Russia, Britain, and France, that gave Ukraine security assurances in exchange for de-nuclearization and accession to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1994.

    A national consensus on maintaining strategic relations with the US will not be difficult to achieve under President Yanukovych. The US administration’s less aggressive stance on NATO enlargement, Washington’s support for the 2008 IMF Stand-by Agreement (SBA) and the Obama administration’s desire to ‘re-set’ US relations with Moscow are all in line with President Yanukovych’s foreign policy priorities.
  • Russia. It is in Ukraine’s interest to have good relations with Russia. Ukraine and Russia, after all, share many aspects of a common history and culture, and are deeply engaged with each other on economic, trade and energy issues. Opinion polls show that between 80-90 percent of Ukrainians have a good opinion of Russia and therefore any ‘re-set’ of relations with Moscow would receive nation-wide support. Ukraine’s presidential elections since independence have shown that no candidate, whether Leonid Kravchuk in 1994 or Yushchenko in 2010, can be elected on an anti-Russian platform; even Tymoshenko abandoned her fire-breathing anti-Russian rhetoric during her recent presidential run.

    A ‘re-set’ of Ukrainian-Russian relations would also improve Ukraine’s standing with western Europe and the United States, which, under President Obama, is also keen to improve relations with Moscow. Good, constructive relations with Russia are a precondition for Ukraine’s integration with Europe, something Yushchenko never understood. In building a national consensus on improved relations with Moscow, the Yanukovych administration should invoke enhanced prospects for domestic and regional stability, reduced intra-Ukrainian tensions, and the stabilization of Crimea’s relations with Kiev.

    Restoration of ties between Kiev and Moscow will no doubt involve some serious “horse-trading” to ensure mutually beneficial solutions for both countries. This can be expected to include negotiation of a formula to prolong Russia’s naval base at Sevastopol beyond 2017. Of particular importance, not only for Ukraine and Russia, but also for Europe, will be a stable arrangement regarding energy transportation across Ukraine. While the “Orange” administration was generally successful in portraying Russia as the offending party in the 2006 gas crisis, that ruse could no longer be plausibly maintained by the time the 2009 crisis broke out. This episode did serious damage to Ukraine’s reputation as a reliable gas transit country.

    National consensus on energy questions can be achieved in two key areas. First, the Ukraine-EU agreement signed in March 2009 to modernize Ukraine’s gas pipelines should be broadened to include Russia for the simple reason that Russia is the main supplier of through-put for Ukraine’s pipe-line system. The modernization of Ukraine’s gas pipelines would enable a greater flow of Russian and Central Asian gas to supplement the supplies that will flow through the South Stream project.

    Second, Russia’s Gazprom has expressed its desire to continue to abide by the existing gas contract that includes a transition to average European prices. Such a transition period could be re-negotiated by extending it beyond 2011, when the country’s economy will be better prepared to pay ‘market’ prices, and the transition could be linked to the removal of utility price subsidies for households called for by the IMF. .Ukraine imports gas at US$335 per 1,000 cubic meters from Russia but sells it domestically to households at $110, leading to Naftohaz Ukrainy running a deficit equivalent to 2.5% of GDP. Any energy reforms need to take into account the restructuring of Naftohaz. Again, all of this will involve some hard bargaining on all sides.