Fork in the Steppe: Ukraine’s Difficult History with Western Integration
The success of American strategy in the European continent relies on key instruments, particularly NATO with respect to military affairs, and the European Union with respect to economic and social spheres. These institutions compete with Russian initiatives to the east, which demonstrate a lack of commitment to the liberal norms and values championed by the West, and replace them with opposing governing models and a willingness to assert military force to achieve national objectives. This is particularly concerning for policymakers in Kyiv, who, prior to 2014, attempted to maintain a balance between a Central European and Eurasian identity, and are now trapped in a heated “frozen conflict”. As Ukrainian political debate began to find itself increasingly calling to engage in economic integration with one side or the other, Kyiv realized the mounting difficulty in maintaining its claim of neutrality. The series of events surrounding this struggle within Ukraine demonstrates the disparity between Western and Russian worldviews. Ultimately, they suggest that the United States and its European allies may be unprepared to prevent a long-term Russian success in the region, rendering the prospect of Ukrainian accession into the European Union and NATO low.
Ukraine and Russia have a long and intertwined history, spanning interactions both remembered positively and negatively. Russia notably recognizes the founding of the Russian state in the Christianization of Kievan Rus’, and emphasises the mutual historical and cultural links between Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus whenever it can. Other events, however, such as the Treaty of Pereyaslav in 1654, or the more well-known Holodomor, are understood in the Ukrainian historical narrative as events characterizing a relationship of mistrust with Russia. The former is noted as having legally commenced the characterization of Ukrainians as an inseparable part of the Russian people, after the Zaporizhian Cossacks controversially pledged an oath of loyalty to the Russian Tsar in exchange for protection against Poland-Lithuania. The image of Ukraine as being a branch of the greater Russian nation has survived throughout the Imperial and Soviet eras, and is an important factor in understanding their current relationship.
On the other hand, Ukraine also has a strong Central European influence, most notably in its west. This is best expressed by Foreign Minister of the Ukrainian SSR Anatoliy Zlenko’s assertion in 1990 that “a common history existing a thousand years and a deep cultural, linguistic, and ideological closeness have linked [Ukraine] with neighboring Poland. The western regions of Ukraine and the eastern provinces of Poland … are similar in makeup of population and economy”. While it cannot be denied that historic links exist, he refrains from mentioning that they have been experienced as mostly negative, perhaps even worse than with Russia. Despite this friction, policymakers in Kyiv saw their interests as increasingly aligned with those of Central European states following the collapse of the USSR, lending truth to Zlenko’s claim of the region’s close ideological proximity to Ukraine.
This is largely due to the fact that Central European nations were successful in both severing Moscow’s influence, as well as crafting a new identity for themselves as “Central European.” In search of a similar future, the Ukrainian authorities made it their priority to become a part of several Central European institutions, most notably in what was then the Visegrád Triangle in 1992. Today the Visegrád Four, this institution was a grouping of Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia, and was instrumental in developing a post-Communist Central European bloc independent of Moscow’s control. Despite close Polish-Ukrainian relations at this time, the initiative to “join” Central Europe ended in failure, hampered by other nations’ fears that accepting Ukraine would diminish their claims of a Central European identity and anger Moscow.
This aversion to antagonizing the Kremlin was not out of bad faith, as it is now understood that Russia certainly views social influence, such as perceptions of national identity, in zero-sum terms. In a world marked by greater international cooperation, a failure to participate in blocs or alliances can result in a significant loss of influence. In this way, a truly neutral Ukraine, as neither a part of the European Union or the Eurasian Economic Union, could have been in danger of marginalization. This led to pressure on Yanukovych to engage in an economic agreement with either the Eurasian or European Union, as maintaining equal partnership with both is technically and legally infeasible. Recognizing this, Russia did everything in its power to prevent a preference for greater Western ties, envisioning the risk of the eventual full admission of Ukraine into the European Union and possibly NATO. The Russian strategic mindset places a great importance on land as a defensive resource, most vehemently in the Northern European Plain, where no natural barriers exist between Russia and Europe. A Ukraine in NATO would put Western troops deep into this region, constituting unacceptable threat from the perception of Moscow.
This tug of war manifested itself in the back and forth saga over whether or not President Yanukovych would allow the passing of a Ukraine-European Union Association Agreement, which is designed to significantly increase the nation’s interactions with European institutions. Although having been largely committed to the agreement since March 2014, he experienced a last minute change of heart due to fears of Russian economic retaliation, a move which did not go over well with the Ukrainian public and sparked the Euromaidan Revolution. This climaxed in Yanukovych’s descent from power, putting celebrations in Moscow on hold.
A change in the balance of power almost never passes calmly, and this proved no exception, as, in early 2014, President Putin decided to use military force in Ukraine. This decision was partially inspired by NATO’s expression of military force against Serbia in 1999 as support for the self-determination of Kosovo. This use of hard power mixed with an emphasis on territorial self-determination was expressed in Russia’s use of unmarked soldiers to secure and eventually annex Crimea through referendum, as well as their support for armed separatists in eastern Ukraine. The annexation of Crimea was especially informative, as it not only violates international agreements, but levied accusations of disregarding the precedents set after the Second World War regarding the respect of territorial integrity between states in Europe. The Russian Federation thus revealed itself as a revisionist power in Europe, with a lack of commitment to the current world order that is seen as hypocritical and having been solely crafted by and for the West.
How the frozen conflict in Ukraine will mature is still to be seen. No nation engaged in territorial conflict can be admitted to the NATO alliance, and Ukrainian accession to the European Union has since become more unpopular with some member states, particularly Hungary. The reasons for this shift in Budapest’s positioning towards Ukraine are complex, but generally revolve around the Orban government’s newfound faith in illiberalism, a school of thought associated with Russia. Hungary has also espoused concern for the rights of the Hungarian diaspora in Transcarpathia, after a law was passed that greatly restricted the position of minority languages in education. This law was part of a broader movement of growing Ukrainian nationalism, which has crystalized in ways that would not have been possible without the spectre of an aggressive Russia. This national feeling is also marked by significant growth in Ukrainians’ positive perception of the European Union and Western institutions. This is a result of previous sentiments in Ukraine’s east, which were favorable to Russia, suffering due to the increased perception of a Russia that will act maliciously towards Ukraine, coupled with the loss of the most pro-Russian territories in the country: Crimea, Donetsk, and Luhansk. This has given way to a victory of western Ukraine’s vision of the nation. While there is still a great deal of caution when dealing with Ukraine, Central Europeans have recognized this more profound Western national consciousness, allowing Kyiv to make its way into institutions like the 2016 Visegrád Battlegroup. This stands in contrast to Ukrainian attempts to join Central European institutions in the early 1990s, when Central Europe itself was still fragile, Ukraine divided, and Russia less predictable.
Unfortunately for the current Ukrainian administration, the Russian strategy relies solely on time. As soon as it becomes clear that pro-Western Ukrainian officials are unable to fulfill their promises of economic and political integration, the public will become disenfranchised. This could lead to a rise in the support for more extreme platforms, such as Ukraine’s far-right, which is the most vehemently anti-Russian of Ukraine’s political movements, and has already gained a deal of respect due to its effectiveness in the War in Donbas. However, with enough time, economic stagnation, and Russian resiliency, disenfranchisement could also lead to a more pragmatic approach, one in which there is consensus that admission into the EU and NATO is quite unlikely, and only rapprochement with Russia is a viable path to developing into a prosperous nation. With Ukraine back on cordial terms with Russia, or even latter as a member of the Russian led Eurasian Economic Union, the public would experience increased economic growth and stability, the tangible benefits of which would likely cement support for this policy. Although with the potential to foster greater resentment, this strategy has already proven relatively effective. Moldova, the first country to experience a frozen conflict with pro-Russian separatists, since moved to become an observer state of the Eurasian Economic Union in 2017, 25 years after the Transnistria War.
The series of events surrounding Ukraine are a testament to the zero-sum reality that have materialized out of conflicting perceptions and onto the Ukrainian Steppe. For the post-Soviet nation, a difficult moment of choice between the values and identity of the West or Russia has begun, but only time will tell where that decision ultimately falls. In order for Ukraine to remain committed to Western values, it is in the interest of the United States and its European allies to ensure that Ukraine does not feel it is left out of Western institutions, even if NATO or EU membership is out of the question for the time being. Western assistance to Ukraine can be delivered not only politically, but also economically and militarily, and it would be unwise for Western policymakers to take these off the table. Corruption should be understood as an important piece of the Kremlin’s arsenal, and a tool with the potential to bypass unfavorable public sentiment. With popular support on the side of the West, decreasing the prevalence of corruption and helping to maintain Ukraine as a transparent democracy is a worthy strategy for Brussels and Washington. Despite their ultimate policy choices, however, it is critical for them to understand that time is not on their side.