Europe / Foreign Policy / Politics

Tired of Being a Satellite: Ukraine’s Shifting Orbit in the Post-Soviet Space

On Tuesday September 16, Ukraine’s parliament ratified an association agreement with the European Union. The European Parliament in Strasbourg, France approved the deal on the same day, solidifying the prospect of free trade between the former Soviet state and the EU’s 28 members. While on the surface the accord appears a decisive step towards the West, threats from the Kremlin and the ongoing pro-Russian insurgency have kept Ukraine’s geopolitical destiny shrouded in doubt.

Ukraine will not begin lowering trade restrictions until 2016 and Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk has no intention of severing key commercial ties with Russia. Many view the delay widely as a concession to Moscow, which has repeatedly threatened to sever trade ties with Ukraine in the event of an EU agreement. As the provider of one third of Europe’s gas, Russia holds immense weight in these disputes and already cut off gas supplies to its neighbor in June. Similar pressure led former President Viktor Yanukovych to reject an EU association proposal in November 2013, sparking the protests that threw him out of office this February.

Whether EU lawmakers postponed the deal as a concession to Russia or to a Ukrainian economy in need of recovery and reform, the Kremlin has made its continued disapproval loud and clear. Following the ratification announcement, Alexey Ulyukaev, the Russian Minister for Economic Development, penned a letter to the EU Trade Commissioner Karel De Gucht calling for three-party talks to amend the agreement. Ulyukaev reiterated Moscow’s official anxieties over the deal, namely that EU goods would pass through Ukraine and flood the Russian market. Economic protectionism, however, only explains a small piece of a much grander geostrategic puzzle.

Hours before approving the trade agreement, the Ukrainian parliament passed President Petro Poroshenko’s bill granting limited autonomy to the embattled regions of Donetsk and Lugansk as well as broad-based amnesty to the pro-Russian separatists stationed there. The conciliatory proposal followed a ceasefire agreed on September 5 that has failed to stem the violence in Eastern Ukraine. On Saturday September 20, government officials and rebel leaders agreed on a nine-point plan to diffuse the conflict, including a 30-kilometer buffer zone from which both sides must withdraw their artillery.

In spite of token efforts to achieve a peaceful compromise, the insurgency and counterinsurgency will persist as long as the territorial interests of the Kyiv government and the Kremlin-backed rebel leadership conflict. While some observers have offered arguments to the contrary, neither Ukraine nor Russia has achieved its objectives. In addition to the Crimea, annexed by Russia earlier this year, the government in Kyiv has lost control over much of its eastern industrial belt and failed to secure its borders. Capitulation to the rebels will not satisfy the pro-government paramilitary groups or the oligarchs who fund them.

Meanwhile, Moscow has yet to secure a land bridge to the Crimea, a clear priority after the Russian military helped the rebels seize the southeastern port city of Novoazovsk with tanks, armored vehicles and rockets from across the border. Since then, the frontline has moved 20 kilometers west along the Azov Sea coastline toward the government-controlled city of Mariupol. As recently as yesterday morning, pro-Russian separatists attacked a military checkpoint in the outskirts of the city with “Grad” rocket launchers.

Against this violent backdrop, President Poroshenko visited the White House on September 18 in an attempt to rally U.S. military support for his Anti-Terrorist Operation (ATO). Instead of the weapons he was looking for, the man they call the “Chocolate King” received $46 million in non-lethal military equipment such as night vision goggles, body armor and vehicles. The package must have a come as a bitter but expected disappointment for the president who at an earlier joint session of Congress pointed out that “blankets and night-vision goggles are important, but one cannot win a war with a blanket.”

If the EU association agreement signaled Poroshenko’s intent to pull Ukraine into the free world’s economic order, his U.S. visit demonstrated his country’s desire to join its security framework as well. By rejecting a more active role in the Ukraine conflict, however, President Obama has suggested that these feelings are not mutual. This sends the wrong message to a new regime bent on liberalization and rooting out endemic corruption. The U.S. must make a clear statement of solidarity with the Ukrainian government as the EU has with its trade deal. To start, Congress should approve Senator Bob Corker’s bill granting Ukraine’s major non-NATO ally status. Doing so would not only secure Ukraine’s porous borders but also protect a democratic Kyiv from falling back into Putin’s orbit.