Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the subsequent achievement of independence, Ukraine has had to balance delicately between its longstanding economic and political association with Russia (and the Soviet Union before 1991) with its aspirations to deepen ties with the EU and to build liberal democratic institutions, open up to trade, and develop its fragile civil society. Ukraine finds itself in a very difficult position with regards to deepening economic and political integration with the EU. Such challenges are enhanced by the fact that there is contestation within Ukraine as to whether its future lies with Europe or with Russia.
Ukraine’s Distant European Future
It is in Ukraine’s interests to join the EU, which constitutes the most prosperous economic bloc in the world in terms of GDP. However, the path to European integration is not without its challenges. Ukraine faces many domestic problems, including widespread corruption, organized crime, an acute demographic crisis, and accusations by European observers as to the weak state of democratic institutions and the rule of law, to name but a few. The EU Commissioner for Enlargement, Štefan Füle, has enumerated six areas for improvement that will advance the process of European integration. One of the notable obstacles hindering progress of EU-Ukrainian integration is the sentencing of Yuliya Tymoshenko, which has pointed to the lack of an independent judiciary. From the European perspective, Ukraine has yet to demonstrate its compliance with some of the most basic of the Copenhagen criteria. In its negotiations with the EU, Ukraine lacks viable alternatives.
When assessing the relations between the EU and Ukraine, it is absolutely pivotal to acknowledge the crucial role of Russia as a “third player,” although one that remains outside the formal bounds of negotiation. It is in Russia’s interest to maintain and ideally expand its influence over Ukraine, both from a geostrategic and an economic perspective. President Vladimir Putin vocalized the imperative of reintegrating post-Soviet space earlier this year, primarily through a Common Economic Space, to which Ukraine has been invited. Specifically, Russia’s interests include the Black Sea Fleet at Sevastopol, Crimea, gas transit lines, and a large Russian or Russophone community in Ukraine. The immediate interest of Ukraine is to secure greater foreign direct investment in order to ameliorate its dismal economy.
Putin, Ukraine, and ‘Re-Sovietization’
Ukraine cannot stand alone, outside of the (mutually exclusive) custom union options offered by either side. However, it is closer integration with the European Union, not with Russia, that ultimately serves Ukrainian interests. After all, Russia’s actions toward Ukraine in recent years have amounted to what can only be described as economic warfare. Observers have noted that Russia’s recent economic aggression has only served to persuade the traditionally pro-Russian oligarchs of the benefits of a westward orientation. Their assent is key to substantive measures toward reform.
The potential negotiated outcomes between the EU and Ukraine necessitate that the latter undergo comprehensive domestic reform in order to meet the criteria necessary to secure a free trade, and ultimately, political and economic integration with the former. Ukraine lacks any substantive alternatives. To remain in a state of limbo, outside of either a European or a Russian customs union, does not serve Ukraine’s interests. To join the proposed Russian customs union would simply amount to what Hillary Clinton described as a thinly veiled plot to “re-Sovietize” Eastern Europe and Central Asia and to assert Russia’s regional hegemony. Thus, among the three options, the continuation of ongoing negotiations and deepening of cooperation with the EU remains the most beneficial to Ukraine’s interests. The remaining options amount to the choice between crippling isolation and the all-too-familiar position of subordination to Russia.
By negotiating with the EU, Ukraine brings itself closer in line with an economic and political entity that has been recognized in the form of the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize for “advancing peace and reconciliation, democracy and human rights.” The same praise cannot be afforded to the Russian Federation. Engaging in negotiation with Russia would adversely affect Ukraine’s reputation.
The Difficult Path Ahead
Ukraine lacks an attractive, outside option to negotiations with either the EU or Russia. For Ukraine to reach a beneficial outcome through its negotiations with the EU, it is apparent that it must comply with the terms that the EU has outlined for further integration. If Ukraine manages to carry out the necessary reform, it can look to the Vilnius summit of November 2013 to see further integration with the EU. This would mark an unprecedented level of economic and political integration between the two parties and would lay the groundwork for Ukraine’s prospective candidature as a member state of the EU. This, however, is a best-case scenario. If the past is to serve as any indication of things to come, Ukraine must still overcome great hurdles identified by Commissioner Füle’s report. This will be no simple task, and time is sparse for such sweeping reforms that are necessary for further integration with the EU.