On the one hand, and significantly, Ukraine agreed at a European Union summit held just a week ago in Brussels that it wants to deepen trade and political ties. Ukraine is already a strong partner of NATO and has contributed troops and military personnel to missions in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Balkans, the Middle East and Africa.
On the other hand, Ukraine is facing serious economic challenges as it liberalizes and reforms, none greater than the cost of buying gas from Russia, where it is locked into a 10-year deal that features the highest prices of any European buyer.
Together with Pat Cox, former president of the European Parliament, as a special envoy for European Parliament, I am trying to find common ground and compromises in the Tymoshenko case, and to push for progress on judicial reforms that will bring Ukraine more in line with values shared by the U.S. and EU, including changes that provide important new rights to defendants and measures to strengthen the impartiality of the judiciary.
My message here in Washington and in Europe is that the West needs Ukraine, and Ukraine needs the West — in economic, political and military terms.
Against the backdrop of a resurgent Russia and Moscow’s efforts to reconstruct at least the spirit of a superpower through the fledgling Customs Union, Ukraine is of great geopolitical importance to Europe.
Although not a member, it is a de facto part of the security umbrella provided by NATO.
In fact, if managed carefully, relations between Europe and Ukraine can benefit the West on areas as wide-ranging as defense and energy security.
Ukraine is a critically important energy transit route for Russian gas to much of Europe. It also has its own as-yet-undeveloped shale gas reserves, which Chevron and Shell are beginning to explore.
In fact, Ukraine is in a crucial phase in its development as a post-Soviet democracy, a partner of NATO, and a market for U.S. and European trade and investment.
As such, Ukraine can be a source of stability and security in the region, a non-NATO nation that nevertheless cooperates with NATO and provides a counterweight to growing Russian regional power. It represents an enormous opportunity for Europe’s security that should not be squandered.
Ukraine is a natural buffer with Russia, and its willingness to work with NATO not only helps enhance NATO’s security umbrella over the continent but also reassures Russia that NATO’s expansion does not threaten Moscow. Its ability to act as a bridge between Russia and the European Union also enables cooperation between the two, especially in areas where their interests overlap.
Cooperation between NATO and Ukraine therefore makes the balance of peace in the area easier to maintain.
At the same time, we must understand that Ukraine has deep traditional and historical ties with its neighbor. For it to prosper, for this nation of 47 million to reach its potential, it must maintain a productive, mutually beneficial relationship with Russia.
To be clear, Ukraine is not without its faults. The judicial and legal systems are in need of much reform in order to come into line with Western norms. The electoral system, while showing improvement as a result of bipartisan reform, still needs further changes. As a special envoy to Ukraine for the European Parliament, I am deeply aware of these shortcomings and committed to helping Kyiv overcome them. That includes finding a positive resolution to the detentions of Tymoshenko and former Minister Yuri Lutsenko.
Yet for all of that, Ukraine’s importance is undeniable. We should make sure Ukraine enjoys deeper European integration and cooperation with the United States and Europe on energy security and defense. It should be a priority shared on both sides of the Atlantic.
The author is the former president of Poland and a special envoy to Ukraine for the European Parliament.