Research Associate Veronika Kyrylenko: Ukraine, the runaway bride

Guest Commentary

The latest political decisions of the Ukrainian government have been a shock not only for the Ukrainian people but for the whole of Europe. 

On the eve of the Brussels summit, where Ukraine was supposed to sign the association agreement with the European Union, the Ukrainian parliament, Verkhovna Rada, could not pass any of the six bills that would allow Yulia Tymoshenko, the imprisoned leader of opposition, to seek a medical help abroad, which was one of the requirements for the agreement. About this situation, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych has said that “there are some issues that have aroused.” Probably he meant the agreements he had made with the Russian President Vladimir Putin during their meeting in Moscow, on Nov. 11. 

It is remarkable that the details of this meeting have remained a mystery — none of the press services have published the content of the meeting. More than that, the very fact that this meeting had happened had remained a secret for a couple of days. Earlier, a similar secret meeting was held in Sochi, Russia, in the end of October. On Oct. 27, Yanukovych made a visit to his Russian colleague after the summit of CIS in Minsk, where they had no chance to talk. Putin’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, has commented: “The Presidents had continued the discussions of the topics that were started in Minsk.” Back then, the details of those meetings were not disclosed either.

Now, politicians and analysts are proposing lots of arguments, trying to explain the abrupt turn in the Ukrainian policy, which during the last 20 years has demonstrated its desire to become a part of European Union with manic consistency. The situation is worthy of a dramatic love story plot, in which a poor but proud and adventurous girl, forgetting her shame, keeps stalking the wealthy man in hope that he would solve her problems and provide for her well-being “till death do us part.” The gentleman, however, does not love our girl, because he clearly understands that this union would cost him dearly — he does not even hide it. After all, the persistency wins, and the engagement party is getting closer. But suddenly our impulsive girl decides that she sells herself too cheaply — the older neighbor from the Soviet commune flat makes her a more appealing offer, and threatens her if she refuses to accept it.   

What the highest officials of the EU did not comprehend is the undesirable position of Ukraine, which suffers from numerous problems it cannot solve itself. On the one hand, it makes Ukraine the passive object of the geopolitical game on the continent, in which Ukraine has to seek a stronger partner that would financially support it in return for the political loyalty. On the other hand, given the historical and cultural context and considering the Ukrainian national pride, ambitions and — let us face it — greed, Ukraine has inflated expectations from the potential partners. It was not accidental that Ukrainian Prime Minister Nikolay Azarov has crossly claimed that the EU had offered Ukraine a meager $1 billion “as a compensation for the industrial modernization,” when Ukraine needs $160 billion!

Perfectly understanding Ukraine’s self-esteem problem, high level of expectations and the vulnerable place of the Ukrainian economy, which, by the way, has tight connections with the Russian economy, the Kremlin made an offer Ukraine could not refuse (there are talks about the generous long-term cheap credits), as well as fully demonstrated its readiness to close its markets to the Ukrainian goods. There is also one important factor that prudish European officials could not use due to the significant cultural differences — the style of the post-Soviet diplomacy. The huge role here is played by the personal relations between the negotiating parties and their ability to discuss business in the informal conditions. This usually means hunting trips, vodka and Russian “banya, or saunas.” The personal sympathies, trust and sincerity here are crucially important. After all, the absence of a language barrier helps a lot, too.  

Thus, even as some Ukrainian and European politicians, to save face, claim that the door to the EU is still open for Ukraine, there are grounds to expect the continued radical change of the Ukrainian foreign policy and the strengthening of the Russian position in Europe thanks to Ukraine. As for the Ukraine, its government tries to solve short-term problems by “patching up budget holes” to the prejudice of its long-term strategic interests. 

Kyrylenko, a PhD from Odessa National University, is a Research Associate at GeoStrategic Analysis in Arlington, Va.