There is a stark contrast between the foreign policies of the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations. While Bush vigorously pursued American unilateralism and Western enlargement, Obama is a cautious multilateralist at a time of economic uncertainty. These differing approaches have a direct impact on Ukraine, a country that straddles the strategic borderland between Europe and Eurasia.
Instead of assuming that Ukraine’s democratic development will culminate in membership of both NATO and the EU, US policy toward Kyiv is now driven by three factors: Russia, energy, and Europe. The election of Viktor Yanukovych lessened Washington’s disputes with Moscow over Ukraine’s national aspirations. Washington calculated that Yanukovych would establish a closer relationship with the Kremlin and remove the conflictive NATO enlargement question from the US-Russia agenda.
However, American officials miscalculated Russian government ambitions as well as the extent of democratic devolution in Ukraine. Putin and company not only demand that Ukraine remain outside of NATO, they also want the country inside multi-national structures dominated by Moscow in case a new US administration revives NATO expansion. As a result, Kyiv is subject to immense pressure to surrender large parts of its energy infrastructure to Russian companies, to join the Customs Union alongside Belarus and Kazakhstan, and to participate in the CSTO security structure.
Given the backsliding on democracy in Ukraine, Obama has not felt compelled to vigorously defend the country against Russian encroachments on its sovereignty or to schedule high-level meetings with Ukrainian officials. Even if Obama shakes hands with President Yanukovych at the Nuclear Security Summit in Seoul or the NATO summit in Chicago, this will not signal a warming of ties.
Some analysts contend that Russia and Ukraine are developing similar political systems and a closer connection between them would save both NATO and the EU the headache of pushing for democratic reform. According to this reasoning, even if Ukraine were to loose elements of its sovereignty, then that is evidently the choice of its administration and Washington should not interfere.
The problem with this approach is that it does not correspond to the aspirations of Ukrainian citizens in maintaining an independent state, in which increasing numbers are frustrated with the current administration. The jailing of Yulia Tymoshenko has become the symbol of an anti-democratic counter-revolution that could destabilize the country. US Senators have asserted that Ukraine has regressed in its democratic reforms, media independence, election standards, and the rule of law.
To prevent Ukraine from becoming a fulcrum of West-East conflict, the State Department is urging the release of Tymoshenko and the assurance of clean parliamentary elections in October. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton leaned on Yanukovych at the Munich security conference to resolve the Tymoshenko debacle amidst fears that blatantly flawed elections could polarize society and provoke a bloody revolt, which Russia may seek to pacify.
Washington is urging Kyiv to lessen its dependence on Russian energy, a primary tool of political manipulation. If Ukraine is determined to preserve its independence, it needs to diversify its energy supplies and develop domestic sources. The US supports the development of an energy corridor between the Caspian Basin and Europe that is not at the mercy of Russian blackmail. Ukraine is an important player in the broader energy chain and Washington has offered assistance in shale gas exploration in order to enhance the country’s self-determination.
The third pillar of Washington’s approach has been to downplay the NATO option and to encourage Kyiv’s closer links with the EU, because there is consensus in Ukraine on deepening ties with Brussels. Similarly to the Western Balkans, the US wants the onus to be on the Europeans to help transform Ukraine into a secure and stable state through free trade arrangements and an EU association agreement. It is also sending the message that the slide toward authoritarianism could result in international sanctions and a downgrading of Ukraine to the status of Belarus.
Washington’s overall calculation is to give Kyiv a choice. It can either continue building a Putinist system at the cost of improved relations with the West, thus ensuring that Ukraine is increasingly vulnerable to Russian manipulation, or it can restart the democratization process, strengthen its energy diversity, and develop closer ties with Western institutions, all of which can help shield the country from Moscow’s pressures. But the ultimate decision must remain with Kyiv.
Janusz Bugajski is a Senior Associate in the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington D.C.