Martin Lukac's Blog

International Consequences of Ukraine Going East or West

February 15, 2013

Ukraine’s foreign policy towards its Eastern and Western neighbours could ultimately lead to broader international consequences that one would expect. Its decision to sign the Association agreement with the European Union or joining the Customs Union with Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan, might take the story of one of the sides much deeper than to wider economic cooperation, trade or visa liberalization.

European Ukraine

Approach of the European Union can be perceived as very ambiguous and caught in a circle. Union’s adherence to democratic reforms and need for visible improvement in this field is built on rigidity of the decision-making process and its dependence on the will of member states. Changes in utmost criticized fields are far as ever, thus any real breakthrough in relations can hardly be expected. Commissioner Füle expressed his concerns in his address to the Ukrainian Parliament on February 8th. Not only did he mention the fact that opposition leaders were facing trials, which “fell short of international standards”, but he also touched upon his concern about the core of democratic principles, stating: “I realised that the Verkhovna Rada is not working as it should, legislation is not being adopted as it should and as the citizens expect.” [1]


Pressure of the Ukrainian civil society slowly fades away and a wave of Euro-optimism crumbles under fiscal problems of the European Union. Recent opinion poll shows that 43.8% of Ukrainians have positive attitudes towards entering the European Union, while 37.9% expressed their negative stance. Although European Council reaffirmed its commitment to the signing of the agreement with Ukraine on February 8th and there are visible expectations of Ukraine towards the Eastern Partnership Summit in Vilnius in November [2], there is widespread scepticism whether it would bring something real into being. There is much what can be offered from the side of the European Union through the Association agreement, however political obstacles seem too strong at the moment. Regardless of this fact, time is playing strongly against European efforts for better relations.

Eastern heading

Russia has chosen somehow different approach to its Western neighbour. Policy of direct economic cooperation and certain degree of indifference towards inner Ukrainian politics might give this relationship more credit in comparison to fluctuating relationship with the European Union.


Russia is showing its potential partners its capacities on the case of energy subsidies to Belarus. For many years Belarus has been receiving gas at the lowest price in Europe, which can be considered one of the core reasons for creation of the Customs Union. Energy policy was wisely used as a political instrument of Russia’s foreign policy on numerous occasions. Recent news that Moscow sent Kyiv a huge gas bill [3] is open for various interpretations. On the one hand several Western media claimed that Russia is pushing Ukraine into the Customs Union by imposing very strict conditions regarding payments for gas. On the other hand it is undoubtedly a legitimate demand of Russia to get their money for services and goods it provided. Both scenarios offer its part of the truth. Opinion polls in Ukraine show that community support for joining the Customs Union is higher than approval of pro-European heading; 45.2% of polled citizens have expressed their consent with Ukraine’s integration with the Customs Union, opposed by 35.7%. [4] Number of citizens in favour of Ukraine joining the Customs Union is slightly higher than the number of respondents agreeing with Ukraine going in the direction of the European Union. Similarly, the disagreement figure with the Custom Union is a little lower than the European one.


Costs of losing Ukraine

Each player would like to have Ukraine on its side, because it could represent a success story of their policies, having undeniable effect on other countries. If the European Union managed to lure Ukraine to its side, it would use it as an example of successful negotiations for other countries of the Eastern Partnership or other countries of the European Neighbourhood Policy.


On the other hand, Russia will prove that it is a worthy partner and able to integrate most important players of the region. This would in return bring CIS countries closer to Russia and increase its impact in the region. Going further, Russia would have at hand a possibility to extend cooperation within the Collective Security Treaty Organization.

Ukrainian way

It is very clear that integration projects of Russia and Europe are incomparable in terms of scale and intensity; though Ukraine would have much more opportunities to get involved in real decision-making in the former case. Therefore if we take into account that ruling elites are accountable to voters and are willing to be re-elected in the next term, it is possible that we will witness very mixed outcomes.


Even though the European Union can offer a lot, its indecisiveness and inability to act in palpable terms can lead to stagnation in the relationship, thus offering a chance for Russia. Sometimes the costs of hesitation can be much higher than taking swift decisions, even if they have some flaws. This is where hands of the European Union are tied and Russia’s capabilities for actions are free as a bird.


After all it would be blind for Ukraine to accept the first offer to come – the time is on its side. We have witnessed Ukraine’s decision to take non-block status in NATO and wavering between both sides and I would not be very surprised if it were a clever tactic of negotiation. After all, it seems as the wisest thing to do at the moment.


[1] Füle, Štefan: Speech: Address to the Members of the Ukrainian Parliament. European Commission, 7 February 2013, Kiev, Ukraine. Available on-line: (Retrieved on 9 February 2013)

[2] Krasnolutska, Daryna: Ukraine Handed November Deadline on EU Association Pact. Bloomberg, 7 February 2013, 11:40 AM. Available on-line: (Retrieved on 10 February 2013)

[3] Russia denies bullying Ukraine into its customs union. EurActiv, 6 February 2013. Available on-line: (Retrieved on 10 February 2013)

[4] Interfax-Ukraine: Poll: Ukrainians treat joining EU and Customs Union equally. KyivPost, 10 October 2012, 6:01 PM. Available on-line: (Retrieved on 10 February 2013)  

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