RIAC Member Comments

Russia and Ukraine: the European Factor in Post-Soviet Relations

January 2, 2014

Author: Artyom Malgin, PhD in Political Science, Vice-Rector of MGIMO University.


Judging by the latest developments in Ukraine, foreign policy towards Europe has become a major element of Russian-Ukrainian relations, at the same time affecting Kiev's international priorities and, according to some observers, its domestic politics. And the role of Europe is definitely growing, as Ukraine increases the emphasis it is placing on its statehood.     


As far as Russian and Ukrainian foreign policy priorities are concerned, the only equal to Europe is the post-Soviet track. While Kiev reduces the post-Soviet area to Russia, Moscow concentrates on a single country only during a time of crisis. Independent Ukraine managed to do so twice, i.e. in fall-winter 2004-2005 during the Orange Revolution, and in final weeks of 2013 before and after the Eastern Partnership summit in Vilnius.


Photo: izvestia.ru


Despite superficial similarities over the past two decades, the policies of Russia and Ukraine towards Europe have two basic differences. Moscow has proposed an institutional allegiance toward only two structures built on European multilateral mechanisms, i.e. toward the OSCE and the Council of Europe. As for the EU and NATO, the two other main structures, Russia has become content with only surface-level institutional involvement which implies multifaceted exclusive cooperation with the right to dispense harsh criticism and, frequently, stand in opposition.


In contrast to Russia, Ukrainian foreign policy, at least toward the EU since 1998 [1], aims at one positive final result, i.e. full-fledged membership in the European Union. Its determination to join NATO ran into opposition from an unprepared Ukrainian society and the unwillingness of the elite to forcibly transform the environment. At the same time, the Ukrainian foreign policy establishment regards NATO as the foundation of the European military-political landscape, although it does not see prospects for Ukraine joining the bloc [2].


Due to the peculiar location of the NATO track of its European policy, since 2008 Kiev has focused on advancing relations with the EU. At that, we must emphasize the supra-partisan and supra-presidential character of the European vector. In fact, no president after Leonid Kuchma has attempted to repudiate his European integration strategy.     


Additional proof of the supra-partisan essence of Ukraine’s European (in this case, EU-oriented) policy has come from the successfully completed text of the Association Agreement during the presidency of the pro-Russian Viktor Yanukovich.    


No matter how strange it may seem, over the past three or four years, the trajectory of Kiev's European strategy has been inspired by certain steps by Russia.


First, the range of Russian proposals for integrating Ukraine has narrowed. Focusing on the Customs Union (CU) and the future Eurasian Union, Moscow has neglected further conceptual and practical consideration of the CIS Free Trade Zone or other specific forms of multilateral partnership with Kiev's participation. Regrettably, it is only during crises that Russia comes to realize the inherent worth of Ukraine in post-Soviet affairs.  


Russia has demonstrated its inability to coordinate its policies along several lines and develop two or three scenarios for including Ukraine and other post-Soviet partners. In fact, it was the repeat of the 2003-2004 situation with the Eurasian Economic Union – Common Economic Space (with the participation of Ukraine), when Moscow both conceptually and practically failed to develop two institutional, Russia-centric scenarios. Today we are seeing the same, as the concentration of efforts (which is positive in and of itself) to promote the Customs Union is hampering the development of the CIS Free Trade Zone.   


Second, EU's foreign policy focus on Ukraine to a certain extent also hinges on Russia’s actions. Due to a combination of subjective and objective circumstances (the Georgia-Ossetia conflict, accession to the WTO, and the economic crisis), since 2008 when talks started on the new basic agreement, Russia and the European Union have failed make a single radical step towards legitimizing the genuinely breakthrough agreements of the four common spaces reached during Vladimir Putin's first presidency. Partnership for Modernization, a vaguely outlined simulacrum, does not appear to be a permanent replacement for the strategic vision of Moscow and Brussels. Against this backdrop, for some time, quiet but persistent efforts of Kiev toward Eurointegration could not misfire.    


Adam Daniel Rotfeld, Desmond Browne, Igor Ivanov: Moving Europe Beyond Divisions on Ukraine


As soon as the consequences emerged, the traditional irrational factor, European jealousy, cut in to augment the rational arguments partially presented to Kiev and partially self-understood.   


This factor would not have been that prominent if the Russia-EU common economic space, probably illusionary in absence of Ukraine, gained ground.


Third, the negative developments regarding Ukraine's Eurointegration processes, at first perceived so by Russia and eventually negative in essence, have not been counterbalanced by any kind of solid proposals from Moscow. Some examples might include long-term partnership mechanisms rather than single unconstructive steps, like stricter customs and border inspections.     


On the one hand, persistent and tactically successful attempts to lower the significance of the Ukrainian energy market and transit, plus the creation of appropriate alternatives, have brought about a loss of specific but close inter-elite ties and interests. On the other hand, the offer to Kiev to join the Customs Union fails to account for the fact that the Ukrainian economy is fairly diversified in manufacturing goods in high-competitive sectors (and comparatively low prices and incomes). In a situation like this, entering the CU at a later negotiations stage definitely narrows Kiev's opportunities to reach the level of economic development equal to that of the CU founders.   


Are there mechanisms capable of creating compromise or at least mechanisms for explaining the possibility of a compromise between Ukraine's European policy and Russia's European policy?


The World Trade Organization is undoubtedly the basic common denominator for economic relations, both bilateral and multilateral, be it the Customs Union or CIS Free Trade Zone or Russia-EU or Ukraine-EU. Notably, Ukraine's accession to the WTO indicates that the tariff barriers in the Ukraine-EU format tend toward zero. On the one hand, this demonstrates Kiev's openness towards the EU's economic expansion, while on the other, generates an additional problem for joining the CU.


The assumption of a principled conversion of political accords on the EU-Russia four common spaces, primarily the Common Economic Space, into legally binding agreements virtually forces Moscow to establish an association with the Free Trade Zone as a core element in its relations with Brussels.   


Exceptions to WTO regulations are increasingly becoming the dominant trend. This tendency has led to inter-regional integration projects (integration of integrations), i.e. EU-MERCOSUR, EU-Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf, Asia-Europe Meeting, etc. Such precedents provide at least a theoretical possibility of reaching agreements along the CU-EU and CIS FTZ-EU lines. Paradoxically, Ukraine's refusal to sign the Association Agreement at the Vilnius summit has made EU representatives admit such steps as a possibility of future diplomatic efforts.


The compromise lies in the very formulation and practice of the association. Just as in the case of Turkey, Israel and other Mediterranean partners of Brussels, it is not about the single-step accession to the EU. In the long run, Kiev may become Brussels' partner as respected and self-sufficient as Ankara. 


Most likely, the Vilnius summit could not have brought any other outcome. The Europeans have fearlessly signed association agreements with economically frail Georgia and Moldova. At that, Georgia has been consciously (after 2008) adapting its economy, small according to European standards, to EU norms and rules. The equally humble Moldova conditions its observance of its Association Agreement obligations on the situation with Ukraine's economy, whose part it de facto depends, which is true at least in relation to Transnistria.      


Having tipped its normally rational balance under the pressure of indisputable arguments, Armenia then repudiated its stance, although with a courtly reservation by stating its difficulties in a joint explanatory declaration with the EU.  


Nana Gegelashvilii:: The Vilnius Summit: Armenian Dimension


For Azerbaijan, association and especially the Free Trade Zone are hardly attractive, as its resource-based economy is a mismatch vis-à-vis most EU members, which makes Baku unprepared to adopt suggested interaction schemes for structural reasons. At the same time, Azerbaijan has taken the route of bringing the EU closer to its citizens through stepping up talks on simplifying the visa regime.


Observers with a view beyond the Ukrainian conundrum at the Vilnius summit might have noticed that Belarus was utterly pro-European, although limited in contacts with the EU. Minsk obviously seems likely to return to its traditional pendulum policies in relation to Moscow and Brussels, especially as it has already solved its current problems on the Russian track. The Customs Union as is cannot protect Russia from the Belorussian pendulum. More than that, the tighter the association, the higher the stakes for any move of Minsk toward the West.  


Emotions disregarded, Ukraine's refusal to sign the initialed agreement contains some positive aspects for all interested parties.


One. Ukraine has gained a tactical victory and a trump card for further negotiations on the Association Agreement. Strategically, Kiev has demonstrated that it is still willing to move toward the EU but will not force its way to association and eventual membership. We are likely to see tactical pauses, retreats and other diplomatic maneuvers initiated by Kiev rather than by Brussels.


Two. Russia has realized that Ukraine is serious about its European drive and has consequently amended its policy toward Kiev. In the long run, it should increase the effectiveness of Russia's European and post-Soviet space policies.


Three. Due to tactical deceleration, a long-term formula may emerge for coordinated efforts toward the construction of Greater Europe incorporating Russia, the EU and their common neighbors, Ukraine being the most significant country.





1. Из Стратегіi інтеграції України до Європейського Союзу, 11 червня 1998 року: «Національні інтереси України потребують утвердження України як впливової європейської держави, повноправного члена ЄС. В результаті очікуваного найближчими роками розширення ЄС – вступу до ЄС Польщі та Угорщини – Україна межуватиме з ЄС, що створить принципово нову геополітичну ситуацію. У зв'язку з цим є необхідним чітке та всебічне визначення зовнішньополітичної стратегії щодо інтеграції України до європейського політичного (в тому числі у сфері зовнішньої політики і політики безпеки), інформаційного, економічного та правового простору».


2. ЗАКОН УКРАЇНИ. Про засади внутрішньої і зовнішньої політики. 1 липня 2010 року


«Основними засадами зовнішньої політики є:


дотримання Україною політики позаблоковості, що означає неучасть України у військово-політичних союзах, пріоритетність участі у вдосконаленні та розвитку європейської системи колективної безпеки, продовження конструктивного партнерства з Організацією Північноатлантичного договору та іншими військово-політичними блоками з усіх питань, що становлять взаємний інтерес;


забезпечення інтеграції України в європейський політичний, економічний, правовий простір з метою набуття членства в Європейському Союзі».

Share this article

Poll conducted

  1. In your opinion, what are the US long-term goals for Russia?
    U.S. wants to establish partnership relations with Russia on condition that it meets the U.S. requirements  
     33 (31%)
    U.S. wants to deter Russia’s military and political activity  
     30 (28%)
    U.S. wants to dissolve Russia  
     24 (22%)
    U.S. wants to establish alliance relations with Russia under the US conditions to rival China  
     21 (19%)
For business
For researchers
For students