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A Close Look at Ukraine

November 3, 2003
Council on Foreign Relations

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[Note: A transcript of this meeting is unavailable. The discussion is summarized below.]

What We Know

Ukraine's trajectory in the past three years has been marked by contradictions and tensions causing much frustration among Western policymakers. Though Ukraine has expressed interest in integration with the West and NATO membership, it pursues arrangements with Russia that seem at odds with that interest. The most recent example is the single common economic space agreement with Russia and two other former Soviet republics.

U.S.-Ukrainian relations over the past three years—starting with the murder of the Ukrainian journalist Heorhiy Gongadze— have experienced both highs and lows. A low point in the relationship was President Kuchma's authorization to sell the Kolchuga radar system to Saddam Hussein, although it is not clear that the transfer actually took place. The Kolchuga issue has not been dropped from the U.S.-Ukrainian agenda, but it has been superceded by discussions on improving the Ukrainian export control system, which is very weak.

To improve relations with the United States, Kuchma sent troops to the Middle East. At present Ukraine is the fourth largest military contributor in Iraq. This has not yet completely reversed Ukraine's negative image in Washington. U.S. policymakers tend to focus on Kuchma and often do not see that there is more to Ukraine's development than its leader.

What We Don't Know

Will Ukraine be able to develop a vision of what kind of country it wants to be?

The United States appreciates Ukraine's constructive engagement on Iraq but relations with the United States will depend on what type of democracy Ukraine becomes. The presidential elections in 2005 are very important. If the country elects a more a respectable figure than Kuchma, Washington's attitude towards Ukraine may improve. There have been suggestions that Kuchma wants to extend his presidency to a third term, although in public he has rejected this idea. If Kuchma is offered an acceptable package, like Yeltsin, he may step down. Groups favoring a parliamentary republic are also getting stronger.

Does Ukraine have a real European option?

For other Eastern European countries, the prospect of EU integration has proven to be a crucial motive for pursuing democracy and market reform. The Europeans are now ignoring Ukraine and do not want to address the long-term issue of possible membership particularly in light of the already full EU agenda.

Ukraine is included in the Wider Europe Initiative which deals with the EU's NIS and Mediterranean neighbors. Many Ukrainians are not happy with this designation. Other issues also stand in the way of improving relations with the EU, such as difficult economic compromises on Ukraine's eventual WTO membership.

On the positive side, Polish- Ukrainian business and political contacts have intensified over the past few years and it is possible that after enlargement new EU members with ties to Ukraine will push for more substantial engagement.

Will Ukrainian civil society become strong enough to influence the democratic process?

Ukraine's civil society is already vibrant, but it is not clear how influential it will be in the next presidential elections. Whatever long-term role independent organizations may have, they will probably have little impact in 2005. It is also possible that despite the emergence of civil society and outside pressure to democratize, Ukraine may follow the path of the republics of the Caucasus that have not become functioning democracies.

What will Russia's role be in Ukraine's domestic and foreign policy?

Kuchma enjoys good relations with Putin, and they meet regularly. Russia is interested in maintaining an influential position in Ukraine, and Ukraine has practically ceded over control its oil and gas sector to Russia. It is unlikely that Russia will give up its ambitions toward its neighbor. It will continue to interfere in Ukraine's affairs, but its chances of success are limited by Ukraine's growing self-confidence. The recent spat over the border island of Tuzla has shown that Ukraine can assert independence with strong popular support.

How can the United States, the EU, and Ukraine promote its Western orientation?

Most participants agreed that Ukraine needs to decide where it wants to be. This will help the country be less dependent on Russia and will enable it to offer more to its Western partners.

Most participants also believe that the United States needs to remain engaged in Ukraine. The United States and its Western partners could create a roadmap to a NATO Membership Action Plan (MAP) to help guide Ukraine further down the Western integration path. Ukraine will inevitably be a crucial factor in the overall U.S. policy toward the former Soviet Union. At present, the United States lacks a vision for the FSU countries, many of which are following divergent trajectories.

The EU also needs to develop a vision for Ukraine. At the moment Ukraine is not on the radar screen of many EU politicians, and they lack ideas for how to engage Ukraine. Russia, on the other hand, is interested in strengthening its political and economic position in Ukraine at the expense of closer ties with the West. Without consistent engagement by the EU and the United States, Russian aims could easily succeed.

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