Ukraine, the EU, and Russia: Pragmatic Pendulum Policy
BERLIN -- "The King is dead. Long live the King!" is a traditional proclamation made following the accession of a new monarch. The same pragmatic approach was adopted by the EU Commission President when the new Ukrainian President visited Brussels Monday on his first official trip abroad: José Manuel Barroso, in welcoming Viktor Yanukovich as a"friend," focused on the fact that his guest had been elected in a process that was free and fair and notably ignored the President's past.
Today, Yanukovich is on his second official trip abroad -- to Moscow. He won the Ukrainian election in the Russian-speaking south and east of his country. From Moscow's point of view, that means many issues might become easier. For example, Yanukovich -- like Moscow -- is against NATO membership for Ukraine. Yanukovich -- like Moscow -- is also in favor of extending the deployment of the Russian Black Sea fleet in the Crimea after 2017. Indeed, his pressing of the"reset button" in Ukraine's relations with Russia contrasts sharply with his predecessor Yushchenko's aversion to Russia. Oddly enough, Yanukovich's new charm offensive toward Moscow makes it easier for the EU to pursue a more open and integrated neighborhood policy with Ukraine. For the past five years, and precisely because of Kiev's aversion to Moscow, any type of cooperation between Brussels and Kiev was viewed with suspicion from Moscow, and some in Brussels became intimidated by Russian growling.
Combined with Ukrainian political and economic deficiencies, European excuses for not working more closely with Ukraine were widespread. President Yanukovich understands that improved engagement with the EU is in his country's interest.
Ukraine's ailing economy needs greater integration into the European Common Market. Even the oligarchs from Ukraine's Russian-speaking regions that back Yanukovich are far more interested in access to European markets than in the sometimes dirty struggles with Russian businessmen. With the EU-Ukraine negotiations about the Association Agreement and a deeper Free Trade Agreement, the EU has adequate mechanisms in place to integrate Ukraine's economy into the European market. Besides this, Yanukovich looks for EU support for securing loans from the International Monetary Fund. Barroso himself promised the disbursement of another 500 million euros if Ukraine meets the conditions for IMF loans. At Monday's talks in Brussels, reform of Ukraine's opaque gas sector played a central role, as 80 percent of the EU gas imports from Russia pass through Ukraine. The country's gas sector might serve as a textbook example for a "de facto" integration of Ukraine's industry -- if the Ukrainian government in the long term is able to meet European transparency standards. Eventually, such a pragmatic "de facto" integration of Ukrainian industry sectors into the European market might include free trade and visa-free travel. Certainly, it is the most promising route for a rapprochement between Ukraine and the EU given the reservations harbored by most EU member states toward the idea of a Ukrainian membership bid. It remains to be seen whether Yanukovich's efforts to rebalance Ukraine's position between Moscow and Brussels is a deliberate move to maintain his country's independence from Russia or a pragmatic move to help get his country's economy back on its feet.
In the meantime, improved relations between the Ukraine and the EU might make it difficult for Europe to keep Ukraine waiting before its closed doors.
Jörg Himmelreich is a Senior Transatlantic Fellow with the German Marshall Fund in Berlin.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.