Between the Bear and a New Rome: Ukraine’s Geopolitical Choice
On November 21st, the Ukrainian government announced it was halting negotiations over a free trade and economic development agreement with the European Union (EU). This was justified as necessary in the hopes of reestablishing normal political and economic relations with Russia. President Putin had recently warned that an agreement between Kiev and Brussels would be considered a “major betrayal” by Moscow. One must hence wonder what geopolitical path Ukraine will take in the future, looking towards Russia or Europe as its patron and ally. To answer this, one can look at different IR paradigms and the framework they provide to understand the situation.
During the Warsaw Pact was the USSR’s response to the creation of NATO by the West. By creating a military alliance encompassing all Soviet states and satellites, the Politburo hoped to balance the bipolar system and increase its security. As such, Ukrainian involvement in similar Russian-led organizations today encompassing economic and security integration (such as the Commonwealth of Independent States or the proposed Eurasian Union) are best explained by the realist paradigm. Russia trying to grasp Ukraine away from the EU’s claws would undeniably fall under concerns of state power and security in an anarchic international system based on self-help, while Ukrainian involvement would be an example of bandwagoning in the face of a powerful, aggressive neighbour.
And indeed, it seems that security issues are prevalent in the fluctuating cycle of EU relations with ex-Soviet nations. The Russian president has argued that he considers a possible Ukrainian move towards the union as potentially conducive to great stress on the Russian economy, deemed unacceptable. The common understanding for Ukraine’s decision on Thursday is that it caved to the Russian flexing of their economic muscles. This summer saw increased controls on Ukrainian imports at the Russian border. Combined with Russian threats of further interference in case of an agreement with the EU, sweetened by proposals of cheap credits for natural gas, Ukraine was cornered.
Therefore, not only is Russia’s part of the story explained by realist concerns of security, but Ukraine’s decision to abide by Moscow’s directives and stop discourse with the EU can also be explained thus. In fact, the neo-classical version of the realist paradigm is most helpful here. Indeed, Kiev’s actions can most strongly be linked to a perceived domestic constraint created by the Russian economic threats. And as that same threat gets filtered down through a president who is known to have stronger sympathies towards the country’s neighbour than the EU, we get the logical ending: Ukraine is not currently looking to build strong political and economic ties with the EU.
Of course, the constructivist framework should be considered here as well. The most obvious example of an issue explained by this framework is the controversy surrounding the imprisonment of Ioulia Timochenko, President Ianokovitch’s main political adversary. In truth, she is currently hospitalized in Kharkiv for slipped discs. As such, one of the EU’s conditions for continued rapprochement with Ukraine was for Timochenko to be sent to Germany to receive better medical treatment. President Ianokovitch clearly said that the EU could not credibly make such a demand, which questioned Ukraine’s treatment of its prisoners as well as treated the nation like a child to be scolded. This links into two major socialized norms.
On the one hand, there is the Western liberal rationale that Timochenko is not currently receiving the treatment she deserves as a human being and a prisoner, as well as her status as a quasi-political prisoner. On the other, there is the Ukrainian nationalist persepctive that Europe has a similar tendency to that of the US in its way of seemingly aiming to control lesser developed countries through human rights policies. This can also be tied to the conflicting views currently held by Ukrainians as to whether Russia is inherently bad or inherently good. The government’s decision to move back towards “Mother Russia” and away from the extended hand of the EU was hence followed by major protests throughout the country, demanding the decision to be reconsidered. As such, the constructivist paradigm can explain why Ukrainians have taken to the streets since Thursday, but it doesn’t really say much about why Ianokovitch decided what he did since most relevant socialized norms seem to be too conflictual to lead to a concrete and coherent change in the behaviour of the state.
The protests on Maydan and other Ukrainian city squares also hinder the capacity of the liberal paradigm to satisfactorily justify the move away from the EU. Indeed, people in the streets clearly points to a difference between the public’s opinion and the government’s decisions. Liberals, who would argue that domestic institutions filter popular desires upwards to result in policies which ultimately reflect those same desires, is incapable of explaining here why Ukraine is seeking rapprochement with Russia rather than the EU when so many Ukrainians clearly want the opposite. Furthermore, the liberal argument that multilateral institutions lessen transaction costs would logically make the EU very attractive to a Ukraine that is very heavily indebted and could benefit from the trade advantages conferred by being a member of the Union. However, this is clearly not the case.
In conclusion, realism, and more specifically the neo-classical account of domestic constraints, is apparently the only one out of the three main IR paradigms that can credibly account for the Ukrainian decision to stop its rapprochement efforts towards the EU in favor of pursuing stronger economic and political ties with Russia. Constructivism and liberalism both fail to adequately explain this in a world of globally socialized norms and permanent institutionalization. Logically, unless the EU can provide strong enough economic incentives and grant that Ukraine handle its domestic problems internally, the ex-Soviet country will inevitably seek further relations with its powerful neighbor. This might eventually lead to a sufficient level of economic integration to have a group of countries so closely linked that they will be the logical adversary of the European Union.