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2014 was supposed to be the year that changed everything. After the Euromaidan Revolution and the ouster of Russia-backed president Viktor Yanukovych, the future of Ukraine seemed brighter than for a long time.

The West viewed events in Kiev as a triumph for liberal democracy, and its leaders spoke of integrating Ukraine into organizations such as NATO and the European Union. This was music to the ears of many Ukrainians, and some began to dream of replicating the economic growth and rise in living standards experienced by neighbouring Poland. Things moved quickly as agreements were signed, reforms introduced, and EU flags sprang up around the country. Both the West and Ukraine seemed optimistic that the road to Brussels and Washington was clear.

However, things were not so simple. Lost in the euphoria (especially in the West) were the cold, hard realities of Ukraine’s geopolitics. The country acts as a buffer state between the West, Russia, and the Middle East.  Accordingly, the EU, Russia, the United States, China, and Turkey have stakes in the country and are wary of the others’ intentions. This has left Ukraine in a state of paralysis as any movement towards one of these actors will lead to a reaction from the others.

An examination of the imperatives of the major players in Ukraine helps explain why each of them monitors events in Kiev so closely. Their involvement may ebb and flow, but their long-term strategic interests help explain why the future direction of the country is uncertain

The EU began the process of reconciliation with Ukraine shortly after the events in Maidan. Brussels showed its support by failing to recognize Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, and levied economic sanctions against the Kremlin because of their involvement in the war in eastern Ukraine. The 2017 Ukraine-European Union Association Agreement included economic and political provisions as well as visa-free access to the EU. In recent years, several member states have also voiced support for Ukraine during its protracted oil and gas transit negotiations with Russia.

In spite of the optimism recent events suggest Ukraine is not a top priority for Brussels at present. Already divided over a multitude of issues, relations with Russia are again causing friction within the bloc. Former Soviet satellites such as Poland and the Baltic states remain wary of Moscow, but security and economic concerns are pushing heavyweights France and Germany towards rapprochement.

In 2019 French president Emmanuel Macron announced his “Russia Reset” policy, and backed Russia’s presence at the 2020 G20 summit. Across the Rhine, Germany’s export-driven economy is sagging due to falling demand in places like China as well as the specter of tariffs on key industries such as automobiles. Germany and Russia have extensive business connections with perhaps the most famous example being the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which carries natural gas directly to Germany under the Baltic Sea. The pipeline is controversial and bypasses Ukraine thus depriving it of much needed transit fees. Merkel recently visited Putin in Moscow, and Berlin is desperately looking for new markets for its products. However, overtures towards Russia are viewed with deep suspicion in Kiev.

The E.U. was already at odds with itself over migration, budgets, and the question of whether to expand or reform the bloc. It may not have the appetite to follow through on the promises of 2014.

Despite its own problems, Russia has few choices when it comes to its neighbor. A history of  invasions from the west has resulted in strategic depth being a cornerstone of Russian foreign policy. The idea is that countries such as Ukraine serve as buffer states protecting the Russian heartland from attack across the naturally defenseless Northern European Plains. The buffer once extended all the way to East Germany, but has been repeatedly rolled back since the end of the Cold War. Russian anxieties grew as NATO and the E.U. expanded into Poland and the Baltic and the accession of Ukraine into these organizations would be viewed as an existential threat.

This is why the Kremlin will remain an active participant in Ukraine. Russia is investing in infrastructure to help consolidate its control over Crimea, and it is unlikely that the war in eastern Ukraine will soon end. Moscow will continue to use energy as a weapon against Kiev, which has seen its leverage as a transit hub for Russian energy exports diminish thanks to Nord Stream 2 as well as the Turk Stream pipelines.

Further afield others are casting their eyes on Ukraine. The U.S. seems intent on bolstering NATO’s eastern defensive line wherever possible. It has provided military aid to Ukraine in support of the war in the east, but it is debatable how much more it will do. The U.S. already has a sizeable military presence in Poland and Romania, and is well aware of the fact that any interference in Ukraine will risk a reaction from Russia. Like the EU, the U.S. is more focused on other foreign policy issues such as China, Iran, North Korea, and Syria. As 2020 is an election year, it’s safe to assume the White House will be largely passive observers in the short term.

To the east, China has been using its economic clout to expand its sphere of influence throughout Eurasia, and is increasing investment in European countries. It has been on an infrastructure building spree in places such as Greece, Montenegro, and Hungary, and Ukraine is no exception. China sees Ukraine as a pillar of its Belt and Road Initiative and is also interested in its agricultural products and military technology. With deep pockets and seemingly limitless ambition, China figures to become an increasingly important player in Ukraine in the years ahead.

Finally, a newly assertive Turkey has been flexing its muscles in the Middle East, Mediterranean, and southern Europe. On a recent trip to Kiev, Turkish president Erdogan pledged some $36 million in military aid to Ukraine, and repeated that Turkey does not recognize Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Turkish construction firms are also winning an ever larger share of contracts in the country, and the two nations share historical ties. Although its footprint in southern Europe remains small compared to the others, Erdogan’s aspirations for Turkey as well as its close proximity means it too has long-term interests in Ukraine’s great game.

Six years on from 2014 Ukrainian E.U. membership seems more distant than ever as Brussels. In light of these issues, some have begun wondering whether Ukraine would be better served steering clear of the European integration project. In any case, those in the West who claimed victory all those years ago were taking a very shortsighted view of things. They took it for granted that Ukraine would be allowed to proceed unimpeded into the Western camp. What they failed to recognize is that Ukraine is and will continue to be very important to a host of foreign powers. It is a flashpoint where the geopolitical imperatives of many nations cross, converge, and clash. None of these outside players has the right mix of strength and will to dominate Ukraine, and so Kiev continues to exist in a sort of limbo. Unless this dynamic changes, Ukraine’s future will continue to be uncertain. This is the cold reality of geopolitics.

Rob Burger is a Canadian working in Ukraine.


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