Is Ukraine at War? Navigating Ukraine’s Geopolitical Conundrum
In April this year, amidst rising tensions with Russia, a Ukrainian diplomat warned that Kyiv may be forced to acquire nuclear weapons to safeguard the country’s security if NATO does not accede to its membership demand. On the same lines, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky challenged his Russian counterpart President Vladimir Putin, to meet him in eastern Ukraine’s Donbass region to talk on ending ongoing conflict in the region. He further urged the west to give “clear signals” of whether they were willing to support the country in its standoff with Russia.
But why has this situation emerged? Why is NATO and west so reluctant to proceed with forming partnership with Ukraine? Is Russia aggressive towards Ukraine? And as no geopolitical conflict in today’s complex world is possible in isolation or between just two parties, who are the other actors involved in this conflict? This paper investigates these questions to analyse the case of post-soviet Ukraine and how Ukraine remains important to the geopolitical dynamics of not just the post-soviet space, but also the broader Eurasian region as well as the world.
Ukraine has been often deemed as the cornerstone of the Soviet Union. It was not only the second-most populous republic, after Russia, but was also home to much of the Soviet Union’s agricultural production, defence industries and military. However, Ukraine’s history is intertwined deeply with the birth of Russian kingdom itself, as the beginning of Ukraine was the establishment of Kievan Rus which united the Eastern Slavs and laid the foundation for Russian identity.
After centuries of direct existence under Russian rule however, Ukraine post-1991, decided to embark on its separate journey, hoping to de-intertwine its fate with that of Russia’s. However, this has not become a success to the extent Ukrainian leaders might have expected. The nation’s proximity to Russia has meant that any government in Moscow will do anything in its capacity to maintain some control over Kiev’s foreign as well as defence policy, in order to keep at bay any adventurist objectives by the western bloc of EU and US.
Today, Russian policy’s primary aim is to keep Ukraine out of foreign alliances and geopolitical blocs like that of EU and NATO, and for this, periodic show of strength has become an explicit policy in the last decade for Russia. Further, post the Russia-Ukraine conflict of 2014, where Russia allegedly invaded Ukraine and annexed Crimea according to Russian critics, NATO has been forced to increase its presence in the Black Sea region where Crimean Peninsula exists geographically and has stepped up maritime cooperation with Ukraine (as well as Georgia, who too have similar concerns with Russia).
However, although the relations between NATO and Ukraine were updated in June 2020 and Ukraine is now one of the six countries having tag of ‘Enhanced Opportunity Partner’ and makes significant contributions to NATO operations and other alliance objectives, NATO’s scepticism and reluctance on giving full member status to Ukraine is seen in Ukrainian political circles as west’s non-serious attitude towards the nation.
Similarly, while EU remains the most important trading partner for Ukraine, its path to becoming an EU member has been harder than the leaders would have imagined. In the later parts of this article, the 2013 trade war between Ukraine and Russia over the possibility of Ukraine joining EU, and the subsequent toppling of the presidential regime in Ukraine in the next few months is highlighted.
However, even though Russia, EU and NATO have been primary geopolitical actors in Ukraine, recently, new actors have joined the ongoing geopolitical conundrum. The entry of the likes of China and Turkey has not only made the situation more complex but has also raised the stakes for the primary actors. Ukraine has in recent years, encouraged the presence of Chinese businesses in its market and welcomed further expansion of bilateral trade and economic cooperation, to the extent that in 2019, China replaced Russia as Ukraine’s main bilateral partner.
In case of Turkey, president Tayyip Erdogan has time and again reaffirmed its support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity as well as Ukraine’s bid to join NATO. Further, Turkey-Ukraine cooperation in the military sector has dramatically increased in the recent years, replacing the traditional Russian base. Interestingly though, Ankara has maintained and has even grown in its partnership with Moscow which somehow softens the stance towards conflict between Ukraine and Russia as gets limited to following the EU-US stance more often than not, unlike in the case of Azerbaijan-Armenia’s Nagorno-Karabakh conflict where Turkey had explicitly supported Azerbaijan when Russia has tried to balance between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
The Perennial Question: What does Russia want?
Prior to 2014 Ukraine-Russia conflict, Russia had hoped to have Ukraine into its single market project- Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) and benefit from the enormous Ukrainian market and population which could have boosted Russian industrial base. However, post the conflict, any hopes for integrating Russia-Ukraine markets have collapsed. Whereas Russia supplied most of Ukraine’s gas until 2014, the supply stopped entirely by 2016. Today, Russia is looking to complete infrastructure projects in terms of energy commodities, which would bypass Ukraine to starve Ukraine from the billions of dollars of transit fee that Russia has paid since long to Ukraine to reach Central and Eastern European markets.
Further, since 2014, EU became the main trading partner and has been in talks with Ukraine since very long for Ukraine’s accession to EU. However, Russia for long has seen EU membership as an immediately preceding step to NATO accession, and hence sees the aspect of avoiding EU membership for Ukraine as not only an element of Russian economic policy, but also that of its security policy. Further, Russia now sees EU as not just an economic bloc, but ‘a potential great-power centre in the making’, whose further expansion in post-soviet region is bound to negatively affect Russian credentials of a hegemon as well as the arbiter in the regional conflicts.
Russia’s recent mobilisation of troops at the Ukrainian borders which was more of show of strength rather than a potential act of aggression, had raised concerns in the new US presidential regime. In one interview, Russian defence minister Sergei Shoigu explicitly linked Russia’s mass-mobilization drills to NATO’s ‘Defender Exercise’, which has been the biggest military exercise taken in the Black Sea region since the cold war era, saying that ‘The scale of US led military activity required response’. In a way, Ukraine has become a battleground for both Russia and US to showcase their influence and Ukrainian leadership is finding itself in a dilemma, being unsure and insecure of the extent of intentions from both the warring blocs.
The Western Dilemma: Why Ukraine still not in EU and NATO?
There have been several factors at work which has made Ukraine’s path to membership to EU and NATO difficult. Firstly, in the recent years, there has been a concern in the EU political circles that there is no political will in Ukraine to fight vested interests and go beyond the promises of showing credible commitment to genuine domestic reforms.
However, on the flip side, the argument is often made that beyond financial and technical assistance that EU can provide to Ukraine and its market, Brussels does not have any new offer to motivate Kyiv in implementing reforms. Further, since the coming of new presidency in 2019 (of Zelensky), the primary focus of the government has shifted to resolving the Donbass conflict where Ukraine is struggling against separatists in Donetsk and Lugansk, who are allegedly supported by the Russian side.
Moreover, it is also an open secret that many member nations in EU itself would prefer to have a different relationship with Russia, who since 2014 has been facing several sanctions in realm of trade, be it in energy sector, consumer goods, or defence and space technology. This is clear when we take in consideration the case of Germany and how the government has for long insisted on getting the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project completed amidst mounting pressure from other members of EU and the US. The project is expected to resolve the energy demand issue for majority of German households for the near future once in function.
In Russia, EU is deemed as the ‘Trojan horse’ for NATO expansion as already mentioned before. However, for NATO, a different set of concerns exist altogether. NATO has been wary of Russia’s continued destabilization of eastern Ukraine and the continuing unrest in the Donbass region. If, however, Ukraine becomes a NATO member, any such conflict would mandate NATO to get involved in the region and aid Ukraine, which then might escalate in a bigger conflict. And this is another important reason for NATO’s restrained stance.
China- The ‘Well-settled’ player in Ukrainian Market
In recent times, China’s economic might has enabled it to leverage the benefits in a variety of ways. Not only does China influence the decisions indirectly at times, but any economy which is intertwined and dependent on Chinese economy, can today expect to feel direct effects of this economic inter-dependency when it comes to foreign policy. An increasingly observable phenomenon is that China in gaining foothold much quicker in those nations of the post-soviet space, where Russia is deemed as a hostile neighbour or state. This was visible in a 2020 public opinion survey by SOCIS which highlighted that almost 60 percent of Ukrainians see Chin as a ‘neutral’ state even if only 13 percent see China as ‘friendly’, but over 63 percent see Russia has a ‘hostile’ state, with only 5 percent deeming Russia as ‘friendly’.
Today, China is complementing Ukraine for its deficits, for instance in the field of technology and defence where it is replacing Russia and competing with Turkey, and in realm of exports, China is proving to be a worthy destination for Ukraine’s agricultural products by having a large population and increasingly developed market system. This is quite clear by the statistics which show that Ukrainian exports to China surged 98% in 2020 driven by iron ore, grains, and palm oil. Ukraine’s president on his part recently praised China for respecting Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and highlighted China’s assistance in combating COVID-19, however, it remains to be seen how these developments would be perceived by both US and Russia.
Turkey- An Emerging Vector
Turkey-Ukraine cooperation in military technology has increased dramatically post the 2014 Russia-Ukraine conflict and today, Ankara supports Kyiv’s bid for membership to NATO as well as peaceful solution to the conflict in Donbass (Donetsk and Luhansk region). Further, in April this year, the two sides pledged in a 20-point statement, ‘to coordinate steps aimed at restoring the territorial integrity of Ukraine within its internationally recognized borders, in particular the de-occupation of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea… as well as the territories of Donetsk and Luhansk regions’.
However, there is a renewed enthusiasm in the recent Ankara-Moscow dynamics, where the two have come closer since President Erdogan’s policies have become more nationalistic and non-secular in nature, driving Turkey away from the ambit of west and US, and raising concerns about the increasingly populistic approach being undertaken by Turkish government. Further, US’ plans to build new naval bases in the Black Sea region and enhancing military cooperation with Ukraine and Georgia also concerns Turkey, as it directly would result in reduced role of Turkey and a blow to Turkish president’s ambitions of renewing Turkey’s status as a regional powerhouse.
The seven-year war between Ukraine and Russia, which is still ongoing, has changed the relationship between the two countries completely and permanently. Since Ukrainian market is now open to EU and China, a competition to dominate this market is soon to become more and more visible. While Russia would want to avoid Ukraine’s EU accession till as long as possible, Moscow will go to even greater lengths to prevent Ukraine’s NATO membership. On its part, not only will NATO be wary of Russian insecurities, but it will also consider the fact that increasing tensions with Moscow might push it towards Beijing, and a possible military alliance between the two military powers might be the greatest challenge for NATO in the coming future.
Since Russia has lacked the economic might post the Soviet union’s dissolution, an alliance with China might balance out almost every limitation that Russia and China have in terms of their superpower capabilities. EU on the other hand keeps a close eye on developments in Kyiv too. Although Kyiv is yet to come up with overhauling reforms which would strengthen EUs believe in Ukrainian system, EU member states themselves will need to overcome a sort of internal division, where several member states hope of having a more normal relationship with Moscow. US on its part is expected to align with Turkey and US in bringing Ukraine in close cooperation with EU and NATO and to do everything possible to detach Kyiv from a possible rapprochement with Moscow.
It remains to be seen, how other post-Soviet states like Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan react to these developments taking place in Ukraine and assimilate this in their own discourse of balancing the west and Russia.
This article was republished from Modern Diplomacy.