Ukraine and the geopolitical dilemma

Last month’s Ukrainian parliamentary elections, which saw the party of the newly elected president Zelensky, “Servant of the people” triumph, brought the country back to the center of attention of international media and observers. Zelensky, in office since May, after the March elections where he got 73% of the vote, had been elected on a “popular” platform, a party that came out of nowhere, or rather from the world of television fiction. The new political force was founded on the desire for renewal of a disillusioned electorate against the old and traditional practices of Ukrainian political life. A revolution that resulted in blood and a war had not been enough to satisfy the need for renewal many Ukrainians felt.

Ukraine between Russia and the West

The second triumph of Zelensky, now not only president but also with a parliamentary majority, brought up considerations on the special character of Ukraine’s role in the fragile balance between Europe, America and Russia.During the electoral campaign Zelensky had declared himself willing to a referendum to decide once and for all a question that, in postrevolutionary Ukraine, had become of symbolic and epochal importance: that of a possible future membership of Ukraine to NATO. A question that Zelensky’s predecessor, Petro Poroshenko, had made the most important in the new Ukraine, together with that of a possible future entry into the European Union, enshrining them in the constitution of the country. In fact, departing from the strongly pro-Western course of post-Maidan Ukraine would be unconstitutional. The prospect of a new president and a new government perhaps willing to compromise with Moscow had gave no little reason for worry to quite a few European and American analysts, but in the political framework of post-Maidan Ukraine, this outcome was extremely unlikely.

But why is Ukraine so important? Why do Europe and the United States need Ukraine? The crisis of winter 2013-14, with the revolution that led to the fall of President Yanukovich, the loss of the Crimea and the war in the Donbass have led many to go back to Zbigniew Brzezinski, the former US national security adviser of Polish origin under President Carter. Brzezinski, one of the architects of the war in Afghanistan in the 1980s (he armed those mujahideen of whom a certain Osama Bin Laden was part who would later become Al Qaeda) became until his death in 2017 one of the great sages of American foreign policy. In his book “The Big Chessboard: American Supremacy and its Geopolitical Imperatives”, which appeared in 1997 and where not a little attention is paid to Ukraine he wrote: “Without Ukraine, Russia ceases to be an empire, but with an overturned and subordinate Ukraine, Russia automatically becomes an imperial power”.

1991: A new nation is born

When in 1991 the then President of the United States George Bush father visited the Soviet Union, he found time to give a speech at the Rada, the Ukrainian parliament (every republic of the Union had its own parliament).  In his speech he invited the Ukraine not to rush to part with the Soviet Union. Things went differently and within a few months, after the failed coup by the Soviet establishment’s hardliners against Gorbachev’s liberalizations, the 15 republics of the Soviet Union, including Ukraine (and Russia) declared independence.

A country like Ukraine, born (or re-emerged) from the ruins of an imploded empire could not, for different reasons, be a geopolitical actor –  in the brutal arena of geopolitics, it could be only a subject. A leading player in the Ukrainian geopolitical situation was, from the moment of independence but to a lesser extent even before, the United States, after the fall of the Soviet Union, the only geopolitical actor on a truly global scale. The United States, both in terms of direct assistance, with organs such as USAID, and through the work of numerous non-governmental organizations, invested several billion dollars in Ukraine.

The purpose of this aid was to promote the creation of a state loyal to the pro-American Atlanticist order, which for almost two decades, between the collapse of the Warsaw Pact and the 2008-2009 financial crisis, was seen and advocated by many as the only order worldwide possible and ultimately inevitable. “The vision that the United States has for Ukraine has remained constant for more than 10 years,” said in 2004 the then deputy assistant secretary for European and Eurasian affairs Stevel Pifer in a report to the US Congress. “The US government wants to see a stable, independent, democratic, economically prosperous Ukraine, a country that is gradually approaching European and Euro-Atlantic institutions”. As a general rule, this kind of references are immediately dismissed as “Russian propaganda”, but in this case to speak simply of propaganda and typical Russian paranoia seems really difficult. As Victoria Nuland, another assistant secretary of, said, the United States often had around 5 billion dollars between 1992 and 2013 to give the Ukrainians “the government they deserve”.

Orange Country

Ukraine emerged for the first time in the awareness of the international community with the Orange Revolution of 2004. Until then Ukraine had been considered a country capable of cultivating more or less cordial relations with Russia (even if the then president Kuchma, now considered as a pro-Russian politician, was the author of a book with the programmatic title: “Ukraine is not Russia”). After the Orange Revolution, Ukraine would no longer be the same. The suspect of electoral fraud that led to the repetition of the second round of the presidential election, with the result of the runoff between the candidate Yushchenko and Yanukovich overturned. The presidency of Yushchenko was marked by the same tendencies that would have already been seen in an even more pronounced way in the post-revolutionary Ukraine of 2014. The Revolution of 2004 too was an anti-Russian, anti-imperial, pro European and Western revolution.

Already in 2008, during the NATO assembly in Bucharest, there was talk of the intention to include Ukraine and Georgia in the Atlantic alliance, now led by pro-American president Saakashvili. Of the promise made to Gorbachev at the time of the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact in 1989 that NATO would not have expanded to the East, reference was no longer made, indeed any mention of that “promise” was now discredited by official NATO publications as a “myth”.

US – Russia overload

After the war in Georgia in 2008, the Atlanticist ambitions of Ukraine were greatly reduced. Obama’s new “anti-imperialist” presidency, which at first sought a reset of relations with Russia, also played a role. Famous and full of symbolism in view of future events was the moment when the new secretary of state Hillary Clinton presented to her analogue, the Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov, a big red button with the inscription: “Peregruzka”. Lavrov, who enjoys the reputation of being an excellent linguist, was quick to point out the mistake: “Peregruzka means overload, reset is called perezagruzka”.

It is in this context, with the United States distracted by the events in Iraq, Afghanistan, China, Syria, that the Ukrainian crisis of 2013-14 develops. After several hesitations due to the Timoshenko affair, Janukovich’s rival in the 2010 presidential election, now imprisoned by the president on charges of putting Ukraine’s national security at risk with a gas agreement signed with Russia in 2009. L The European Union decides to proceed anyway, although Julia Timoshenko continues to be in prison for what appear to be political reasons. Ukraine is too important. With an association agreement, whose signature is scheduled for November 29, 2013 during a summit in Vilnius. When the revolution  was followed by chaos and then war, the United States took the reins and became the most important partner of Ukraine, in the face of a slightly hesitant Europe.

War or Peace?

Five years after the revolution, with the association agreement with the EU signed, relations between Ukraine and Russia now seem to have been compromised for a long time, especially in view of the annexation of the Crimea and the war in the Donbass. Ukraine seems to be quite happy to have soured all relations with Russia, because this development endeared Ukraine to the West. There is, however, a crucial point in this strained relationship, a problem apparently inextricable: that of Russian gas and of its transit to the European markets. Ukraine, ostentatiously intending to break all relations with Russia and to position itself internationally as the anti-Russia, does not want at any cost to lose the transit of Russian gas in Europe, which until recently mostly came to Europe through Ukraine.

It seems paradoxical: the Ukrainian government in recent years declared that it is at war with Russia, and at the same time it was fighting with all the weapons at its disposal to maintain what for many years had been its most important resource. Transit fees earn Ukraine 3 billion dollars a year, money that for a country like Ukraine is more or less a tenth of the annual budget. Hence the crusade of Ukraine against the North Stream 2 and the total opposition to Russia’s attempts to diversify the transport of gas to Europe. Ukraine oddly argues that the transit of Russia gas is the only thing that keeps Russia from invading the whole of the country. But without the transit, Ukraine appears to have little value left for Russia. Moreover, Ukrainian pipelines date back to the Soviet era and within a few years they could be unusable, unless they are renewed. Given the current state of affairs, this seems rather unlikely: Russia has already signaled that she would be ready to diversify the supply routes to Europe bypassing Ukraine entirely. So Ukraine is left with on the one hand position herself as the bastion of the West against Russia, while on the other hand being dependent on Russia for a consistent part of her revenues. It is, without much doubt, a rather unstable position.

Stepan Antonov is freelance journalist and the author of “Battle for Ukraine: Ukraine between Russia and West”. You can buy it on Amazon on Kindle and paperback.

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