As EU, NATO and their member-states are getting more and more engrossed by the external and internal challenges, Kyiv and the friends of Ukraine should look for new ways to enhance the country’s security, stability and growth until it joins the two larger Western organizations.
One of such ways could be a more intense and better development of the bilateral relations with friendly states across the globe, including the USA. In addition, Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova should try developing multilateral organizations with post-Communist NATO and EU member-states in Eastern Europe. This article continues a series of publications on the geopolitical significance of coronacrisis and its consequences recently started by the authors in the Mirror Weekly Ukraine and the website of European Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin .
Far-reaching political consequences of the ongoing pandemic are particularly dangerous for the international relations of weak countries located in the so-called geopolitical “grey zones”, i.e. those that do not have international institutional affiliations . Countries like Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova, which are not big military or economic powers and are not to a significant degree involved in major defense alliances and trade unions, are particularly at risk .
For Kyiv, Tbilisi and Chisinau this multifaceted crisis can additionally mean that their stalling integration into Western organizations will become even slower .
Problems with the EU and NATO
Programs involving Ukraine such as the EU’s Eastern Partnership or NATO’s Individual Partnership Action Plan will, most likely, go on or, maybe, will be reinforced . Moreover, in 2019 Ukraine unambiguously enshrined the objective of becoming full EU and NATO member into its Constitution. Nevertheless, these organizations will, perhaps, become more introverted due to growing international uncertainty and inner instability of their member-states throughout this year.
Back in 2019 Ukrainian politicians and experts were deeply disappointed by a number, as per Kyiv, scandalous Western European decisions and signals. In particular, the unjustified return of the Russian delegation to the PACE, from which it was expelled in 2014 for attacking Ukraine, or the strange conciliatory turn in the French President Macron’s rhetoric towards Russia. Moreover, Macron, as it was quickly revealed afterwards, has many supporters in other Western European countries in their desire to change the relationship between the EU and Russia and to start a new partnership in the sphere of security.
Germany has been supporting Ukraine a lot over the past years . Yet, Berlin is still causing irritation to Kyiv and other Eastern European capitals with its short-sighted determination to complete the construction of Nord Stream 2 via the Baltic Sea . The German and Austrian governments continue supporting the questionable underwater pipeline, even in view of the growing resistance to this dubious project in Eastern Europe and the USA in 2019.
It appears that in 2020 the international standing of such countries as Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova will become even worse. World politics has been becoming more and more complicated since the start of coronavirus epidemics. The EU and its member-states are not only caught up with the pandemic and its various economic consequences. They are simultaneously facing a new refugee crisis in the South of Europe, a challenging situation in the Middle East and Africa, increasingly complicated relations between Turkey and the unpredictable President of the USA, who has a different understanding of the principles of transatlantic solidarity than his predecessors had.
Recent ambivalent trends
Not all recent foreign trends are bad for Ukraine. In the hopes of not only Kyiv, political, economic and social consequences of the pandemic which are aggravating in Russia, may weaken the Kremlin’s foreign political adventurousness. An awkward attempt of Moscow to push out primarily American shale oil producers from the world market and in such a way “punish” the USA for their recent sanctions against Nord Stream 2 has already resulted in loss of some of the international energy markets for Russia and the collapse of prices for its products.
What is more, Russia is now closely watching the election campaign in the USA and it clearly does not want for the democratic candidate to become the President in November 2020. After October 2021 parliamentary elections in Germany a relatively pro-Ukrainian green party can get into the new government of FRG. Nevertheless, a potentially favorable impact of these and other political changes in the international relations of Ukraine as of spring 2020 remains vague.
As far as the two main foreign policy goals of Ukraine are concerned – joining NATO and the EU – today the prospects of achieving them look less certain than before the beginning of current world crisis. Already after the victory of the Orange Revolution in 2004 and the Revolution of Dignity of 2014, Ukrainian political and intellectual elite were on numerous occasions dissatisfied with the Brussels policy. For instance, the 2008 official applications of Kyiv and Tbilisi for NATO membership were not denied. Moreover, it was stated that the countries would join NATO in the future. Despite this, their accession to the North Atlantic Alliance got indefinitely delayed for some strange reason. Neither Membership Action Plans nor any other road maps regarding the two countries joining NATO have been passed in response to official requests of Ukraine and Georgia to join the Alliance.
Association Agreement between Ukraine and the EU signed in 2014 after the Revolution of Dignity did not result in formal change of the traditionally undetermined stance of the EU on possible future membership of Ukraine in the Union. No EU bodies, however, have officially denied EU membership for Ukraine. Yet, the texts of Ukrainian as well as Georgian and Moldavian Association Agreements with the EU contain no specific references to the potential future accession.
Irrelevance of the Balkan states example
Undoubtedly, Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova are still far from the standards required for joining the EU . Nonetheless, the Western Balkan states, which have not yet joined the Union, but already have official prospects of membership or are even negotiating their accession, are not that much ahead of Ukraine or Georgia. What prevents the latter from moving towards the EU is their inability to switch from the post-Soviet oligarch model to a more contemporary one. Still, lack of a developed long-term strategy, lack of political will and unnecessary fear of Russia in Brussels are, perhaps, the main reasons why there are no concrete formulations in the decisions of the Council or Commission as to the prospects of membership for Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova .
Current amalgamation of inner problems in NATO and EU member-states as well as the necessity for these organizations to adjust to the new reality during and after the pandemic is bad news for such candidates as Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova. Ongoing NATO and EU expansion in the Western Balkans may still be relatively smooth as evidenced by North Macedonia’s recent accession to NATO. However, this is connected to the fact that former Yugoslavian republics and Albania are partly NATO and EU members already and/or are affiliated with them. That is why current and future success of potential Euro-Atlantic integration of the Balkan states is unlikely to have any positive impact for Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova. Possible problems and failures in the future integration of Western Balkans will, on the contrary, have a negative impact on the general process of the EU and NATO reinforcement.
All this means that Kyiv, Tbilisi and Chisinau need to review their short and mid-term foreign policy priorities as well as the ways of achieving them. EU and NATO membership will certainly remain their main goals. In view of the increased geopolitical uncertainty and instability, these goals will be hard to achieve in the nearest future. In this context, Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova will have to think carefully about their plan of action for a relatively long period of time, when their current international standing will remain unchanged and they will stay in the geopolitical “grey zone”.
A new chance after the US elections?
The most obvious temporary solution for Kyiv would be a speedy and multilateral development of relations with countries which already have or will soon have a more or less pro-Ukrainian position. For instance, Kyiv could try and do a serious update and expansion of the little-known Charter on Strategic Partnership USA-Ukraine 2008 . During negotiations with Washington Kyiv could refer to the respect the United States have shown for Ukrainian borders, sovereignty and integrity in the famous Budapest Memorandum of 1994 on Security Assurances relating to the accession of Ukraine to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons . The updated Charter 2008 could include the following:
- more specific guarantees, as compared to those contained in the Budapest Memorandum, by the USA with regard to Ukraine’s security until it joins NATO:
- a new security cooperation package between Washington and Kyiv.
In this case upgrade of the existing Charter between the USA and Ukraine could result in a brand-new agreement between the two countries. It could include the Great Britain as another signatory to the Budapest Memorandum, or even Canada and a number of other particularly pro-Ukrainian Western countries. Ideally, a new pact between Kyiv and Washington could contain provisions similar to those contained in the 1953 Mutual Defense Treaty between the United States and the Republic of Korea or a formulation of military assistance commitments, which the USA took on in bilateral treaties with other close allies across the globe that are not NATO members.
The prospects of such a fundamental change in international involvement of Kyiv are yet unclear, but other directions of improving international ties of Ukraine are more certain. The relations between Ukraine and several Eastern European countries with pro-Ukrainian or Russia-skeptical governments can and should be improved even today . This refers to both small countries like Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania or Slovakia and bigger countries like Poland and Romania. Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova should not only strive for closer bilateral ties with those countries. They could also try creating new multilateral organizations with these and other Eastern European states that would cross the borders of NATO and the EU.
Types of Intermarium
In fact, this strategy was already tried out in December 2005, when Estonia, Georgia, Lithuania, Latvia, Moldova, North Macedonia, Romania, Slovenia and Ukraine created the so-called Community of Democratic Choice in Kyiv. Some of these nine countries were EU and/or NATO members at the time, while others weren’t. However, the Community did not do anything in particular and today is forgotten.
A similar strategy for Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova for the nearest future could be an attempt to join the already existing multilateral regional projects. This is first of all the so-called Three Seas Initiative of the twelve Eastern EU member-states (Austria, Bulgaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia) created in 2016 and the so-called Bucharest Nine – a group of countries of the Eastern European NATO wing (Hungary, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Romania, Bulgaria) formed in 2015 . The Three Seas Initiative focuses on infrastructure and transport and the Bucharest Nine is about security and defense. Thus, both organizations deal with aspects of Eastern European geoeconomy and geopolitics, which are crucial for the protection, stability and development of Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova . The expansion of the Three Seas Initiative to the east could take place with the simultaneous support of Brussels and Washington and the strengthening of the Bucharest Nine could happen within the framework of already existing special partnership between NATO, Ukraine and Georgia.
Another strategy for Georgia and Ukraine as NATO applicant-states as well as, possibly, for Azerbaijan and Moldova, which have no plans of joining the Alliance, would be to convince the United States to support the already existing Organization for Democracy and Economic Development of the four countries (GUAM) founded in 1997. Another option is to try and convince Washington to offer the four countries an equivalent of the US-Baltic Charter concluded in 1998 with Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania  or the US-Adriatic Charter signed in 2003 with Albania, Croatia and North Macedonia . Such US-GUAM Charter would update and expand the already existing bilateral Washington Strategic Partnership Charter with Kyiv and Tbilisi and would ensure that the four former Soviet republics have at least a certain degree of involvement in the international security system .
The abovementioned does not mean that there could not appear any new formats of interaction in Central Eastern Europe that would promote realization of human and economic potential of the special regional “Central European identity” as part of the General European civilization. Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova as well as other international friends can and should think of different formats that would change the external involvement and geopolitical standing of these countries. Kyiv has a number of alternative ways for constant promotion of its Western integration even without starting the formal procedure of NATO and the EU accession.
In 2020 the geopolitical instability of the existing system of international relations in Eastern Europe will, probably, be increasing with each month due to new political, economic and social consequences of coronavirus spreading. Before the pandemic some internal processes in a number of Western countries, including Great Britain, the USA and France, created uncertainty as to identity and the future of NATO and the EU. All this means that keeping the status-quo or coming back to it after the crisis is highly unlikely. In particular, the international organizations will, perhaps, be or become, at least temporarily, more closed, or will be transformed significantly, which may create new opportunities.
Bold use of new unexpected chances for increasing international involvement of present day “grey zone” countries will be possible only on condition of radical social-economic changes in Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova. Not achieving noticeable progress in conducting reforms may close the way to NATO and the EU for a long time and, maybe, forever (which Russia is, of course, extremely keen on). The “brave new world” that Ukraine is currently entering, more than ever needs creativity and quick wit as well as political will and efficient dialogue with the society to avoid the traps and to use the opportunities presented.
In the months to come officials and the society in Ukraine need to build an updated and agreed vision of further integration of the nation into the Euro-Atlantic space until they receive formal prospect of membership and start the accession to the EU and NATO. Whichever way the world develops in the future, strengthening of external and internal security as well as gradual entering and consolidation in different inter-state unions of liberal democracies of the world remain top priorities for Kyiv. Even under conditions of absolutely new distribution of international powers brought about by the crisis, the foundations of Ukrainian foreign political strategy may and should remain unchanged. Yet, the specific tactics and further steps of implementing this strategy in the future require comprehensive revisiting, creative review and flexible adjustment.
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