What the West Means to Ukraine

Ukraine’s diplomacy developed in a delicate balance between Russia and the West.

By Hideya Matsuzaki


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Ukraine’s diplomacy developed in a delicate balance between Russia and the West. Accessions to the EU and NATO have not always been on its agenda. In this article, we look back on the trajectory of Ukraine’s diplomacy since its independence, and the significance of the events of 2014, when Ukraine was forced to swing to Western countries.

The Russo-Ukrainian War has been ongoing since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February. The war has attracted attention in Japan. Hashtags such as “Russia’s invasion of Ukraine,” “Ukraine’s foreign minister,” and “Ukraine’s nuclear power plant” are trending on Twitter. There are protests to show support for Ukraine held all over Japan. The media has focused on this war as a geopolitical confrontation between Russia and the West over Ukraine, portraying Russia as wanting to control Ukraine, and the West as supporting it.

The question of what the West means to Ukraine is often missed. The term the West here broadly refers not only to Europe but also to countries such as the United States and Japan that accept the values of liberal democracy.

Amid the current war, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has applied for European Union (EU) membership and shown aspiration to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). However, looking back on Ukraine’s foreign policy over the last 30 years since its independence, we can see that for Ukraine, diplomacy toward the West did not always equal memberships in the EU or NATO.

Just as the eastern part of Ukraine is by no means completely pro-Russian, Ukraine does not have one united view of the West.

In this article, we aim to understand the political meaning of the West for Ukraine, by looking at the trajectory of the foreign policies from the administration of Leonid Kravchuk to that of President Zelensky. The article will argue that since Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, Ukraine was forced to rely on assistance from the West, which became one factor behind the current war.

Seeking Independence after the Dissolution of the Soviet Union

Leaving aside President Putin’s assertion of the historical unity of Russians and Ukrainians, at least the current Ukrainian border dates to the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic was part of the Soviet Union under a complex federal system, before gaining independence and becoming present-day Ukraine. The first president was Leonid Kravchuk, who was the Chairman of the Supreme Soviet of the Ukrainian SSR at the end of the Soviet Union. He was in power from 1991 through 1994.

Kravchuk’s greatest foreign policy agenda after the dissolution of the Soviet Union was to establish Ukraine’s independence. In 1993, the administration laid out its foreign policy guidelines, clearly stating that its goal was to join the EU. At the same time, as Ukraine was dependent on Russia for energy resources, it called for the economic integration of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS).

In addition, Kravchuk sought a pan-European security system that would not militarily belong to either Russia or the Western European bloc with the aim for Ukraine to serve as a military bridge between the blocs. In other words, Ukraine’s diplomacy in the early days of independence was to promote economic cooperation with Russia while aiming for EU membership.

Leonid Kuchma, who served as President from 1994 to 2005, continued this diplomatic line. In December 1994, Ukraine signed the Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances and relinquished its nuclear weapons to Russia, and in return, the U.S., Britain, and Russia agreed to respect Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. Furthermore, Kuchma had defined NATO expansion as guaranteeing the security of Europe without posing a threat to Russia, rejected Ukraine’s geostrategic role as a “buffer state,” and took part in the Partnership for Peace (PFP) program aimed at building trust between NATO member states and non-member states.

Domestically, Kuchma created a ruling political party called For United Ukraine! and established a constitutional system that augmented presidential power. Despite this, Kuchma failed to build the authoritarian regime he intended.

In 2000, the “Cassette Scandal” brought to light Kuchma’s involvement in the kidnapping and murder of a journalist who was critical of the regime. The political elites split and an anti-government campaign calling for “Ukraine without Kuchma!” gained momentum. In the process, Kuchma lost the support of European countries, and gradually shifted his diplomatic focus to Russia.

Under these circumstances, Kuchma gave up on re-election in the presidential race and nominated Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych as his successor. In response, Viktor Yushchenko ran for the presidency against Yanukovych, supported by the elites critical of the regime.

In the 2004 election, Yanukovych’s victory was announced, but later allegations of election fraud led to a re-vote election. Subsequently, Yushchenko was elected as the new president. This series of events is known as the Orange Revolution.

Diplomacy after the Orange Revolution

President Yushchenko, who was inaugurated in 2005 during the Orange Revolution, reviewed the foreign policy of the last days of the Kuchma administration and changed direction to strengthen relations with Europe and the U.S. The period in which he served as president coincided with the expansion of the EU and NATO to the east. Along with this eastward expansion, Yushchenko agreed to the European Neighborhood Policy, cooperated with the EU on issues such as immigration and refugees, and set goals to join the EU and NATO.

On the other hand, as Ukraine is dependent on Russia for its energy supply, it could not cut ties with Russia. As a result, the so-called Russia-Ukraine gas disputes broke out, and the relations between the two countries soured.

However, the path to joining the EU and NATO did not go smoothly as Yushchenko had wanted. After the Orange Revolution, the constitution was amended and some of the powers of the president, including the right to appoint and dismiss cabinet ministers, were transferred to the parliament.

However, this did not mean that Ukraine achieved democratization or that it cleaned up corruption and client politics. Ukraine was still regarded as a “hybrid system” with elements of both authoritarianism and democracy, rather than having a liberal democratic system.

Moreover, after the Orange Revolution, Yushchenko rapidly lost public support. In the parliamentary elections of 2006, Yushchenko’s Our Ukraine party suffered a crushing defeat, and his political opponent Yanukovych became the prime minister. Further chaos ensued, including the formation of a cabinet led by the Party of Regions. Under these circumstances, it was not easy for Ukraine to even set a date for a referendum on NATO membership. In short, domestic politics constrained Yushchenko’s foreign policy.

The 2014 Revolution and the Ousting of President Yanukovych

Alexandr Zadiraka Shutterstock.com

As Yushchenko’s support waned, Yanukovych was elected president (occupying the office from 2010 through 2014). Yanukovych attempted to improve relations with Russia, which had been damaged during the Yushchenko years, and rejected the goal of joining NATO, as he opted for a non-bloc military position. Furthermore, he postponed the signing of an EU association agreement, which led to the Euromaidan political revolution, (which we will discuss later).

But that did not necessarily mean a one-sided dependence on Russia, and Ukraine did not join the Russian-led customs union. Yanukovych pursued balanced diplomacy between the West and Russia, aiming to improve relations with Russia while ensuring Ukraine’s autonomy and rebuilding its economy, which was depressed in the aftermath of the global financial crisis.

Although there were aspects of Yanukovych’s foreign policy toward Russia which differed from that of Yushchenko, at least from the perspective of overall foreign policy, Yanukovych also did not ally with either Europe or Russia and sought its own national image. He succeeded the policy of his predecessor and in that respect, it can be said that the West was a partner for Ukraine in developing the country.

In domestic affairs, Yanukovych tried to build an authoritarian regime by launching a cabinet centered on the Party of Regions, which was his power base. The Constitutional Court of Ukraine, which was under the influence of the president, claimed that there was a problem with the procedure for amending the constitution following the Orange Revolution, and reverted to Kuchma’s constitutional system.

In addition, Yanukovych’s governance method was nicknamed “familism,” as it gave posts to relatives and entourages, and corruption was rampant. Along with this, Yanukovych’s approval rating, which was 39% in June 2010, dropped to about 17% in February 2011, and protests demanding his resignation became widespread. The West viewed Yanukovych’s regime as soft authoritarianism and a setback in democracy and demanded Ukraine improve its corruption.

The public dissatisfaction in Ukraine led to the Euromaidan revolution. This was directly triggered by Yanukovych’s withdrawal from signing the association agreement with the EU. Peaceful protests began in the capital, turning more violent after the government sent in riot police from the Ministry of Internal Affairs.

Yanukovych tried to control the protests by enacting repressive laws, but that only encouraged the radicalization of the protesters, who demanded the president’s resignation. Although the government and opposition parties agreed on a plan to break the deadlock, some radicalized groups did not accept the agreement and resumed armed struggles and occupied government facilities. As a result, Yanukovych fled to Russia and the regime collapsed.

Coinciding the political upheaval, in Crimea, a movement calling for the return of the region from Ukraine to Russia gained momentum. A referendum was held without the consent of the Ukrainian government, making the way for Russia to annex Crimea. In the eastern part of Ukraine, parts of Donetsk and Luhansk provinces proclaimed the establishment of the Luhansk and Donetsk People’s Republics, with the backing of Russia.

Ukraine Becomes Dependent on Western Assistance

Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the separatist movement in the East violated Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty and were of course unacceptable for Ukraine. The interim government, consisting of Acting President Oleksandr Turchynov and Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, mobilized the country’s military forces and launched a counter-terrorist operation.

Subsequently, in 2014, Petro Poroshenko took office as president and designated the Donetsk and the Lugansk People’s Republics as terrorist groups. Counter-terrorist operations came into full swing. (Poroshenko was in power until 2019).

In this way, the Ukrainian government used force to try to restore territorial integrity. However, because there was an overwhelming military power gap between Russia and Ukraine, it was not possible to reunite the Russia-backed breakaway regions.

Therefore, the Ukrainian government, in its military doctrine and national security strategy, stipulated that the annexation of Crimea and the buildup of the Russian military that would solidify it are territorial demands on Ukraine and that this would destabilize the international community. It identified Russia as a threat to the country and ended its non-block status.

At the same time, Ukraine positioned NATO as its special partner and cooperated with the organization to reform its military to improve its forces to the standard of the NATO forces. In addition, numerous vigilante groups and militias were formed throughout Ukraine, which the government incorporated into the forces of the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Ministry of Defence, to conduct counterterrorism operations.

The conflict did not proceed in a linear fashion. The Minsk Protocol was established in September 2014, and the Minsk II agreement in February 2015. However, the fact that the peace agreements did not reunify the eastern part of the country, but rather fixed the status quo and effectively made parts of eastern Ukraine de facto independent states, was also difficult for Ukraine to accept.

In fact, according to a poll by the Razumkov Center, less than 10% of Ukrainians positively evaluated the Minsk Agreement. Reforms toward gaining NATO and EU memberships were hampered by domestic oligarchs and corruption, but Ukraine seemed to have no other choice but to receive support from the West to regain its sovereignty and territorial integrity.

The recent Russo-Ukrainian war may look to have erupted suddenly, but from Ukraine’s point of view, it is an extension of the events of 2014. At the time of writing this article, Zelensky’s stance of total resistance attracted global attention and Western European countries supported Ukraine while imposing economic sanctions on Russia. In a sense, Ukraine is valued in the international community. Judging from the norms and principles of the international community that would naturally be the case.

However, considering Ukraine’s foreign policy since 2014, Ukraine has become so dependent on the West to restore its territorial integrity that it likely will no longer be able to establish itself as a state without relying on Western assistance. Presumably, this situation in which Ukraine has no choice but to rely on assistance from the West is one major factor behind the Russo-Ukrainian War.

In today’s war, Russia demands Ukraine to become neutralized and demilitarized, while Western powers stand in solidarity with Ukraine. Under such circumstances, there are very few options for Ukraine. However, of course, it is not acceptable to threaten a small country using the sphere of influence. The international community faces not only issues of territory, sovereignty, and military aggression but also the difficult question of how to restore the self determination of small states.

This article is a translation of the Japanese original published in the March/April 2022 issue of Gaiko (Diplomacy) magazine.

Hideya Matsuzaki is an assistant professor at the College of Liberal Arts Department of International and Cultural Studies Assistant at Tsuda University. He received his Ph.D. in international relations in 2018 at Sophia University Graduate School. He is an expert on the modern political history of Ukraine and Moldova, comparative politics, and international politics. He is the author of Minzokujiketsu undo no hikaku seijishi (Comparative Political History of the Ethnic Self-determination Movement) among others.


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