EU, Ukraine, NATO and a role for the UK in the Eastern neighborhood

By Marco Rossi | 30 March 2011

To quote this document: Marco Rossi, “EU, Ukraine, NATO and a role for the UK in the Eastern neighborhood”, Nouvelle Europe [en ligne], Wednesday 30 March 2011,, displayed on 02 April 2023

In the aftermath of the Orange Revolution of 2004 and following the Ukraine-Russia energy crises of 2005-09, the country’s ‘Western shift’ towards the EU appeared to be a mere question of time. Five years later, these expectations turned out to be too optimistic. How to explain the ‘enlargement fatigue’ on both sides of the frontier between Ukraine and the EU? And what influence can the UK have on the process?

Drifting further away?

Ukraine was and remains, for many observers inside and outside EU institutions, the raison d’être of the Eastern Partnership, as well as one of the keystones of the European Neighborhood Program. Since the establishment of TACIS, Ukraine stood out as the second recipient of the program’s funds with more than 2.000.000 Euros allocated between 2000 and 2006, and remains the first recipient outside the Mediterranean area under the more recently established European Neighborhood Policy Instrument (ENPI). On the wave of enthusiasm that followed the Orange Revolution of 2004 and following the Ukraine-Russia energy crises of 2005-09, the country’s ‘Western shift’ towards the EU appeared to be mere question of time. Five years after, such predictions were to be proved erroneous.

Under the government of President Viktor Yanukovich, elected after a much contested election in January 2010, the country has gradually reoriented its policy towards a more pragmatic and less EU-friendly position. The consequences of such shift are not hard to detect. Of the ambitious priorities envisaged by the EU-Ukraine Association Agenda in November 2009, few have been achieved and even fewer have been implemented. Particularly in economic terms, the country continues lagging behind the standards set by the Union, witnessing an unprecedented economic stagnation. As early as in March 2011, European Commissioner for Enlargement, Stefan Fule, did not hesitate to state that ‘significant economic obstacles’ still prevent the country from implementing serious economic reform, further hampering the start of the EU-backed Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area. In regard to the government’s unwillingness to foster the promotion of human rights and media freedom, the judgment of EU observers has been hardly more sympathetic. The reasons for such a stalemate after years of idyllic relationship should be searched in recent trends of both the EU’s and Kiev’s policies.

An uncomfortable triangle

As Tomas Valasek of CER has pointed out, the incapacity of the EU to recognize Ukraine as a peculiar case, sticking to the ‘one model fits all’ approach which has now become a trademark of ENP, has been perhaps the principal cause of the recent impassein EU-Ukraine relations. Current and past Ukraine’s rulers, whatever their political inclinations, still consider national interest and self-preservation to be the main objectives of a successful government. This element, for example, could easily explain the scarce effectiveness of the formerly successful ‘conditionality card’ in prompting Kiev’s policy-makers to promote institutional reform and the modernization of the country’s economy. Much in the same way, the country’s economic oligarchies, frequently intertwined with the state’s bureaucracy, prove to be equally sensitive to Russia entrepreneurial initiatives as to European ones. This factor remarkably dilutes the appeal of the economic ‘carrot’ which has formerly been so successful in encouraging recent candidate states to respect the standards set by the Association Agreements.

From this point of view, Ukraine’s ‘security dilemma’ remains a factor EU policy-makers are all too prone to neglect. For Ukraine, security is not merely one of the anxieties each government- being it more or less sympathetic to the EU – has to cope with. It’s arguably the driving force behind possible political choices over the short and medium term, including a potential ‘leap forward’ to the EU. Neither is it feasible to argue that Ukraine might earn some sort of security autonomy over the short term. With nearly three quarters of its productive capabilities under the aegis of Russian companies –including some 75% of the country’s defense industry- and 85% of its energy export deriving directly from Russia, Ukraine still has little room for action to implement an effectively independent foreign policy. Even from the perspective of energy security, the ‘gas wars’ of 2005-09 have demonstrated how the EU, still incapable to set a precise energy strategy, is in fact unable to provide Ukraine with a security guarantee from possible Russian retaliations.

If great part of such issues might be directly or indirectly attributed to the attitude of the leaders in Kiev, the EU is no less responsible for the above mentioned impasse. Following the last enlargement round in 2007, the Union has shown little intention to commit itself to further efforts in such direction. In spite of the Commission’s recent announcement of a new Action Plan and the recent allocation of further funds (around 470.000.000 Euros), there is little sign that the Union intends to take any decisive step in the direction of Ukraine’s accession. If this wasn’t enough, the perception that NATO’s enlargement itself has lost much of its momentum after the cavalier campaign of the mid-2000s had already started to take rootamong a considerable portion of Ukrainian political elites. As former Ukrainian Foreign Minister Arsenyi Yatsenuk eloquently pointed out, ‘enlargement fatigue’ is now no less perceptible in NATO than in the EU.

A UK solution to a security dilemma?

Among the leading members of the EU, the UK might certainly be considered to be the most suitable to attempt bringing Ukraine back into a ‘European’ orbit. Even under the premiership of David Cameron, the country has so far played a key role, acting as a constant and staunch advocate of Ukraine’s positions. In the eyes of Ukraine’s current administration, the UK remains the foremost advocate of the country’s integration into the EU. In fact, it appears an independent player able to defy the over-bureaucratization typical of the Union’s initiatives and to reinvigorate the dialogue between the Union and Ukraine. Moreover, its position inside the Atlantic community is an element which can hardly be underestimated.  Among the EU’s member states, the UK is the sole country which could boast a ‘primus inter pares’ role at the very top of NATO’s decision-making structure, while at the same time holding a remarkable degree of influence in the EU  framework  itself.



The development of a pragmatic set of objectives to address the Ukrainian impasse would represent a precious occasion for the Conservative government to bring British diplomacy back on the Eastern neighborhood stage. By exploiting its remarkable bilateral links with Ukraine, particularly in the economic field, the UK might encourage the EU to reshape in a more pragmatic fashion the requirements envisaged by the Association Agenda. Additionally, the same bilateral channels might be exploited to pressure both NATO and Ukraine to re-start the dialogue abruptly interrupted following the Ukrainian parliament’s vote to continue on the path of NATO’s membership in June 2010. Once Ukraine is taken more firmly back in the Atlantic security field, it is not unlikely that the EU might capitalize on a more stable geopolitical scenario in order to bring forward further dialogue with the country.

A couple of weeks after Hungary took over the Presidency of the Council of the European Union, Hungarian Foreign Affairs Minister Jànos Martonyi swiftly declared that Ukraine would be placed at the top of the EU’s engagement  in the Eastern neighborhood, with the firm promise of breaking the stasis in which the Union’s relation with the country are currently stagnating. In order to achieve such objective, the EU will have to take into more serious consideration the peculiarities of Ukrainian domestic and foreign policy trends. It needs to abandon the rosy image built in the aftermath of the Orange Revolution and address the current Ukrainian government with a more limited and pragmatic agenda. A more lively contact with the country’s more or less ‘westernized’ economic elites, as well as with both political factions will be essential for the EU to improve its relations with Ukraine and to lead the country down the path of institutional and economic reform.

Much in the same way, the EU must eventually acknowledge that security is no longer a negligible factor in the relations with Kiev. While energy security must finally assume a central position in EU’s initiatives in the area, co-operation with NATO - perhaps through a UK ‘mediation’ - should also become a route to make the country more prone to further negotiations with the Union. Without a timely action in such direction, it is not unlikely that Ukraine, torn  between the necessity to preserve its national sovereignty and the pragmatic need to deal with both EU and Russia, will soon isolate itself and become, first among the Eastern neighbors, a ‘buffer state’.

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Source photo : Buzek welcomes Yanukovich on his first foreign visit, by European Parliament, on flickr