Ukraine´s Multi-vectorism as a Result of EU´s Pragmatism and Russia´s Colonialism

A symptom of periphery

The history of Ukrainian multi-vectorism in foreign policy forces one to think that it is a physical defect, not separable from Ukrainian geography, politics and neighbours. Hopes for radical changes in foreign policy after 2004, like millions of other hopes have been largely dashed. Ukraine still continues simultaneous integrations into the EU and NATO, into the WTO, into the Black Sea Cooperation Agreement and the Eurasian GUAM, as well as into a joint Russian, Belarusian and Kazakh economic zone. In short, Ukraine is eager to integrate almost into everything that its neighbours come up with, so it is very likely that it will be integrating into something new pretty soon, but still will not have finished any of those commenced.

These facts don’t imply any physical or geographical deficiency but a total absence of strategic vision and tactical positioning, which both root in Ukraine´s inadequacy of political and civic elite as well as corrupted politics, which don’t quite represent the will of educated people. Kanzler Bismarck, once making comments on the then confused position of Prussia in the Crimean war, stated what may be most appropriate for modern Ukraine: “Prussia reminds me a poodle who has lost the owner and runs perplexed from one passer-by to another”. At the same time multi-vectorism is one of the most stable features of Ukrainian state and society at large. For example the road to the full WTO membership (which is expected in February 2008) took Ukraine some 15 years, whereby even Moldova and Kazakhstan managed to join long ago.

Since 1991 the elite has not offered society any plausible philosophy, any reason for existence and progress, any new ideology or indeed any answer to the question about the country’s future and a role in the world. The integration into EU became a useful escape, which gave elite very useful rhetorical concepts of “European values”, “democracy”, “standards”, “market economy” and many other things which were not, or maybe could not be explained to the society in the face of political and economic, but also historical reality. Arguments in favour of the EU have been the “European” belonging of Ukraine and “European” standards of living.

Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign Affairs

The pragmatism of European rhetoric

The European categories of reference fell on fruitful soil within Ukrainian society. One can often hear that something is “undemocratic”,“unEuropean”, “below European standards”. In general the word “European” in Ukrainian discourses became synonymous with “quality” and “modernity”.

The Ukrainian independence coincided with an important turning point – intensification of European political integration and creation of the European state. The need to legitimize these policies in member states called for creation of ideological narratives of common European destiny, identity, history, territory and values. 

The Ukrainian politicians fell victim to this display of discourses, as all these ideas, so actively propagated in Europe, though having universal application and value, concerned only the EU states and plausible candidates, but not the “outsiders” like Ukraine. Through the rhetoric of common European house the EU pragmatically meant to give more power to its internal institutions and demolish the obstacles to deeper integration and consolidation.

Ukraine´ self-marketing attempts

In the absence of any viable alternative the Ukrainians took the European rhetoric for its face value and began complying with the rules of European games in the hope of subsequent integration. Whereas the Europeans based their policies on concrete economic foundations, the Ukrainians simulated policies so just for the sake of joining the EU club. Thus, having failed to coordinate its policies with these of the EU, to act pragmatically and to bargain actively, like others, Ukraine, unsurprisingly, found itself at odds with its foreign policy orientations. In other words, Ukraine´s supply curve didn’t meet the EU´s demand curve, partly because Ukraine couldn’t sell its virtues of successful economic, reliable political and strong security partner to Western Europe. Instead of modernising national economy and strengthening its international positions in order to generate global or at least macro-regional influence, Ukraine´s political elite decided to put a priority on blind and ephemeral EU integration. The European pragmatism could not accept it also because the usual political, etc. trade-off, give-and-take between the two did not take place. Interestingly, the EU failed too see any difference between Ukraine and Russia, Turkey or Marocco. Even problematic Balkans are better off in this respect.

Resultant uncertainty and multi-vectorism transformed Ukraine from the third largest nuclear power, producer of leading technologies and most fertile soil into Europe´s periphery. Ukraine´s potential contribution to the European safety, stability and socioeconomic wellbeing did not serve as an important argument so far. And the opportunity to do so is likely to diminish. The growth of Russia and activization of its foreign policy drew European attention away from Ukraine. Now safety and other synergies of collaboration are instead discussed with Putin.

For many Ukrainian politicians the sluggishness of integration into the EU almost automatically means deeper cooperation with Russia, which is itself a characteristic of dependency syndrome and further multi-vectoral pathology, killing independence. 

Ukraine´s attempts to return to the common European home

Ukraine tried to move closer to Europe by performing as a committed and loyal member of the international community through involvement in peace support operations. The Ukrainian Government achieved this by active participation in the UN, US and NATO led operations abroad.

The Ukrainian Europeanisation project can also be seen as an attempt to build a national idea, pursued by different political forces. This process has several stages. Thus from 1991 onwards it was “the creation from the opposite”, i.e. anti-communist, anti-imperial and anti-Russian quest with a later logical shift to the modern nationalism of ethnic Ukrainianness. Nationalism in this context was seen as a right to constitute an independent and autonomous political community based on shared history, language, culture and territory. By the mid-2000s, quite consistent with ‘back to Europe’ rhetoric, but also as a result of a cold welcome to the EU club, the emphasis shifted to ‘let’s build Europe in Ukraine’ slogan, which was particularly visualised during the Parliamentary Elections in 2006.

For political forces the “lets join Europe” slogan, which implies not only a geopolitical shift but a substantial improvement of living standards, became the easiest ideology which in practice takes different forms, as the Ukrainian society is split and unconsolidated.

Ukraine was tasked with first internalising European ‘common values’ by importing and implementing European norms before the EU adopts a decision on what to offer Ukraine. The EU rather ignored Ukraine from its very independence in 1991. Two factors explain this different approach by NATO and the EU. First is the Russian factor, an issue that is absent from the Western Balkans, whose future accession is not being questioned, and is only a matter of time. The situation was also due to the Ukrainian inner politics, although the role of Russia, which sees any attempt to advance the “European choice” of Ukraine as a direct threat, and the EU’s posture should not be fully disregarded.

Yesterday’s influence on today’s actions and tomorrow’s outcomes

The role of former colonizers

Russia’s special relationship with Ukraine ensured that Kyiv continued to be viewed as a periphery state. Few Russians are comfortable with and willing to accept Ukraine’s independence. Peripheral status is therefore assured by Russian attitudes to the Ukrainian state. In the early years of independence the Russian Federation struggled to come to terms with the “loss” of Ukraine. Russia consistently pursued policies and made statements which were seen by Kiev as challenging Ukraine’s sovereignty, independence and, most importantly, its territorial integrity. Ongoing claims against the Crimea, the control of Sevastopol as well as Moscow’s willingness to use economic levers to influence decision making in Ukraine revealed the lengths to which Moscow was prepared to go in order to bring back its former colony into the Russian orbit.  Russia’s perception of Ukraine as falling within its sphere of influence and the sharing of a common history, religion and culture have proven powerful ties.

Zbigniew Brzezinski holds that Russia finds itself outside Europe without Ukraine, while Ukraine is much closer to Europe without Russia. Ukraine has a key significance for Russia, as security of Russian energy export channels depends on Ukraine, which also has the biggest Russian diaspora of some 12 million. Moscow believes that Ukraine’s integration into the EU would harm trade between Russia and Ukraine, which are each other’s main trade partners. Second, there is an interrelated psychological problem of recognising former Soviet Union states, such as Ukraine, as purely ‘European’. 


As far as the EU was concerned, however, during the 10 years of Leonid Kuchma’s term in presidential office the EU entertained what could be called quasi-virtual relations with Ukraine, which produced various misunderstandings and empty rhetoric on both sides. Ukraine explicitly stated its intention to become a member of the European Union in 1996. In the 1999 Common Strategy with Ukraine, the EU recognised Ukraine’s “European choice”. But one year later Berlin and Paris ruled out Ukraine’s membership of the EU, thus paying more careful attention to the Russian interests. On the other hand, Ukraine was largely to blame itself, as its foreign policy priorities in the past experienced frequent changes.

The perception of Ukraine as a geographically European but culturally less so country is deep-rooted in Western Europe. Many EU states still perceive Ukraine as a quasi-Soviet state, heavily dependent on Russia in both tangible and intangible resources. Ukraine is thought to have formed their political cultures outside ‘Europe’ (with the exception of Western Ukraine, which used to be a part of Austro-Hungarian state). From the Russian perspective, Ukraine – due to ethnic (more than 50% of Ukrainians have relatives in Russia) and historic ties – is a part of the Russian collective identity. Hence, Western policy towards Ukraine was derived from that towards Russia. EU member states were reluctant to risk relations with Russia by fully supporting Ukraine’s “European choice”. Ukrainian officials have been even advised by some EU officials that membership would only occur together with Russia.

Ukraine has espoused “European choice” rhetoric and the aim of integration into the EU while adopting domestic policies that undermined these goals. The EU placed the onus of moving closer to its “common values” on Ukraine without making any offer of future membership. Ukraine has responded by demanding a decisive signal from the EU.


The EU’s power of attraction proved to be one of the most powerful tools of indirect influence on democratisation in Ukraine. “Return to Europe” was among the most influential factors, gradually internalised in Ukraine. Indeed, the “EU factor” was conducive to the governmental efforts to implement reforms, the elite’s desire to “return to Europe”, and development of the pro-European civil society. The EU served as a major reference point and focus for many Ukrainian civil society organizations advocating reforms and promoting European integration.

The 1986 Accession negotiations with Portugal and Spain lasted for almost 10 years and the 2004 Enlargement for some countries took almost 15 years. Bearing that in mind, Ukraine should not be disappointed by the inevitable difficulties and setbacks it may face on its “Return to Europe”. The past track of EU-Ukraine interaction should be left behind, as Ukraine now, with the return of Yulia Timoshenko as a PM embarks on a series of new and qualitative domestic reforms under the guidance of European values and begins negotiating with the EU this time on the principles of parity and pragmatism.

Text and pictures by Oleksandr Svyetlov

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