Viktor Yanukovich’s recent trip to Paris, coming on the heels of his junket to the UN General Assembly, demonstrated once again that Ukraine’s all-powerful president still has no foreign policy.
On September 24, Yanukovich told the Atlantic Council in New York that Ukraine was committed to “non-alignment,” while repeating stock phrases about his country’s “strategic partnership” with the United States, eventual membership in the European Union, and improved relations with Russia. On October 8, he delivered a rambling speech at the French Institute of International Relations in which he noted that, “for the first time,” the interests of the United States, the EU, and Russia were in alignment, that “past lines of division” could finally be overcome, that a “new ideology of European unity and a new ideology of European security” could be created, and that “Ukraine strives for and is ready actively to participate in this process.”
All very nice, but where’s the policy? Non-alignment seems a tad out of date 20 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. Strategic partnerships with the United States are great, but only if you’re ready to be an American strategic asset. Eventual EU membership is also swell, especially if no one knows just when it’ll come about.
The bottom line is that Yanukovich’s only genuine foreign policy initiative is Ukraine’s seismic shift toward Russia — as manifested by the April 21 Kharkiv Accords, in which he extended the Russian Black Sea Fleet’s basing rights in the Crimea for 25 years, in exchange for a ridiculously low rent and a gas price reduction that Ukraine should’ve gotten anyway.
Yanukovych’s “reset” with Russia is a geopolitical blunder of historic proportions, testifying to his shocking inexperience or gross incompetence or both. It goes without saying that normal relations with Russia are both good and necessary for Ukraine, if only because it has no choice but to live in the shadow of its huge neighbor. Every Ukrainian president since independence in 1991 has pursued that goal by means of a “multi-vector” policy of balancing between East and West. The first, Leonid Kravchuk, split the difference. The second, Leonid Kuchma, balanced “toward” Russia. The third, Viktor Yushchenko, balanced “toward” the West (and that tiny shift led to an apoplectic reaction in the Kremlin). But because all three were committed to Ukraine’s eventual membership in NATO (as was Yanukovich, in an earlier incarnation as prime minister), balancing worked and they were able to pursue a more or less independent foreign policy premised on Ukraine’s security interests.
Enter President Yanukovich. Having formally rejected NATO membership and bent over backward to accommodate Vladimir Putin’s Russia, Yanukovich has no cards to play in his dealings with Moscow, Paris, Berlin, and Washington. Each of them is unabashedly promoting its geopolitical interests, while openly treating “soft power” as window dressing. Russia wants a zone of influence in its backyard and will engage in military intervention to get it; France wants to balance the Americans and will sell weapons to Russia to prove that point; Germany wants Russian gas and will disregard Poland’s interests to procure it; and the United States wants friends at a time of strategic over-extension and will overlook their authoritarian peccadillos as a result.
Yanukovich, by contrast, hopes to substitute handshakes for policy.
Sooner or later, Moscow will up the ante. Unable to say no to the Kremlin, Yanukovich will turn to the West and underscore his desire to be a pal. He may even remind Le Figaro that he said “j’aime beaucoup la France” in an October 7 interview. At that point, however, his lack of a strategic vision will assert itself with a vengeance. Yanukovich’s new friend Nicolas Sarkozy (who inducted him into the Ordre national de la Légion d’honneur — a privilege he now shares with Putin) will probably sell him down the Volga, while Berlin will shed crocodile tears. Ironically, only that champion of NATO — Washington — may appreciate that “losing Ukraine” would be a strategic disaster for the West.