The last eighteen months have been completely hellish for Ukraine. During my fieldwork in early October in 2013, I observed a palpable sanguinity among ordinary Ukrainians at the prospect of a brighter future under the proposed EU Association Agreement (of which many hoped full EU membership would organically flow).
However, if we fast –forward to the present day, the ongoing Ukraine crisis shows no signs of subsiding anytime soon. So far, the Ukraine crisis, a kind of umbrella term for a number of interrelated events and incidents, has resulted in the removal of the incumbent president Viktor Yanukovych, the annexation of Crimea by Russia, the shooting down of the Malaysian Airlines MH17 flight, the war in Donbass, and, as of a result: the death, displacement and flight of Ukrainian citizens. Consequently, Ukraine is in a critical condition from these military, economic and political shocks and faces a painful road back to even reaching its 2013 status, let alone the lofty goals it once had for its future.
Although there are many important variables as to why the Ukraine crisis erupted, both internal (e.g. ethno-linguistic divisions, Yanukovych’s mismanagement…) and external (e.g. Russian interference and belligerence, the EU/NATO’s unwittingly threatening policies…), I argue that one of the key external factors for the eruption of the crisis was the increasingly zero-sum nature of the EU and Russia’s differing regime preferences for Ukraine. Contrasting with the trade and energy sectors, both of which have received a lot of column space in analyses of the crisis to date, as regime promotion is not mediated by the pacifying forces of interdependency (of which there is significant amounts in relation to trade and energy), it has proven to be a far more competitive policy-area for the EU and Russia in Ukraine.
Concisely, regime promotion in international affairs refers to an assumption that large powers have specific regime preferences for strategically important smaller states which causes them to often undertake actions to promote one specific regime type over another. Although there is an assumption in the literature that democracies like to promote democracy and autocracies like to promote autocracy, I argue that:
Neither democracies nor autocracies explicitly, and unwaveringly, pursue regime promotion strategies that favour their own particular regime-type. Rather states predominately pursue self-interested regime promotion strategies which are built on a “logic of consequences” and rely on cost–benefit analyses which prioritize strategic aims, whether security and defence or economic, over strictly normative ones.
In the context of the ongoing Ukraine crisis, the seeds of the crisis can be traced back to the Ukraine’s ‘orange revolution’ which occurred during the 2004-5 festive season. In a nutshell, the orange revolution saw a West-backed candidate (Viktor Yushchenko) win a re-run election (due to the clear violations of the initial election) over a Russian-backed candidate (Viktor Yanukovych). Consequently, the victorious orange revolutionaries sought to position Ukraine on a pathway towards European integration; this was cheered on by EU policy-makers who designed specific policies to harness this development while Russia, at the same time, consciously undertook policies designed to stop Ukraine’s European alignment.
The orange revolution was something of a watershed moment which highlighted a clear divergence in the specific regime preferences that the EU and Russia had for Ukraine. Although both sides rhetorically framed their aims for Ukraine as being altruistic in nature, for the EU this meant a focus on promoting democracy while for Russia this meant a focus on respecting sovereignty, it became clear that both sides favoured a Ukrainian regime which was more closely aligned to their side than the other. Emanating from this desire to have a ‘loyal’ Ukraine, the EU and Russia duelled for Ukraine’s participation in their nascent regional initiatives.
The EU’s initiative, the Association Agreement, entailed that Ukraine essentially join the EU’s internal market while simultaneously reforming its political structures in a ‘European’ manner. Russia’s initiative, the Eurasian Union, entailed that Ukraine join its Eurasian Customs Union and Single Economic Space while abandoning any designs on greater democratisation. Consequently, when it became clear that Ukraine was going to sign the EU’s offer of an Association Agreement over Russia’s counter-offer of a Eurasian Union, Russia acted in a desperate and aggressive manner: escalating its action from employing trade and energy squeezes to annexing Crimea and then waging a hybrid war in Eastern Ukraine. However, at the same time, the EU has remained committed to pursuing its Association Agreement offer to Ukraine, signalling that it too has not given up on its ultimate regime preference of having an EU-facing Ukraine.
Ultimately, examining the regime promotion strategies of the EU and Russia in light of the Ukraine crisis shows that one, Russia deems Ukraine a vital national interest which must be protected at all costs, and two, that the EU has underestimated the lengths Russia is willing to go to in order to achieve its goals. Such an assessment, sadly, suggests that the Ukraine crisis may become protracted with few viable solutions on the horizon.
Nicholas Ross Smith is a PhD candidate in Politics & International Relations at the University of Auckland. His research concerns evaluating the competitiveness of the EU-Russia-Ukraine triangle. This blog piece stems from a recent journal article by the author: ‘The EU and Russia’s conflicting regime preferences in Ukraine: assessing regime promotion strategies in the scope of the Ukraine crisis’, available at http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/09662839.2015.1027768
Image: Sasha Maksymenko