Ukraine’s Strategic Challenges in 2018

Almost four years after the change in government as a result of the Euromaidan, the annexation of Crimea, and the onset of war with Russian-backed separatists, Ukraine enters 2018 facing five strategic challenges.

First, Ukrainian sovereignty and national unity are being tested by factions both outside and inside the country. Second, Russia’s Ukrainian policy continues to pose the biggest threat to the existence of Ukraine. Third, Ukraine must find a way to strengthen its defense capabilities through an alliance with the United States and NATO as the strongest regional security guarantors with respect to Kyiv’s key priorities—independence, sovereignty, and unity.

Two more challenges have recently made their appearance. Ukraine has entered into a period of conflict with Hungary and Poland and worsening relations with some other Central European countries. Finally, relations between Brussels and Kyiv are at their coolest of the entire post-Maidan period.

The way Kyiv responds to all of these challenges will define Ukraine’s internal development in the next year and, most likely, for a long time to come.

Ukrainian Sovereignty and the Russian Threat

Ukrainian sovereignty and national unity are now seriously challenged by the state’s loss of control over part of its territory and population.

Of the six Eastern Partnership countries, Ukraine and Belarus have enjoyed a period of peaceful if very different development for more than twenty years. By contrast, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia, and Moldova were weighed down by ethnic and social conflicts, and have had territorial issues from the outset, since independence in 1991. Nagorno-Karabakh, South Ossetia, Abkhazia, and Transnistria grew as autonomous regions—de facto states—in permanent conflict with their respective metropolitan states and the international order sanctioned by the West. This is why the breakaway republics’ sponsor states, Armenia and Russia, are in permanent conflict with the respective metropolitan states.

Thus, of the Eastern European countries, only Belarus and Ukraine have followed peaceful development trajectories, though their paths are quite dissimilar. Belarus, the first European dictatorship in the twenty-first century, has almost doubled its GDP per capita (in fixed prices) in comparison to 1991 levels, while politically vibrant and pluralist Ukraine still has not returned to its 1991 level. However, before 2014, Ukrainian citizens were not subject to any outright censorship, mass political repressions, or persistent authoritarian rule.

But the internal political conflict in Kyiv in the winter of 2013–2014 created opportunity and space for the emergence of vast geostrategic processes that have changed Ukraine’s trajectory of peaceful development. Russia used the moment to annex Crimea and to support radical secession movements in the Donbas. The political groups that won in the conflict with President Yanukovych promoted the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement (which entered into full force on 1 September 2017) and restored the political legitimacy of the Ukrainian government in 2014 through the presidential and parliamentary elections.

The conflict with the secessionist paramilitary groups turned into full-fledged war in the Donbas. In August–September 2014 and in February–March 2015 Russian troops entered Ukraine’s territory to provide support to the secessionists. Simultaneously the Ukrainian army, with the support of the United States and other NATO member states, undertook rapid security reforms and developed its capacity to defend the rest of the country.

Today, Kyiv does not control Crimea and the eastern Donbas, territories where more than 4 million Ukrainian citizens live. The frontier between government-controlled Ukraine and the secessionist polities, the so-called Luhansk People’s Republic and Donetsk People’s Republic (LPR and DPR), is a mixture of front line and de facto border. Here, more than 75,000 Ukrainian Armed Forces troops and more than 20,000 Ukrainian security personnel face about 40,000 LPR-DPR troops and over 1,000 Russian senior and mid-rank officers. Both sides invest a lot in the training and arming of their military. Several hundred miles of the front line in two places, near Donetsk and Mariupol, have seen ongoing military action, with a growing toll in loss of life among the civilian population and military personnel on both sides (see SMM reports here).

The military regimes in Luhansk and Donetsk are unstable and unpredictable. The recent coup in Luhansk showed that Kremlin control over the eastern Donbas is not total: local warlords, though tied to Moscow, can act independently, and are also able to use conflicts among the Kremlin-based political groups to their own local purposes.

The Donbas population apparently is adapting to the persistent low-intensity warfare and the lack of security. And despite the economic blockade introduced by Ukraine in early 2017, the divided Donbas community is still showing its unity. As research by the Berlin-based Center for Eastern European and International Studies (ZOiS) has shown, only about 25 percent of the DPR-LPR population feels “more Russian” after the break, while for most of the population (50 percent) the mixed Russian-Ukrainian ethnic and regional identity has not changed. In the government-controlled Donbas, 11 percent of population feels Ukrainian, while identification as Russian also increased somewhat; however, the majority (53 percent) continue to have a mixed ethnic and strong civic Ukrainian identity (for more data, see here).

The border with Crimea is also a source of permanent tensions. There are no shootings here, but from time to time local military personnel are either captured or arrested. Russia is stockpiling weapons on the annexed peninsula. Local populations that had become accustomed to Ukrainian political pluralism and media freedoms are having to get used to new ways of conducting their social and political life. The UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights reports a grave situation with liberties in Crimea. As another recent ZOiS report shows, the Crimean population feels itself isolated from both Ukraine (only 12 percent preserve ties with the mainland) and Russia (only 22 percent have ever traveled to Russia). Regional identity (as opposed to national identity) is growing, and Crimeans’ attitudes toward the development of the region are quite pessimistic.

Mainland Ukraine’s population is also quite pessimistic about the development of war-torn Ukraine. Among the biggest problems Ukrainians identify are the ongoing armed conflict (51 percent), increasing prices for all types of goods and services (37 percent), and low wages (36 percent). Fifty-six percent of Ukrainians support integration with EU; 43 percent support NATO membership and 33 percent are against it (data from here).

Ukraine, Russia, and NATO

On the heels of the military threats, the sovereignty deficit, and social fragmentation, official Kyiv pursues closer ties with NATO and is busy reducing contacts with Russia. Ukraine approved a law on NATO membership as a strategic aim in July 2017. This is the critical legal step toward ending Ukraine’s traditional multivector foreign policy. However, NATO shows no membership perspective for Ukraine so far. Instead, NATO, its member states, and Ukraine increased cooperation intended to augment Ukraine’s defense abilities.

U.S.-Ukrainian cooperation in the areas of defense and economics advanced in 2017. There were expectations that the new U.S. administration would be less inclined to cooperate with Kyiv than the previous administration. However, after several meetings between President Poroshenko and President Trump, cooperation moved forward. The White House endorsed new sanctions against Russia in support of Ukraine’s security. In response, Ukraine started importing U.S. coal and opened up new opportunities for U.S. investment. Washington and Kyiv have started a new era in defense-related cooperation that should make Ukraine less vulnerable to external threats. It is also expected that the United States will start supplying Ukraine with the lethal weapons critical to its defense measures in the East.

Simultaneously, political and defense communication between official Kyiv and Moscow has reached a historical nadir. In a new and contradictory law on the reintegration of the Donbas (approved by the Rada in January 2018), Russia has been declared an occupying state, while the LPR and DPR are recognized as de facto under the occupier’s administration. The Russian leadership has steadfastly maintained its neoimperialist attitude toward Ukraine and derided Kyiv’s cooperation with the West.

Ukraine and Russia have also finalized their infrastructural and economic “divorce”: Russia has completed its rail link circumventing Ukraine in the southeast and has sped up construction of the bridge spanning the Strait of Kerch between Russia and Crimea. Direct flights between Ukraine and Russia have stopped, and train connections may also be halted. Russia’s share in Ukraine’s foreign trade has declined, while Ukraine’s trade with the West has increased.

Ukraine and Europe

Nonetheless, Ukraine’s relations with its European partners have recently become problematic.

Reflecting the societal impacts of war, the ethnonationalist response is on the rise. Even though Russophone populations were equally as involved in Ukraine’s defense as they were in aggressive actions in the Donbas, Kyiv introduced actions limiting the rights of Ukraine’s Russian minority (17 percent of the population) and its Russophone population (21–42 percent, according to different data): new language laws limit the use of Russian in the public sphere (foremost in the mass media) and exclude it as a language of instruction in secondary education.

This latter Secondary Education Law has reignited old conflicts between Kyiv and its Central European neighbors. The Secondary Education Law changes the inclusive norm that allowed Russophone citizens and ethnic minorities to receive instruction at the secondary level in Russian and minority languages. The law has provoked a harsh reaction from Bulgaria, Hungary, Greece, and Romania, whose minority populations are part of Ukraine’s multicultural society. The Hungarian ruling group has ginned up this issue into a conflict that not only damages bilateral relations but also creates obstacles to smoothing out Ukraine-NATO and Ukraine-EU relations.

Ukraine faces an even bigger conflict with Warsaw. Traditionally Ukraine’s advocate in the West, Poland today questions the new, nationalist (and arguably anti-Polish) memory policies of Kyiv. Partially in response to Kyiv’s nationalist memory policies and partially as a result of Poland’s own turn toward radical conservatism, Warsaw has introduced a highly controversial anti-Ukrainian law. Warsaw has also created a list of Ukrainian officials forbidden entrance to Poland and the Schengen zone. Ukraine’s reaction to Poland’s moves is also disruptive for Ukrainian-Polish cooperation.

Finally, EU-Ukraine relations have reached their lowest point of the post-Maidan period despite the introduction of the visa-free regime. Both the EU-Ukraine summit in July 2017 and the Eastern Partnership summit in November 2017 showed that Brussels and Kyiv have lost a good share of mutual understanding. During 2017, EU commissioners, diplomats, and experts insisted that Kyiv return to the reform plan envisaged in the Association Agreement. In the fall of 2017 Brussels started using the term “kleptocracy” to describe its partners in Kyiv. In November, EU commissioners suspended the program of financial aid to Ukraine because of unfulfilled promises. Kyiv has slowed liberal reforms and tries to destroy anticorruption institutions and persecute opposition to the Poroshenko regime. Nonetheless, Brussels and Kyiv continue to use the language of friendship while each waits for the other’s next move.

Official Kyiv is currently orienting itself toward solving these five challenges. Ukraine must work to reestablish its sovereignty and unity, which has been dealt a blow by the war, Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and the political reaction inside country. Cooperation with the United States and the UK (signatories to the Budapest Memorandum), France and Germany (participants in the Normandy talks on Crimea and the Donbas), and NATO at large is key to reducing the injury the country has sustained and increasing Ukraine’s national security.