Conflict and Leadership
Ukraine’s Foreign Policy as an Experiment

The Ukrainian elites have shaped their foreign policy interest — attracting Western countries to their side and turning Ukraine into a bulwark against Russia. Instead of focusing on internal development, Ukraine is striving at all costs to attract the attention, and better the resources of the West for confrontation with Russia, writes Valdai Club Programme Director Andrey Sushentsov.

Each state is an open-ended experiment. It is not uncommon for many young states to experiment with their foreign policy as if they are reinventing the concept. The elites of young states do not believe that someone else’s experience can teach them something and tend to make their own mistakes. Unfortunately, these states include Russia’s closest neighbour and kindred country — Ukraine.

Let’s apply a classic matrix for analysing foreign policy strategy, which consists of six components: assessing needs, the international environment, interests and goals, analysing resources, and developing a course of action. Ukraine’s current strategy is as follows. Ukraine seeks to satisfy its need for security and territorial integrity by bypassing and confronting Russia. According to Ukrainian elites, the developments taking place in the international environment clearly indicate a decrease of Russia’s influence: the West will inevitably overcome Moscow through sanctions and pressure, you just need to push this process and speed up the time frame. Next to Ukraine are its Baltic neighbours and Poland, which share its assessments, while Russia’s partners in the West are in the minority.

Based on this assessment, the Ukrainian elites have shaped their foreign policy interest — attracting Western countries to their side and turning Ukraine into a bulwark against Russia. This interest has led to the formation of a list of goals: torpedoing the Nord Stream 2 project, carrying out foreign policy provocations on the eve of major summits between Russia and the West, and remaining on the world’s main agenda at any cost. This goal makes Ukrainian interests excessively dependent on the external environment. Instead of focusing on internal development, Ukraine is striving at all costs to attract the attention, and better the resources of the West for confrontation with Russia. The resources of such a strategy are the Ukrainian diaspora abroad, hired lobbyists, all sorts of provocateurs, and special services, who compensate for the country’s insufficient military resources. The mode of action chosen by the Ukrainian elites means provocations, information wars, cyber operations and other indirect means of force.

In any event, this strategy is based on imaginary interests. The test that allows us to make this conclusion is the question: To what extent do these foreign policy goals meet the key Ukrainian needs: security, territorial integrity and economic development? How a nation must meet its needs is the most subjective part of the formation of foreign policy. Assessments of the external environment among the elites of young states are vague and distorted. They lack the realism that is necessary for sober goal-setting in their correct application: as a sober, emotionless calculation of resources, which relies on the experience of repeating these operations from generation to generation. Such realism is obtained only through experience, in the course of wars for independence, civil wars, overcoming internal collapse and addressing foreign policy crises.

However, the Ukrainian elites virtually sleepwalked into independence without a fight. Ukraine is also not helped by a too-short history of independence. Probably as a consequence of this independence “free of charge”, Ukrainian domestic policy essentially hinders the formation of any coherent national strategy. There is a split of entities inside Ukraine: influence is divided between dozens of players, and each of them takes power as much as he can. The recently-dismissed powerful Interior Minister Arsen Avakov relies on organised nationalist groups on the street. Each of the major oligarchs controls a sector of the economy, regional clans actually encroach on national sovereignty, and the leapfrog of the Ukrainian elites brings new authorities to Kiev after each electoral cycle. Now the country has an inexperienced president who is strongly influenced by American interests.

What would a realistic strategy for Ukraine look like? The needs have remained the same: security, economic development and the preservation of national unity. A more sober assessment of the international environment would have shown that Ukraine’s key neighbour, Russia, is a geographical and strategic constant, as well as its confrontation with the West. A more sober look inwards would show that Ukraine is a young and fragile country, and next to it there are nervous, paranoid neighbours: Poland and the Baltic countries. The United States, on which the Ukrainian authorities are betting now, will not resolve Kiev’s problems, since Washington is far away, and Ukraine has dropped rather low on the list of its priorities.

Such an assessment of needs and environment would allow for the formulation of other interests for Ukraine. This is the consolidation of military neutrality, avoidance of being drawn into the confrontation between Russia and the West, the development of healthy economic ties with Russia, the strengthening of Ukraine’s economic autonomy and the preservation of national unity within the country. Based on these interests, Ukrainian elites could develop a list of foreign policy goals:

  • achieving a favourable trade agreement with Russia and then with the EU;

  • securing the neutral status of the country in the Constitution;

  • building moderately capable armed forces;

  • limiting the influence of nationalists and developing a constructive line regarding the politics of memory, which would not divide the country even deeper;

  • creating conditions for the formation of a strong central government and the removal of oligarchs from the levers of influence;

  • developing an industrial policy and reindustrialisation;

  • implementing a “boring” foreign policy akin to the model of neutral Finland.

The resources of such a strategy would be the entry of Ukrainian goods to the EAEU markets, where Ukraine is missing out on huge profits, its own industrial development, the maintenance of strong internal troops to maintain order and the idea of a “peaceful people” in the sphere of ideology.

Such a strategy would be underpinned by a constructive course of action that relies on a desire to reduce tensions in Eastern Europe, rather than continually raising rates.

However, it is unlikely that such a line could appear in Ukraine now. First, foreign policy experience cannot be imported. The international environment has been set in motion and the constants of the last 30 years about the primacy of globalisation and liberal democracy are no longer working. As always, reason loses to emotions and national egoism, and Ukraine is not the only victim of this circumstance. Ultimately, each nation’s group of elites decides upon the most viable strategy equation for itself. Since every state is an experiment, for its success it is necessary that several generations of elites have the opportunity to gain both positive and painful experiences. Only on the basis of such experience can an effective foreign policy be developed.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.