Ukraine: at the heart of the politics of the great powers
Under pro-Western President Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine has made substantial progress in its campaign for EU and NATO membership. However, domestic successes have been overshadowed by the increasingly difficult international position in which Kiev finds itself. Russia remains a security threat as frozen conflict in Donbass persists; Still, the United States appears to be gaining support, including lifting sanctions on Nord Stream 2. China, a major trading partner and vital vaccine supplier, is offering Ukraine a helping hand. But at what cost ?
Kiev’s political reset
In 2021, Zelensky launched a political reset intended to improve his declining reputation following controversial Attorney General sacking decisions Ruslan Riaboshapka and to reshuffle government. President anti-oligarch campaign So far seems genuine, albeit somewhat rushed and implemented through mostly informal channels. Confront the pro-Russian oligarch Viktor Medvedchuk Accusing him of treason was an important step in reducing Russian influence and fighting corruption. Likewise, by deleting the powerful interior minister, the passage of a new anti-oligarch bill, the increase in defense oversight and the reform of the judicial system were decisive moments for Kiev’s efforts to meet the criteria for Western support. .
But on the battlefield there was little rest. Despite progress on the release of political prisoners, the conflict in Donbass remains frozen. Constitution of Russian troops along the border earlier this year demonstrated the fragility of the stalemate. In addition, the Kremlin recently expressed with renewed passion its belief that Ukraine should not be a separate state in a 5,000 word essay written by President Vladimir Putin. So it’s no surprise that Ukraine has put all its eggs in the American basket.
Biden: friend or foe?
Kiev expected transatlantic cooperation to flourish after the election of Joe Biden; Biden drove Ukrainian politics during his tenure as Vice President and has visited the country six times. But the initial optimism gave way to skepticism and disappointment. Despite growing concerns over Russian military build-up in the Black Sea, the United States has canceled the deployment of two warships to balance the situation, and neither Georgia nor Ukraine were invited to the 31st NATO summit.
Most importantly, the US-German Agreement Ending the sanctions and essentially allowing the completion of Nord Stream 2 (NS2) has been widely condemned in Ukraine. While promises have been made for future investments in Ukraine’s energy sector, Kiev views the decision as indifferent to Ukrainian security while underestimating the coercive power that Nord Stream 2 gives to Russia. Ukraine risks losing between $ 2 billion and $ 3 billion in annual revenue from transit fees. This facilitates Russia’s narrative that the West will leave Ukraine to fend for itself, which could affect the perception of the Ukrainian public.
A growing concern is that the link between reform and support seemed to be breaking – as Kiev moved forward, Western support seemed to be eroding. This has been touched upon somewhat in meeting between Biden and Zelensky end of August. Zelensky managed to secure around $ 60 million in military aid for Ukraine, subject to further reforms. Also, the United States donated vaccines to Kiev, which would make it more difficult for Ukraine to continue on its current path towards closer ties with China, but the concrete results of this engagement by Biden are not yet visible. Likewise, military aid will not be sufficient to compensate for the financial losses that Ukraine risks suffering as a result of the new natural gas deal signed by Russia and Hungary, which again will have deliveries bypassing Ukrainian territory.
China: the knight in shining armor?
Chinese interest in Ukraine was manifested in 2018 with the creation of the “Belt and Road” Trade and Investment Promotion Center in Kiev, paving the way for deepening economic ties between the two states. China has become Ukraine single import partner, bypassing Russia, although relations are tilted in favor of China. More recently, Chinese Minister of Commerce Wang Wentao and Ukrainian Minister of Infrastructure Oleksandr Kubrakov signed an agreement on Chinese investments in Ukrainian infrastructure, focusing on road, bridge and rail transport projects. This could provide an economic boost to Ukraine, given the losses it is likely to suffer from NS2. However, the example of Montenegro amassing huge debt on China’s sponsored infrastructure projects should serve as a point of caution.
Beijing has increasingly positioned itself as a strategic partner despite the losses suffered along the way. The Motor Sich sale fiasco, a local manufacturer of aircraft engines, to China’s Skyrizon, a US blacklisted company, showed where Ukraine’s priorities could lie. Ukraine was quick to give in American pressure, terminating the agreement and nationalizing the company instead. It appears that China remains open to cooperation, but is keen to use soft power to strengthen its ties. Kiev has struggled to obtain vaccines for its large population, given the lack of access to Western supplies and its refusal to import Sputnik. Beijing offered its support, sending 1.9 million doses of Sinovac. In return, Ukraine withdrew its signature from an international declaration calling for access to Xinjiang for human rights reasons. Beijing expects blow for blow, which could alter Ukraine’s western trajectory.
Ukraine has found itself at the center of the politics of the great powers. Russia is unlikely to give up or compromise on its state claim during Putin’s lifetime and will continue to push the boundaries of international law in this regard. The United States, traditionally a key ally on Ukraine’s westernization path, appears preoccupied with other interests. China’s goal of gaining influence in Europe means luring Kiev with investment opportunities, while waiting for political favors in return. If the conditions remain the same, it could cost the Eastern European state its integrity. Ultimately, Ukraine finds itself in a unique position. As this is a point of great interest to global superpowers, there are opportunities for a strengthened political presence for the state. To achieve this, however, Ukraine would need to take more strategic approaches towards the parties at play, rather than acting as a mere pawn in their game.