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Dec 29, 2015 | 09:00 GMT

9 mins read

Ukraine: Caught Between East and West

Senior Eurasia Analyst, Stratfor
Eugene Chausovsky
Senior Eurasia Analyst, Stratfor
As Ukraine reorients itself toward Europe, its ties with Russia will weaken.
(Stratfor)
Editor's Note

This is the second installment of a five-part series that explores the past, present and future of the confrontation between Russia and the West on the Eurasian landmass.

Russia's desire for influence in Ukraine is as old as the Russian state itself. It has fought for centuries to protect its stake in the Eastern European nation from the encroachment of the West, often turning to natural gas cutoffs or outright military intervention to do so.

Since the end of the Cold War, Ukraine has vacillated between East and West, split between the country's pro-Russia and pro-Europe factions. Now, as Ukraine swings once more toward the West, Russia stands to lose much of its power over one of its most important satellites. 

There was once no distinction between the Russian and Ukrainian nations in their earliest forms; both peoples belonged to the loose federation of eastern Slavic tribes known as Kievan Rus that emerged in Eastern Europe toward the end of the ninth century. Over time, the medieval state grew to become one of the largest on the Continent, spanning between the Baltic and the Black seas. But it was different from its neighbors to the west: Orthodox Christianity was the dominant religion in Kievan Rus, setting it apart from the mostly Catholic Western Europe.

In the 13th century, Kievan Rus began to destabilize in the face of internal discord, only to be swept away completely by invading Mongol hordes from the east. The state's capital, Kiev, as well as the rest of the land that is now Ukraine, languished until the Western Catholic powers of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and then the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth conquered it at the start of the 14th century. Meanwhile, the principality of Muscovy, which lay northeast of Kiev, grew to become the new center of the Slavic Orthodox civilization to the east.

Emergence of the Ukrainian Front

The two major powers — the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth to the west and the burgeoning Russian Empire to the east — competed for control of Ukraine over the next 300 years, giving rise to the East-West divide that exists in the country to this day. But a third force — the Cossacks — began to gain influence in Ukraine as well, complicating loyalties even further. A frontier people, the Cossacks had a fierce warrior mentality and were constantly feuding with their Asian and Muslim neighbors to the south. They were also staunch observers and defenders of their Orthodox faith.

The Cossacks were the precursors of Ukraine's modern independence movement, belonging to neither the Catholic Poles nor the distant Orthodox Russians. In 1648, Bohdan Khmelnytsky — perhaps the most famous Cossack — led an uprising against the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and established an independent Cossack state centered on the banks of the Dnieper River, which bisects the city of Kiev. However, much like the kingdom of Kievan Rus, the Cossack state did not last. Six years after launching his rebellion, Khmelnytsky allied with Muscovy in its war against the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, ultimately leading to the integration of Kiev and modern-day eastern Ukraine with Muscovite Russia. Western Ukraine remained under Polish control.

As the Russian Empire expanded throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, its influence in Ukraine grew. The Partitions of Poland gradually chipped away at the commonwealth's territory, granting the Austro-Hungarian Empire control of the far western Galicia region while giving the rest of the country to Russia.

In the early 20th century, after the fall of the Russian Empire, a Ukrainian nationalist movement emerged in the western province of Lviv. When the Soviet Union was founded in 1922, Lviv was the only Ukrainian territory that was not incorporated into the new Soviet state. Instead, it became the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, and Kiev was its capital.

Josef Stalin's forced collectivization of the Soviet Union's agricultural sector brought starvation to the Ukrainian countryside in the 1930s, and soon after World War II began the Nazis invaded. When the Allies defeated Nazi Germany, all of Ukraine, including the province of Galicia, was brought under the Soviets' domain for the first time in centuries. The next 40 years were relatively calm for Ukraine, though they were marked by Soviet rule. When the Soviet Union finally collapsed in 1991, Ukraine became an independent state.

The Past 25 Years: Tug-of-War Between Russia and the West

The end of the Cold War brought an unprecedented degree of independence to Ukraine. Nevertheless, the legacy of suzerainty lingered, making the country's political scene more volatile. Russia continued to influence Ukraine from the east, while the newly formed European Union began to exert its power over the country from the west. Within Ukraine, competing political factions emerged that were loyal to one foreign patron or the other.

At first, the weak Ukrainian government attempted to rebuild the country while maintaining a precarious balance between Russia and the West in its foreign policy. But when the pro-Russia Viktor Yanukovich won a narrow and contested victory over his pro-West opponent, Viktor Yushchenko, in Ukraine's 2004 presidential election, mass protests erupted. After what became known as the Orange Revolution, the election results were deemed illegitimate, and Yushchenko assumed the presidency instead.

During the decade of political polarization that followed, Ukraine began to politically reorient itself toward the West, and it formally pursued membership in the European Union and NATO. This aggravated tensions with Russia. Moscow responded by cutting its natural gas flows to Ukraine in 2006 and 2009 and by expressing explicit discomfort with Kiev's new pro-West policies.

Within Ukraine, competing political factions emerged that were loyal to one foreign patron or the other.

Still, the defining feature of this period was the infighting taking place within Ukraine's own government, especially between Yushchenko and his running mate, Yulia Timoshenko. Their dispute, which divided the government, prevented the country from meaningfully integrating with the West and led to a steep decline of the government's popularity among Ukrainian voters. By the next presidential election in 2010, the political tides had turned: Yushchenko garnered a mere 5 percent of the vote and ceded the presidency to Yanukovich accordingly.

However, Yanukovich's victory was hardly sweeping, and the bulk of his support came from constituencies concentrated in the country's pro-Russia east and south; he registered very little support in Ukraine's pro-Europe center and west. Upon assuming office, Yanukovich wasted no time in reversing his predecessor's efforts to integrate Ukraine with the West. He made NATO membership illegal and extended the Russian Black Sea fleet's port lease in Crimea by 25 years in exchange for lower natural gas prices. These decisions alienated and angered pro-West Ukrainians, who complained that Yanukovich abused his power.

The final straw came when Yanukovich pulled out of an EU free trade agreement just before an Eastern Partnership summit, again in return for financial aid and lower prices on energy imports from Russia. Protests erupted, eventually becoming the large-scale demonstrations known as the Euromaidan movement that culminated in Yanukovich's ouster in February 2014. The scale and intensity of the protests were unmatched by any in Ukraine's post-Soviet history.

When a new pro-West government led by President Petro Poroshenko rose in Yanukovich's place, Ukraine swung away from Russia yet again. Unsurprisingly, ties between Ukraine and Russia have deteriorated again, but this time Russia has responded more aggressively. To counter what it considered to be a dangerous level of Western influence near its borders, Russia annexed Crimea and instigated a pro-Russia rebellion in eastern Ukraine. The situation there has come to a tense standstill as Russia faces off against the West.

The Next 25 Years: Moving Away From Russia

A look at Ukraine's long history shows that major shifts in the country's foreign policy and political orientation are not unique to the Euromaidan uprising. The country has frequently pivoted between Russia and the West as the pro-Russia east and the pro-Europe west vie for power.

However, the latest conflict in eastern Ukraine has polarized the country more than any other in its post-Soviet history. In fact, it resembles how divided Ukraine was before it was incorporated into the Soviet Union. This polarization is likely to continue in some form for several years, if not decades, as the military engagement with Russia becomes ingrained in Ukrainian society and weakens the historical bonds between the two countries. Animosity will probably only intensify as younger generations with no memory of Ukraine's Soviet period grow up in a country where Russia poses the greatest threat to national security.

In the meantime, the high level of economic integration that has defined the relationship between Ukraine and Russia for centuries is also likely to weaken in the coming decades. Because of the crisis in eastern Ukraine, the two have already significantly reduced trade ties: Ukraine has slashed its imports of Russian natural gas, while Russia is preparing to embargo Ukrainian agricultural products. Such retaliatory measures will probably intensify over time, and the two countries will come to rely less on each other economically. Similarly, political and military ties will remain neutral at best. Each of these factors makes a reorientation toward Russia highly unlikely in the next 25 years.

As Ukraine's ties with Russia erode, Kiev will meanwhile try to strengthen its connection with the West. This does not necessarily mean that Ukraine will become an EU and NATO member, since those institutions will undergo changes of their own over the next 25 years. However, Ukraine will probably integrate further with the two countries that played a major role in shaping its pre-Soviet history: Poland and Lithuania. Poland and the Baltic states are currently in the throes of a long-term effort to merge their energy and economic infrastructure to create a regional bloc. Joining the bloc will become increasingly attractive to Ukraine in the coming decades, especially if membership comes with the political and security backing of the West's most powerful member, the United States.

This potential grouping, which harken back to the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, will be made more feasible by the sweeping demographic changes taking place in Ukraine. The country is set to experience one of the steepest population declines in the world: It will lose 21.7 percent of its population by 2050, dropping from 45 million people to 35 million. As it does, Ukraine will need to secure partnerships with larger countries or multinational alliance groups to maintain its economic viability and gain security patrons to protect itself from Russia — something that also interests Poland and the Baltic states, as well as Moldova, Romania and other countries in Central and Eastern Europe.

However, Ukraine and Russia will not sever all ties over the next 25 years. The deep cultural, linguistic and religious bonds that exist between them are not likely to be broken entirely over the course of a generation. Still, the bonds will weaken, as will the two countries' broader bilateral ties when Ukraine moves out of Russia's shadow. 

Part 1: On the Origins of a Conflict

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