Ukraine's Halting Steps Toward the European Union

3 MINS READSep 18, 2013 | 14:17 GMT
Ukraine's Halting Steps Toward the European Union
Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich gives a press conference after an EU-Ukraine summit at the EU Headquarters in Brussels on Feb. 25.
JOHN THYS/AFP/Getty Images

Ukraine moved one step closer to key political and economic agreements with the European Union, but the deals are still far from solidified. Ukraine's parliament on Sept. 18 approved a draft of an association agreement with the European Union, ahead of a scheduled signing of the agreement and a free trade pact at the EU Eastern Partnership summit in Vilnius on Nov. 25. However, the coming two months will be full of obstacles — most notably from Russia — that could prevent the implementation of the agreements.

Ukraine and the European Union have been negotiating the association and free trade agreements for several years now, in an effort to expand political, trade and economic ties. The European Union is one of Ukraine's two main economic partners, the other being Russia. While Ukraine's trade with the two sides is relatively balanced, both the European Union and Russia have sought to strengthen their relationship with Ukraine. The European Union has sought to bring Ukraine closer to the bloc via the Eastern Partnership program, while Russia has been seeking the country's membership in its economic bloc, the Customs Union.

Russia's Customs Union

Russia's Customs Union

Under President Viktor Yanukovich, Ukraine's strategy has been to strike a balance between the two sides without firmly committing to either. As a borderland state, Ukraine knows that complete alignment with one side can prove harmful in its relations with the other, as was seen under the previous administration of former President Viktor Yushchenko, who tried to get Ukraine into NATO and suffered natural gas cutoffs from Russia as a result. Yanukovich has been more cautious, dropping the country's NATO ambitions and seeking to cooperate with Russia's Customs Union via a free trade deal rather than membership.

While this balancing act has worked for Ukraine so far, both Russia and the European Union have indicated they are not willing to go along with it forever. Both Moscow and Brussels have ramped up the pressure on Kiev to make its choice on which bloc it wants to integrate with in the long term. In recent weeks, it has appeared that Kiev is choosing Europe, with Ukrainian officials saying that EU deals will indeed be signed at the upcoming Eastern Partnership summit.

However, Russia has increased pressure on Ukraine to dissuade it from signing the EU agreements. In the past two months, Russia cut off imports from Ukraine's main confectionary producer and heightened customs checks on Ukrainian goods at the border, which reportedly led to some $500 million in losses for Ukraine, according to Ukrainian officials. In the meantime, Russian officials have explicitly stated that signing the EU deals will preclude Ukraine's further integration with the Customs Union and that Russia would increase the trade restrictions that Ukraine experienced in the past few months. Moreover, on Sept. 18 the Kremlin appointed former presidential adviser Vladislav Surkov to the portfolio of managing Russian-Ukrainian relations. Surkov is known for his aggressive style and pressure tactics, similar to those of Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitri Rogozin's handling of Moscow's relations with Moldova and Transdniestria, another area where Russian influence collides with EU integration plans. 

All of these moves by Moscow are meant to make sure that Kiev thinks twice before signing the EU agreements. And the approval of the draft association agreement by the Ukrainian parliament does not make the agreement official; it is meant as a signal to Moscow that Kiev still has leverage in its negotiations over energy issues, which are ongoing. There are also many sticking points that could prevent or delay the signing of the EU agreements, such as the imprisonment of former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Timoshenko and Germany's position on Ukraine's integration, which is less aggressive and more mindful of Russian interests than Lithuania or Poland's stance. Therefore, there will be a lot of activity in the next two months as the Eastern Partnership summit approaches, but Ukraine is still far from making a final choice between Europe and Russia.

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