Reimagining Ukraine

Building a Ukraine Policy Based on Today’s Strategic Realities

U.S. Ukraine policy has largely been a function of our relationship with Russia. It’s time to rethink our approach, write Samuel Charap and Alexandros Petersen.

President Barack Obama walks with Ukraine President Viktor Yanukovych during the official arrivals for the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington on April 12, 2010. (AP/Susan Walsh)
President Barack Obama walks with Ukraine President Viktor Yanukovych during the official arrivals for the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington on April 12, 2010. (AP/Susan Walsh)

The United States and Russia played a grand chess game in Eurasia for nearly two decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union. U.S. policy toward countries in the region essentially became а derivative of Russia policy as a result. We failed to forge long-term partnerships and instead sought leverage, neglecting engagement that provided no benefit in the push and pull with Moscow. Local elites came to see their countries more as pawns in this game than as fully fledged sovereign states with independent policies.

But the Obama administration’s successful “reset” of relations with Russia provides an opportunity to rethink our policies toward Eurasia, a term we use here to refer to the countries of the greater Black Sea region and Central Asia. We explain in our Foreign Affairs article “Reimagining Eurasia,” that a U.S. strategy to reimagine Eurasia should be based on three principles:

  • Policy toward Eurasian states should be formulated based on their merits, not their value as bargaining chips or their relationships with other powers.
  • Engagement should employ all of the tools in our toolbox, including diplomatic, economic, and cultural ones, and not just those related to security and natural resources.
  • U.S. policy should emphasize transparency and win-win opportunities, while simultaneously rejecting Russian notions of “spheres of influence” and antiquated zero-sum arguments from Eurasian governments.

Implementing this strategy will be a challenge throughout Eurasia, but Ukraine represents a particularly difficult case. Ukraine will always be a sensitive topic for Moscow because of its massive symbolic, cultural, and economic significance for Russia. And the Orange Revolution only amplified this sensitivity—the Kremlin still considers the wave of protests that followed falsification of the country’s 2004 presidential poll to be a Western plot to undermine its influence.

Zbignew Brzezinski, in a landmark Foreign Affairs article, characterized the strategic rationale behind U.S. policy toward Ukraine since its independence, writing, “Without Ukraine, Russia ceases to be an empire, but with Ukraine suborned and then subordinated, Russia automatically becomes an empire.” Analysts justifying U.S. involvement today regularly cite Brzezinski’s argument even though he wrote these words more than 16 years ago. The Kremlin has great ambitions for its relationship with Kyiv, and the United States certainly must remain vigilant. But Ukraine’s independence is no longer in question, as was the case when Brzezinski was writing. U.S. policy should reflect that reality rather than still viewing the country through a Russia-centric lens.

It is not surprising—with the U.S. approach to Ukraine so firmly stuck in the past—that policy paralysis set in following the January 2010 elections that brought President Viktor Yanukovych to power. Yanukovych’s push to improve relations with Moscow rendered our approach, which essentially rested on the previous leadership’s aspirations for integration into Euro-Atlantic institutions, irrelevant overnight. The debate is now between those who advocate punishing Yanukovych for his “pro-Russian” decisions and those who urge blind embrace of the new president for fear that criticism might push him closer to Moscow. Neither position represents an effective Ukraine strategy.

The Untied States should not make policy based on the notion of Ukraine as geopolitical plaything, but should rather see that a whole host of U.S. interests are in play in this European country with a population larger than Spain’s and a landmass nearly equal to France’s. Ukraine plays a crucial role as a transit country for Russian gas to Europe and has huge hydrocarbon reserves of its own. It has the potential to be an agricultural powerhouse and is already a leader in industries such as metals and chemicals.

Ukraine also features a political system that, though deeply flawed, is far more open and competitive than its former-Soviet neighbors. A successfully consolidated democracy there could serve as a powerful example. And Ukraine could be a key regional security actor since it is both a Black Sea littoral state and a party to the multilateral process for resolving the frozen conflict in neighboring Moldova. It is also either the source or transit point for a number of transnational threats such as proliferation of nuclear materials, illegal migration, human trafficking, narcotics, and pandemic disease. This wide-ranging list of opportunities and potential problems calls for broad-based engagement with Ukraine—the kind of engagement we sorely lack.

The new leadership in Kyiv thinks of Ukraine in ways that are in large part a product of years of U.S.-Russia tug of war. They speak of their country as a “bridge between East and West” and have recently codified its “non-bloc” status, comparing their position to postwar Austria. A Ukraine strategy that takes the country on its merits would not need to be tailored to Yanukovych’s self-proclaimed geopolitical orientation. It would also seek to increase U.S. influence there without reference to Moscow.

Competing with Russia over Ukraine is a futile exercise and a dangerous one since it exacerbates already sharp cultural and linguistic divisions within Ukrainian society between the Southern and Eastern regions and the population west of the Dnipro. That is not to say Washington should turn a blind eye if Russia genuinely threatens Ukraine’s sovereignty. But Washington and Moscow do share an interest in avoiding civil strife in Ukraine, and perhaps that would be the most effective frame for conversations with the Russians.

This outline of a proactive Ukraine policy is an example of how to begin reimagining Eurasia. The allegation often heard in Washington that Obama’s “reset” with Russia has come at the expense of U.S. ties with the former Soviet states is not only false, but it also misses the point. The tired, zero-sum framework we now have for U.S. engagement in Eurasia will inevitably spark a new strategic competition with Moscow, erasing the gains of the past year and a half. The “reset” therefore requires a new strategy for the region in order to remain successful. Our article “Reimagining Eurasia” and this case study—as well a second focused on Azerbaijan—represent the first steps toward developing one.

Samuel Charap is Associate Director for Russia and Eurasia at the Center for American Progress and Alexandros Petersen is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.

For more information, see:

The positions of American Progress, and our policy experts, are independent, and the findings and conclusions presented are those of American Progress alone. A full list of supporters is available here. American Progress would like to acknowledge the many generous supporters who make our work possible.