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Zerkalo Nedelia, Ukraine

Obama Part 2 and Ukraine:
Expectations and Realities



By Oleh Shamshur

Can the officials in Kiev count on Washington’s support in this confrontation? The history of our relations provides some reason to answer in the positive, but the level of support from the U.S. and other democratic countries that Ukraine can count on will depend on the internal situation, on the readiness of our leaders and on us to find our backbones in advocating for our national interests.

Translated By Sierra Perez-Sparks

16 November 2012

Edited by Tom Proctor


Ukraine - Zerkalo Nedelia - Original Article (Russian)

To be perfectly honest, we here in Ukraine get a little too excited, frenzied even, about the elections that take place in influential countries. We try to calculate the future impact of their results on our government, and this causes a certain sense of internal discomfort for me. It means that despite 21 years of independence, even Ukrainian citizens perceive our state as an object for the most part, and not as a subject in world politics or even as an active player in a regional league.

However, for the U.S., obviously, we can make an exception. People all over the world carefully follow the results of votes cast by American voters: This is the real weight of the country in international relations and the world economy. Decisions made by the successive presidents often directly affect the lives and well-being of millions of people in other countries.

The U.S. and Ukraine have a short history of quite intensive bilateral intergovernmental communication. Ever since Ukraine became independent (we’ll treat Bush senior’s speech to Parliament as a political anecdote), the U.S. has consistently supported the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine. The trajectory of the development of Ukrainian-American relations has not always moved upwards, traveling through rather complex stages. (Just remember the “Kolchuga scandal.”) In general, the positive dynamics of bilateral relations and democratic changes within Ukraine created the necessary prerequisites for the December 2008 signing of the United States-Ukraine Charter on Strategic Partnership, the significance of which was confirmed by Barack Obama’s new administration. Some time later, the Strategic Partnership Commission was formed and chaired by the Ukrainian Minister of Foreign Affairs and the U.S. Secretary of State.

Unfortunately, other processes were happening at the same time. The U.S. grew tired of and was even openly annoyed by the chaos that was characteristic of Ukraine in 2009, as well as the inability to develop a number of issues important to bilateral relations or to even receive a timely response to propositions made by the American side. This explains to a significant degree some of the relief that Washington felt as a result of the presidential elections in 2010. It appeared that the democratic character of the race confirmed that Ukraine had passed the point of no return back to undemocratic procedures, while the stability and reforms promised by the new head of Ukrainian government and the ruling party would give new impetus to the development of bilateral relations in a number of important areas. The trust credited to the “new old regime” by Washington and its European partners was not a blank check, but namely this is how many in power accepted the West’s silent agreement to the use of “creative approaches” in forming a majority in parliament.

We must also admit that even before, during the early months of Obama’s administration, Ukraine’s slide down the list of U.S. foreign political priorities accelerated. Objectively, the global economic crisis contributed to this, as did the further deterioration of the situation in the Middle East, the situation in Northern Africa, problems connected to the Iranian nuclear program, the conclusion of military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan and the necessity of countering the increasing military-political might of China. Finally the Obama administration made a bid to “reset” relations with Russia. All of this resulted in Ukraine being pushed to the margins. On the other hand, Ukraine under Yanukovych really pleased Washington and a few of its key partners when it curbed its ambitions for EU membership and removed NATO membership from the agenda by declaring its non-block status. In this stead, Ukraine wouldn’t create any unnecessary problems between the “big guys” and Russia.

I did not set out to characterize the relationship between Ukraine and the U.S. or follow its development over recent years. On the other hand, the general comments made above, in my opinion, are important when trying to predict U.S. policy toward Ukraine during President Obama’s second term. I think that the following circumstances will determine such policy.

First of all, the U.S. will consider Ukraine to be an important country in Central-Eastern Europe. At the same time, Ukrainian-American relations will steadily lose the characteristics of partnership and shared democratic values and interests, which could be based on identical or similar views of today’s important problems. It is hardly a coincidence that the sides have not yet been able to set aside time for the next meeting of the Strategic Partnership Commission. It is unlikely that there will be high-level visits or meetings in the near future.

Second, Washington’s policy toward Ukraine will remain pragmatic and focused on the realization of concrete projects in the interest of the U.S. such as, for example, projects in the energy sector. Just because the projects will be in the interest of the U.S. does not mean that they won’t also be in Ukraine’s interest. In particular, attracting American investment and technology in the energy sector is one of the important factors of modernizing this industry. If the modus operandi of the Obama administration remains the same, these projects will have a definite and speedy implementation schedule and will be presented to the American public as an achievement of the U.S. government.

Third, the U.S. has understood from the very beginning of our bilateral relations that its interests lie with a strong, sovereign (and not just nominally) and democratic Ukraine. Namely, this type of Ukraine is able to act as the regional partner that the U.S. hopes for. This triad explains why the U.S. always carefully followed the development of Ukraine’s internal situation, contributing to the establishment and development of Ukraine’s democratic institutions. With this and the further erosion of democratic standards - which is occurring in Ukraine - in the near future in mind, we can anticipate increased U.S. attention to problems of democracy and human rights in our state (especially considering that the “softening effect” of the uranium project has been practically exhausted).

This is evidenced by rather harsh statements made by official U.S. representatives during the parliamentary election in Ukraine. One gets the impression that they were a surprise to the Ukrainian authorities. Some are trying to explain their appearance by the “Clinton factor” and even hope for greater restraint when the new U.S. Secretary of State is appointed. All of these fantasies are the result of misunderstandings or ignorance about the particularities of making important foreign policy decisions in the U.S. They are formulated during a process of interagency coordination, in which the State Department plays only one, albeit important, role. The last word, especially in the Obama era, remains with the White House.

In this context, there is a question of the possibility of U.S. sanctions against certain Ukrainian officials. Even with the violations recorded by international observers during the last parliamentary elections, it seems that there is little chance of this happening, unless Congress supports a binding resolution and not a recommendation. Some American experts think that the situation may get unpleasant for the Ukrainian side if there are new attempts to apply selective justice: these issues get special attention from the executive branch of the U.S. government.

Finally, the problem that cannot be ignored is the influence of the Russian factor on Washington’s policy regarding Ukraine over the next four years. Much of its intensity is connected with the subsequent fate of the American-Russian “reset,” which the current U.S. administration notched in its foreign policy belt.

In my opinion, the Americans have not succeeded in restarting the relationship with Russia. Despite some publicized achievements (in particular the new START and cooperation in the delivery of certain materials to NATO troops in Afghanistan), the U.S. has failed to achieve the main goal: to secure the Kremlin’s support in increasing pressure on Iran to end its nuclear program. Add to this Russia’s obstructionist attitude toward the Syrian question, which the Americans take poorly. Fundamental divisions remain on the issue of the American missile defense system in Europe. The general tone of bilateral relations has not changed, first and foremost because of the Russian position, which feels entirely comfortable at home and abroad, fixing the climate control button in bilateral relations at “cool.”

Is the Obama administration ready to make conclusions from this and adjust its policy in the Russian direction? At this time, there is no single answer to this question. The only thing that we can go on at this stage is Obama’s known promise to exercise greater flexibility on the question of missile defense and Medvedev’s nearly enthusiastic reaction to his reelection. In any case, it is too early to make any definitive conclusions: Obama’s second term hasn’t even begun.

Speaking of “reset,” we should not forget that the rise to power of Ukraine’s currently Russophilic government entirely fits into the logic of politics. Today, the situation is, at least on the surface, completely different: Russo-Ukrainian relations, despite Kiev’s many concessions, are experiencing turbulence. Can the officials in Kiev count on Washington’s support in this confrontation? The history of our relations provides some reason to answer in the positive, but the level of support from the U.S. and other democratic countries that Ukraine can count on will depend on the internal situation, on the readiness of our leaders and on us to find our backbones in advocating for our national interests. Also, the U.S. and the EU want to be sure that Ukraine’s choice in favor of European direction is a conscious and definitive decision, and not one of the elements of the Byzantine puzzle of Ukrainian politics.



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