Western Strategy for Ukraine


Feb 10, 2005

This commentary originally appeared in United Press International on February 10, 2005.

Kiev, Ukraine, Feb. 10 (UPI) — U.S. President George W. Bush has a valuable opportunity to help carry out his inaugural pledge to make promotion of democracy the centerpiece of U.S. foreign policy by making support for democracy in Ukraine a key priority on his February trip to Europe.

Backing Ukraine's Orange Revolution is in America's strategic interest. A democratic Ukraine would help stabilize Europe's eastern periphery and would give an important impulse to democratic reform throughout the post-Soviet space. It could also give impetus to reform in Russia. Seeing the benefits enjoyed by their Ukrainian neighbors, many Russians could be encouraged to push more boldly for greater democracy in Russia.

Promoting reform in Ukraine could also help overcome the lingering strains in trans-Atlantic relations caused by the war in Iraq. Unlike Iraq, the U.S. and European approaches to Ukraine are in broad harmony. Both want to see a democratic Ukraine closely tied to Euro-Atlantic institutions. Thus a coordinated U.S.-European support package for Ukraine could provide a means of strengthening transatlantic cooperation — one of the main aims of Bush's trip to Europe.

Domestically, a tangible demonstration of U.S. and European support for Ukrainian reform early on is critically important. At the moment, public expectations in Ukraine are high. But public support for reform may begin to wane as the tough sacrifice required by reform begins to kick in.

Ukraine faces parliamentary elections in early 2006. By then, newly elected President Viktor Yushchenko needs to be able to show that his reforms have brought important benefits to the average Ukrainian. Otherwise the internal balance of power could shift in favor of the opponents of reform.

Russia may also seek to undercut Yushchenko's reform efforts, either through using its extensive economic leverage or fomenting tension among the Russian-speaking areas of the Eastern Ukraine that voted overwhelmingly for Viktor Yanukovich in first rounds of the election. U.S.-European support could help provide a cushion against that possibility.

Key elements of an effective U.S. support package for Ukraine should include:

  • An invitation to Yushchenko to meet with Bush at the White House soon. Bush could also consider a short stopover in Kiev during his European trip. These actions would be a highly important symbolic demonstration of U.S. support for Ukrainian democracy and could give important impetus to reform in Ukraine.
  • Financial assistance designed to support economic reform, as well as measures to strengthen the independent media and civil society.
  • Support for Ukrainian membership in the World Trade Organization. Among other benefits, this could allow Ukraine to create a free trade zone with the European Union.
  • Support for a NATO Membership Action Plan for Ukraine. Such a plan would officially recognize Ukraine's aspirations for NATO membership and lay out concrete steps that Ukraine needed to take to achieve membership. Ukraine's NATO membership should not be artificially pushed or accelerated. But Ukraine needs to be given a clear perspective of membership if it proceeds down the path of reform.
  • Encouraging the EU to develop a more ambitious and forward-looking approach to Ukraine. The EU's New Neighborhood policy — which includes Ukraine — was devised before the Orange Revolution. The policy needs to be revised to take into consideration the new situation in Ukraine. If Ukraine does implement a serious reform program, the EU can adopt a more open attitude toward Ukrainian membership. What is needed is a clear roadmap that lays out the concrete steps that Ukraine would need to take in order to be considered for membership down the line.

Given all the other big issues that the EU has on its plate at the moment — ratification of its constitution, digesting 10 new members, Turkish accession and integrating the Western Balkans — some members of the EU may be reluctant to take on another major challenge. But this is a time for vision not timidity or hesitation. For reform to succeed, Ukraine needs a clear and unambiguous signal that both the EU and the United States support its integration into Euro-Atlantic institutions, and Bush should send that signal during his European trip.

© 2005 United Press International

F. Stephen Larrabee served on the National Security Council in the Carter administration and holds the corporate chair in European security at the nonprofit RAND Corporation.

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