One year is a very short period of time in which to conclude whether a new president has brought substantial changes to a country’s foreign policy, and even more so when considering, as in the case of Ukraine, a country at war whose orientations towards the West, the EU, and the US are already rooted in important decisions taken by previous leadership; since 2019, Euro-Atlantic integration has been an explicitly stated objective within Ukraine’s Constitution. But is Ukraine still a priority for the West?
The relations between the EU and Ukraine are regulated by the Association Agreement and its Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area (DCFTA) within the European Neighborhood Policy (ENP) and its eastern dimension, the European Eastern Partnership (EaP). The political part of the Association Agreement was signed on 21 March 2014 by then new prime minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, while the economic part was signed on 27 June 2014 by then new president, Petro Poroshenko, and the Association Agreement formally came into effect on 1 September 2017. The DCFTA is the most important tool regulating Ukraine-EU relations.
The current president, Volodymyr Zelensky, on various occasions (EU-Ukraine summit 2019; speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos 2020) has expressed his country’s commitment to acquiring full membership in both the EU and NATO. On the EU side, there has been a further political and financial commitment in favor of decentralisation, the fight against corruption, the empowerment of civil society and accountable and efficient governance, as well as to alleviate the humanitarian situation and promote economic opportunities for the people living in the Sea of Azov region. The same goes for NATO: President Zelensky is willing to pursue cooperation with the Alliance under the NATO-Ukraine Commission while waiting for an invitation to join it. NATO recognizes that Ukraine should be allowed access to ports in the Sea of Azov and granted freedom of navigation, thus supporting the country in its controversy with Russia.
So far, therefore, institutional relations with the West continue on the same path already established by Zelensky’s predecessors. Any change can only come as a result of the new president’s approach to Russia, which was also the most important issue in terms of foreign policy during his electoral campaign. The first face-to-face meeting between Vladimir Putin and Zelensky took place in November 2019 within the so-called Normandy-Four format brokered by French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. The meeting ended with an agreement on prisoner exchange (the 24 Ukrainian servicemen and 11 other Ukrainian prisoners detained by Russia were able to return to their country) and a renewed commitment to implement an existing ceasefire agreement in eastern Ukraine’s Donbass region (Donetsk and Lugansk) that has never fully taken hold, as well as enhanced powers for international ceasefire monitors. The sides also said they had agreed to work toward local elections in Donbass, a very sensitive issue. Moscow and Kiev diverge on the sequence of events under the Minsk Agreement. Ukraine wants to regain control of its border before the holding of elections (this position is supported by the US), while Russia says according to the Minsk treaty elections must be held first (France and Germany would opt for this one). France is trying to smooth the path with the aim of improving the relations between Kiev and Moscow.
France is taking a more active role on Russia, as Macron in August 2019 stated that alienating Russia was “a profound strategic mistake” since the country can help to solve the world’s most intractable crises, from Syria to North Korea. Meanwhile, following France and Germany’s lobbying, Russia was readmitted to the Council of Europe in July 2019, from which it was suspended after annexing Crimea. This was the first time that an international sanction imposed for Moscow’s seizure of Crimea had been reversed. Macron on various occasions has invited Europe to improve its active role and take the lead in building a new security architecture — and that means engaging with Russia. He has also said that Europe should not rely on Washington having the continent’s best interests at heart. So, while on one hand Ukraine appreciates French and German support for sorting out the situation in the Donbass, on the other, concern about Macron’s efforts to simultaneously improve relations with Moscow is emerging in the light also of the dissatisfaction shown by pro-Western Ukrainians.
The Zelenksy presidency had to deal with an unwanted role in the attempted impeachment of US President Donald Trump, for his presumed attempts to obtain personal favours. President Trump would, in fact, have asked Zelensky to convince his country’s prosecutor to open an investigation into former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr and his younger son, Hunter Biden, threatening to withhold hundreds of millions of dollars in military assistance to Ukraine that Congress had allocated to help that country resist any Russian aggression. Zelensky in an interview with The Guardian admitted that it was “unpleasant” to hear reports that Mike Pompeo had made comments questioning whether Americans cared about Ukraine.
The first year of Zelensky’s presidency in terms of relations with the West was crippled by narrow room to manoeuvre as the question of Russia’s hybrid war in the south-eastern part of the country remains the main concern for Kiev, Brussels and Washington. The EU is not acting in a compact way since only France and Germany took part in the Normandy summit and France is supporting a softer approach towards Russia. Zelensky exhibited a certain pragmatism with the prisoners’ exchange, which might in the long run bear some fruit. The relationship with the US has been characterized by Trump’s fuzzy politics. Not much to do for Zelensky as long as his country remains sandwiched between the West and Russia. Therefore, Ukraine’s fate seems still to be in the hands of few European states and the US and their stance towards Russia. In both cases, however, Ukraine is not a political priority. The need to engage with Russia to sort out other complex scenarios such as Syria, Libya and Iran might in the end positively reverberate also on the situation in Ukraine.