The Demise of Ukraine’s “Eurasian Vector”

The Demise of Ukraine’s “Eurasian Vector”
PONARS Eurasia Policy Memo No. 458
February 2017
Olexiy Haran1
University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy
Mariia Zolkina2
Democratic Initiatives Foundation
Before 2014, the majority of Ukrainians did not view the goal of European integration as
a “national idea.” Even so, most Ukrainians had positive views about developing
relations with and integrating into the EU. And even though former Ukrainian president
Viktor Yanukovych refused to accept the idea of joining NATO, he officially maintained
EU integration as a priority. In fact, the Yanukovych administration helped finalize and
initialed the text of the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement. Yanukovych’s sudden
refusal to actually sign it, under Russian pressure, was the spark that set off the mass
protests in late 2013 that would become the Euromaidan revolution. The success of the
Euromaidan and the ensuing long-awaited signing of the Association Agreement
signaled a shift among Ukrainians at both the national and regional level in favor of the
EU. In addition, after Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Ukrainians came to favor joining
NATO for the first time since independence. Simultaneously, support plummeted for
Ukraine’s “Eurasia vector,” i.e., joining Russia-led institutions like the Customs
Union/Eurasian Economic Union (EEU).3
Ukraine’s Foreign Policy Dualism Has Now Disappeared
Ukraine’s dilemma, whether to pursue a European or Eurasian vector in its foreign
policy, is now off the agenda. The share of EU supporters in Ukraine has increased in
recent years, despite some ups and downs (see Figure 1). Support for the Eurasian
vector has decreased dramatically in Ukraine, as indicated by the low preference for
joining the EEU. The percentage of those in favor of non-alignment has increased, and
1 Olexiy Haran is Professor at the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy and Head of Research at
the Democratic Initiatives Foundation, Ukraine.
2 Mariia Zolkina is Analyst at the Democratic Initiatives Foundation, Ukraine.
3 EEU members are Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Armenia. Before 2014, it was the Customs
Union of Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan.
given Ukraine’s ongoing conflict with Russia, it is unlikely this segment would return to
choosing the Eurasian vector. In general, mistrust of Russian geopolitical projects
Figure 1. What Foreign Policy Path Should Ukraine Choose? (%, Feb. 2013–Dec. 2016)
Source: Kyiv International Institute of Sociology (KIIS)
Before 2014, only among respondents in the 18- to 29-year-old age group was there an
absolute majority in favor of joining the EU. By May 2014, according to polls by the
Democratic Initiative Foundation (DIF), more than 50 percent of respondents in all age
groups were in favor (with the exception of those over 60 years old, where the number
of supporters was slightly less).
The Hope for Simultaneously Joining Both Integrationist Projects Is Ruined
Before the end of 2013, geopolitical ambivalence existed among Ukrainians. Part of
Ukrainian society did not understand that integration in both directions—with the EU
and Customs Union with Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan—was not possible. Half of
Ukrainians would say “yes” to joining the EU and also “yes” to joining the CU.4 This
situation has completely changed. Already in 2014, polls showed that the idea of
membership in the CU/EEU was being strongly rejected. A poll conducted by the Kyiv
International Institute of Sociology (KIIS) in December 2016 showed that if there was a
referendum on joining the EU, 50 percent would vote in favor and 29 percent would
vote against. If there was a referendum on joining the EEU, only 26 percent would be in
favor and 59 percent would be against. In practical terms, public support for the multivector
stance, which was also once popular among Ukrainian officials and politicians,
has collapsed.
As a sidenote, Ukrainians are responsive to the European vector when they sense the EU
is having a positive impact on sectorial reforms (the EU recently and directly supported
4 See: Olexiy Haran and Maria Zolkina, “Ukraine’s Long Road to European Integration,” PONARS Eurasia
Policy Memo No. 311, February 2014.
reforms in public services, anti-corruption, judiciary, and budget transparency). The
recent recognition by the European Commission that Ukraine had fulfilled all of the
preconditions for implementing a visa-free regime with the EU opens the way for the
introduction in summer 2017 of a “short travel” visa-free regime for Ukrainians going to
the EU.
The Most Dramatic Change in Ukraine’s Outlook about the Eurasian Vector Has Been
in Eastern and Southern Regions
The traditional division of Ukraine into two parts—one strongly in favor of European
integration and the other for “Eurasia”—has changed. In the South, East, and Ukrainecontrolled
Donbas, despite some fluctuations, the populations that supported EEU
integration substantially decreased between 2013 and 2016, and those who took a nonallied
position toward both unions grew by a factor of three (see Table 2).
Table 2. What Foreign Policy Path Should Ukraine Choose? (Regional Dynamics,
South East Donbas
(under Ukrainian control)
Join the EU 26 21 23 26 29 34 18 19 12
Join the CU/EEU 46 27 28 47 27 38 61 39 28
Join neither the EU
nor the CU/EEU 12 46 37 9 30 23 10 30 41
Difficult to say 17 7 12 18 15 6 11 12 19
Source: Kyiv International Institute of Sociology polls (KIIS). Data for Table 2 was recalculated by Tetyana Petrenko
and Tetyana Piaskovska from KIIS according to Ukraine’s “macroregions,” which, as defined by DIF, are: Western:
Volynska, Zakarpatska, Ivano-Frankivska, Lvivska, Rivnenska, Ternopilska, and Chernivetska; Central: Kyiv city,
Kyiv region, Vinnytska, Zhytomyrska, Kirovohradska, Khmelnytska, Poltavska, Sumska, Cherkaska, and Chernihivska;
South: Mykolaivska, Odessa, and Khersonska; Eastern: Dnipropetrovska, Zaporizka, and Kharkivska; and Donbas:
two-thirds of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions are controlled by Ukraine.
It is apparent that in the South and East, support for the EU and EEU are now close.
Even with the difficulties of polling in the war-torn Donbas, the number one choice there
is not for the EU or EEU, but for the non-aligned category.
After the Euromaidan’s “Euro-Euphoria,” the Number of EU Supporters in Ukraine
Slightly Decreased and Then Stabilized
The primary factors that have most likely contributed to the slight decrease and then
stabilization in Ukraine’s public attitudes toward the EU include:
• The Association Agreement may be somewhat connected in public opinion to
domestic economic hardships.
• Crises within the EU (Brexit, refugees, etc.).
• Disappointment with the EU on various issues, such as:
– The negative vote in the Netherlands’ consultative referendum on the EU-Ukraine
Association Agreement.
– Delays in introducing an EU visa-free regime for Ukraine.
– Frequent media coverage of the possibility that the EU might reduce or even lift
the economic sectorial sanctions that had been imposed on Russia after its
intervention in Donbas.
The fluctuations in the pro-European integration attitudes should be treated as logical
and normal when taking the above factors into consideration as well as Ukraine’s
current difficulties with its economy and the war. Even so, a core of supporters for
European integration has already formed in the South and East.
As 2017 begins, the general sense is that European integration for Ukrainians is
becoming more practical, visible, and directly related to concrete domestic policies and
reforms. This follows the Euromaidan, the partial implementation of the Association
Agreement, and, perhaps most tangibly, the final stage of the EU-Ukraine visa-free plan.
How Would NATO Fare in a Ukrainian Referendum?
The most dramatic changes in Ukrainian foreign policy outlook since 2013 concern
NATO. Supporters of joining NATO have always been in the minority in Ukraine. At
some point prior to 2014, polls found that support for NATO was even lower than
support for a military union with Russia (although the latter was never considered
seriously by Ukrainian policymakers or experts). The option that has historically been
most supported by the Ukrainian public has been non-bloc status—belonging neither to
Western nor Russia-led military alliances. However, the official goal adopted by the
Ukrainian parliament in 2003 during the presidency of Leonid Kuchma was to join the
EU and NATO while “preserving strategic partnership” with Russia.
In July 2010, Yanukovych broke with this course. The Ukrainian parliament adopted a
new law on the fundamentals of Ukraine’s foreign and domestic policy that excluded
integration with NATO and established a policy of “non-alignment” aimed at appeasing
the Kremlin. At the same time, EU membership was kept as a priority. However, this
approach did not prevent Russia’s unprecedented economic and information attack
against Ukraine in the summer-fall of 2013 when Yanukovych was working on signing
the Association Agreement. Since Russia’s annexation of Crimea and aggression in the
Donbas, the number of NATO supporters among Ukrainians has grown dramatically
(see Figure 3).
Figure 3. Which Way of Guaranteeing the National Security of Ukraine Would Be Best?
(%, Dec. 2007–Dec. 2016)
Source: Democratic Initiatives Foundation polls (DIF)
The most dramatic increase in views favoring NATO between 2013 and 2016 happened
in the East and South of the country. From April 2012 to May 2016 supporters of NATO
in the East increased from 2 percent to 29 percent, in the South from 7 percent to 19
percent, and in Ukrainian-controlled Donbas from 1 percent to 24 percent (see Figure 4).
Figure 4. Regional Support for Joining NATO (%, 2012–2016)
Source: Democratic Initiatives Foundation polls (DIF)
In these regions, the supporters of non-bloc status still dominate (38, 44, and 33 percent,
respectively). However, they are largely demoralized and not politically active.
According to a poll by DIF, if a referendum on NATO membership were held in May
2016, for those who would vote, 72 percent of those in the South would vote “yes” with
24 percent “against,” while in the East the breakdown would be 64 percent vs. 31
percent, and in Ukrainian-controlled Donbas the votes would be equally divided. Not
surprisingly, in the whole country, 78 percent of those who would participate in a
referendum on the matter would say “yes” to NATO and 17 percent would be “against.”
However, joining NATO is hypothetical. The problem is that although supporters of
NATO prevail, a potential campaign to do so may lead to the mobilization of the antiNATO
camp, which is currently silent because of the Russian aggression in Donbas. If a
NATO referendum is announced, they may become more active, and an intensive
debate in the mass media may increase the turnout of those who are against NATO.
Furthermore, freezing or de-escalating the conflict in the East may lessen pro-NATO
attitudes. Finally, the ongoing lack of support from NATO to Ukraine in its conflict with
Russia, especially if conditions worsen, could also decrease support for joining NATO.
It is safe to say that Russia’s incursions have led to changes in Ukraine’s official position
about NATO. In December 2014, the new parliament (which was seated in October 2014)
cancelled Ukraine’s non-bloc status and incorporated the goal of reaching the criteria
necessary for NATO membership. However, Ukrainian officials are quite cautious
regarding a referendum on NATO. They sense that holding it would increase the
polarization of the country and catalyze anti-NATO eruptions.
There is also EU politics to consider. Kyiv does not want to irritate European decisionmakers
(namely in Berlin and Paris) as much as it does not want to irritate Moscow.
Ukrainian officials like to point to Georgia’s experience as an impediment. In 2008,
Georgians overwhelmingly said “yes” to NATO but the country, to date, has still not
received a NATO Membership Action Plan (MAP). Critics of Poroshenko (and his
reluctance) point out that at the July 2016 NATO summit in Warsaw, and at Georgia’s
insistence, NATO reaffirmed the statement it made at the 2008 Bucharest summit that
Georgia “would become a NATO member” (the same provision from Bucharest
regarding Ukraine was not mentioned at the 2016 summit). The 2016 summit stressed
that Georgia would receive, at some point, a MAP. In September 2016, Ukraine sent
NATO an official request to join its Enhanced Opportunities Programme (which
includes Australia, Finland, Georgia, Jordan, and Sweden.).
Before 2014, Ukrainian citizens were rather indecisive about their country’s geopolitical
orientation. Many simultaneously supported deepening ties with both the EU and the
Customs Union with Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan. However, the Euromaidan and
Russia’s military campaign against Ukraine led to the collapse of support for the
Eurasian vector. At present, the prevalent division in outlook is between the pro-EU
camp, which is now supported by a majority of Ukrainians, and the non-aligned camp.
Ukrainians are generally responsive to the European vector as they sense the EU is
having a positive impact on domestic reforms. Support for NATO in Ukraine has
dramatically increased. If a referendum was held today on the issue, results would
show, for the first time in Ukraine’s history, significant favorability for joining NATO.
This change in outlook has occurred in all regions of Ukraine, although regional
differences certainly remain. For its part, the Ukrainian government officially stresses
that membership in both the EU and NATO are strategic priorities. However, it is
currently concentrating on what it deems to be pragmatically reachable: deepening
programs of cooperation with NATO and implementing the stipulations of the
Association Agreement.
© PONARS Eurasia 2017. The statements made and views expressed are
solely the responsibility of the author. PONARS Eurasia is an international
network of scholars advancing new approaches to research on security,
politics, economics, and society in Russia and Eurasia. PONARS Eurasia is
based at the Institute for European, Russian and Eurasian Studies (IERES) at
the George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs.
This publication was made possible in part by a grant from Carnegie
Corporation of New York.