Ukraine Steps Up

December 14, 2012 Topic: Regional OrganizationsGlobal Governance Region: Ukraine

Ukraine Steps Up

Kiev has an opportunity to show regional leadership.

Ukraine sits like a keystone between the European Union, Russia, and volatile hotspots around the Black Sea. As the young country takes up a leadership role in regional-security architecture, it will become responsible for setting the agenda in a region with numerous long-standing conflicts.

A recent meeting of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) confirmed that Ukraine would chair the organization for 2013. With the exception of the Baltic republics, this is the second time that a former republic of the USSR will receive the top position at the security organization.

Ukraine’s key role in European security architecture since the dissolution of the Soviet Union cannot be underestimated. Geographically the second largest country in Europe (six hundred thousand square kilometers and 5.7 percent of the total territory in Europe), Ukraine is the fifth-largest European country in terms of population (a little over forty-six million people). Thus, its relatively recent appearance on the world map as an independent state has been, alongside German reunification, one of the most important geopolitical changes in Europe since 1945. This country has sufficient population, industrial capacity and natural resources to claim its position as an important regional actor.

Ukraine is a part of the Black Sea region, one of the most unstable areas of modern-day Europe and beset by protracted conflicts in the South Caucasus and Moldova. Unlike most members of the OSCE, Ukraine is more familiar with the conflicts of the post-Soviet period. In the southwest, Ukraine is directly impacted by the Moldova-Transnistria conflict, as 405 kilometers of the Ukrainian border are adjacent to the unrecognized Transnistrian Moldovan Republic, the population of which includes numerous ethnic Ukrainians (approximately 28 percent of the population of Transnistria). Moreover, Ukraine, stands with Russia as a state guarantor of the peacebuilding process on the Dniester. It is actively engaged in so-called 5+2 negotiation process, which includes the two sides of the conflict, two guarantors (Russia and Ukraine), a mediating organization (OSCE) and observers (U.S. and EU). Thus, the Ukrainian diplomatic core benefits from a wealth of practical experience in peacekeeping activities and negotiations.

Ukraine is the largest neighbor of Russia in Europe. It ensures the transit of Russian energy to Europe’s market. This complex process, which has provoked serious disputes and quarrels, should also be seen within the context of the European security. At the same time, Ukraine directly borders several members of both NATO and the EU: Hungary, Poland, Romania and Slovakia.

The conditions, both in terms of Ukrainian dynamics and trends within the OSCE, do not bode well for the start of Ukraine’s chairmanship. The official relationship between Kiev and the Western capitals looks very problematic—and the results of the recent parliamentary elections have only reinforced this negative trend. It is no coincidence that Secretary Clinton in her OSCE ministerial meeting speech called Ukraine’s domestic developments “a step backwards for democracy.”

Neither Brussels nor Washington expected a democratic breakthrough from Kazakhstan, which held the OSCE chairmanship in 2010. But Ukraine is another matter. The West is seriously concerned about the authoritarian trends in the country’s domestic policy. Kiev claims to be drawing closer to the European Union, yet controversies with Moscow on the issues of Eurasian integration and energy policy have not disappeared.

The OSCE itself is currently in a phase of self-reflection about its efficiency, the manner in which it operates, and its decision-making procedures. For years it has been criticized for its failure to prevent violence in the Balkans and South Caucasus. The Russian-Georgian war in 2008 is the one of the clearest examples. The resolution of ethnic conflicts in the former Soviet Union has not been promoted within the OSCE. Despite Geneva consultations on the South Caucasus, the relevant parties have not signed the treaty on non-use of force. After the scandalous story of Ramil Safarov, an Azerbaijani officer who killed an Armenian counterpart at a NATO-sponsored program, the Nagorno-Karabakh peace process between those two countries has stalled. The co-chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group (the United States, Russia and France) have had to take great pains just to keep the format of negotiations itself intact.

Some progress has been made on the issue of the Transnistrian settlement, where the OSCE acts as a mediator, though this has been minimal. The resumption of dialogue between Chisinau and Tiraspol can be considered a positive development but the results of the peace process have been very modest. Regardless, the start of each new chairmanship is usually accompanied by renewed hopes for positive change. The Ukrainian case is no exception. There is no lack of cautious optimism among the EU members and the post-Soviet states. But to what extent is this hope justified?

On the one hand Ukraine is well versed on the most problematic security issues. For years Georgia and Azerbaijan were the main partners of the independent Ukraine. But last July, Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan visited Kiev for the first time after a decade-long hiatus. During the meeting, his Ukrainian counterpart, Viktor Yanukovych, said that the resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia is a major interest of the people of Ukraine. Today, Ukrainian diplomats have identified the peaceful settlement of this conflict in the former Soviet Union as a key priority for its OSCE chairmanship. The OSCE foreign ministers expect the Ukrainian leadership to lead to more constructive engagement from all sides of the conflict.

At the same time, the role of the OSCE chairman, whether Ukraine or any other country, should not be overestimated, since key decisions are taken by consensus within the organization. The most obvious example is the situation surrounding the discontinued OSCE mission in Georgia. Russia insists that the activities of the OSCE must take place in two separate missions—in both Tbilisi and Tskhinvali, the capital of the breakaway state of South Ossetia. How will Kiev respond given its complicated relations with both Moscow and the European Union? Ukraine’s leverage to on this issue is very limited.

Conflicts in the post-Soviet Caucasus and Moldova are special cases, which show that the OSCE’s role cannot be what was once proclaimed in 1975 in Helsinki, or even in 1994, when the organization was transformed into a fully fledged international organization. The world seen from Helsinki, from which the current framework emerged, has dramatically changed over the past three decades. The USSR, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia are gone—as is the principle of the inviolability of post-WWII borders. There is no more Cold War confrontation between East and West, and the primary concern of global risks with relatively high stability has been replaced by local risks and low stability. Even within the space of the former USSR, a precedent has been created for the reconsideration of inter-republican borders.

What is the best way to construct a more efficient system of interstate relations in the bridge between Europe and Asia? Today there is no answer for either global actors or small countries. Next year, Ukraine will face this puzzling scenario.

Sergey Markedonov is a visiting fellow in the Russia and Eurasia Program of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.