In a recent Daily Telegraph news report, Yulia Tymoshenko, former Prime Minister and opposition leader, has publicly declared that Ukraine’s national sovereignty is being sold away, that Russia is taking over Ukraine, and that the West is letting this happen.
“The country’s new rulers see everything as an asset to be sold. Natural resources, state industrial monopolies, government cash flows, media organizations and factories. Russia is already taking advantage of the situation and I think they will do so even more in future,” said Tymoshenko, who was narrowly beaten by Yanukovich for Ukrainian leadership months ago.
In particular, Tymoshenko has been concerned with recent discussions between Ukraine’s leadership headed by President Viktor Yanukovich and Russia’s state-owned gas monopoly Gazprom. After years of pricing disagreements and gas cut-offs between the pro-Western Orange government of Ukraine and Gazprom, Yanukovich has signed an agreement for the purchase of Russian gas, at a 30 percent discount—in exchange for a twenty-five year extension to the agreement that allows Russia’s Black Sea fleet to remain in the Ukrainian port and naval base of Sevastopol.
On top of that, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin had called for the outright merger of Naftohaz Ukrainy, which owns Ukraine’s energy infrastructure, into Gazprom earlier this year. The Ukrainians held off such a merger for now by declaring that it would only be possible with 50/50 ownership, and instead welcomed starting a joint ventures.
The Kremlin’s interest in Ukraine’s transit infrastructure is understandable: 80 percent of Russia’s energy exports to Europe go through Ukrainian gas pipelines. And while the completion of the North Stream pipeline project may alter this picture, Ukraine will remain a significant transit hub for Euro-Russian energy trade in the foreseeable future. If Russia were to gain control of Ukraine’s pipeline network, both Ukraine and parts of Europe would be at Russia’s mercy. Moreover, in September, Russia’s nuclear giant TVEL signed contracts to supply Ukrainian nuclear reactors with uranium and build a fuel assembly plant, beating Westinghouse and further extending Ukraine’s energy dependence on its northern neighbor.
Since taking office, Yanukovich’s actions have also undermined Ukraine’s hard-won democratic achievements. His critics say that he is transforming previously politically free Ukraine into a Russia-style autocracy. Yanukovich’s allies are taking over previously independent TV channels like Channel 5 and RTVi; reintroducing lists of people and topics forbidden to broadcast on TV; playing political football with the highly sensitive topic of Holodomor, the Stalin-instigated genocidal famine in Ukraine in the 1930s; and are attempting to change the language law, which makes Ukrainian the country’s official language.
It is the geopolitical changes introduced under Yanukovich, however, that the U.S. and its allies have to worry about the most. Despite constitutional restrictions and intense opposition, Yanukovich extended Russia’s Black Sea Fleet’s presence in Sevastopol until 2042, with five-year extensions possible.
The vote in the Ukrainian Parliament not to join NATO and the open-ended presence of the Russian fleet, for all intents and purposes, scuttled any future Ukrainian attempt to join NATO. In fact, Foreign Minister Konstyantyn Gryschenko has stated that future NATO membership is off the table.
Russia, meanwhile, has signed contracts to supply Ukrainian nuclear reactors with uranium.
Tymoshenko’s proclamation that Europe and the United States have ignored this realignment is on the mark. The lack of U.S. and European responses to Ukraine’s strategic volte-face indicates that the Obama Administration has decided to continue its “reset policy” with the Kremlin despite the high geopolitical price it is paying.
Instead, the United States should be more supportive of the civil society and liberal, democratic, and pro-Western forces in Ukraine. The U.S. military and NATO should continue cooperation with their Ukrainian counterparts even as membership is off the table for now.
The Administration should work with the European capitals to expand pathways for Ukraine’s broader Euro-Atlantic integration, including travel, education, and investment. At the same time, the U.S. should reach out to the business community, and clarify that their interests lie in economic cooperation and integration with Europe and the West, not in becoming just another transportation corridor for Russia.