Home / Articles / What’s Next for Ukraine’s (and its Neighbors’) Domestic and Foreign Policy?
Editor’s Note: This article by FPRI contributor Ecaterina Locoman is a product of a workshop on “The Global Order after Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine,” hosted by the University of Pennsylvania’s Perry World House on April 14, 2022.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will have profound effects on Ukraine’s domestic politics and foreign policy as well as on the security environment in Eastern Europe. This article focuses on several important consequences of the war. One relates to Ukraine’s radically improved image in the world. The second focuses on Ukraine’s aim to join the European Union, followed by poor prospects for pro-Russia parties in Ukraine after the war. And finally, the article concludes with an assessment of the altered security environment in Eurasia.
Ukraine’s Global Image
One consequence of Russia’s aggression is that Ukraine’s overall image in the world has improved radically. This change is taking place not only among political elites, but also among the global public at large. Ukraine’s perspective is loudly heard in Western capitals, and Ukraine is on Western countries’ radar. One of the main findings emerging from my study of Ukrainian diplomatic documents is that, since 1991, Ukrainian diplomats’ challenge in Western capitals was that leaders perceived Ukraine through Russia’s prism. The Ukrainian diplomatic records show that Russian diplomats and military attachés lobbied politicians and spread anti-Ukrainian information among officials in the EU, North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and other international organizations. Western politicians often relied on information provided by Russian officials, which inevitably reflected the Russian stance.
Ukrainian officials expressed frustration about the fact that in the 1990s and 2000s, Western countries led a foreign policy biased toward Russia, oriented to account for Moscow’s interests, and based on Moscow’s sources of information, to the detriment of other post-Soviet countries. Western political elites did not have a clear understanding of Ukraine’s history, its national traditions, the challenges of developing its democracy and transitioning to a market economy, or the importance and positive role of nationalistic movements. As an example, German diplomats told their Ukrainian counterparts in 1994 that Russia was Germany’s most important partner in Eastern Europe and that “Germany by no means would risk spoiling its relations with Russia for the interests of some post-Soviet states.” Ukrainian leaders were often portrayed as unreliable and corrupt leaders.
Now, the world has rallied overwhelmingly in support of Ukraine as it fights to counter Russia’s aggression, although it is unfortunate that this shift in mindset is happening amidst the tragedy of war and at the expense of Ukrainian lives. The unprecedented economic sanctions, the many businesses withdrawing from Russia, and the political, economic, and military assistance Ukraine has received from the collective West all are signs that Ukraine is winning the information war and that Russia’s narratives are being challenged. Still, the legacies of having a Russia-centered policy are posing challenges to some countries in the West (notably Germany) when it comes to imposing harsher sanctions on Russia and cutting their energy dependency on Russia.
Ukraine’s Foreign Policy
A defining characteristic of Ukraine’s domestic political scene since 1991 has been a divide among political parties promoting pro-Russia versus pro-EU/NATO foreign policy orientations, accompanied by societal splits reflecting these geopolitical lines. Until 2014 (after Crimea’s annexation and the war in Donbas), Russia was actively involved in influencing Ukrainian domestic politics and electoral outcomes—supporting politicians promoting a pro-Russia policy and Russian political and media technologists working for Ukrainian politicians. My study of diplomatic archives shows that since the early 1990s one of Russia’s main goals toward Ukraine was to prevent Kyiv from joining Western economic and security institutions. Moscow used internal divisions to achieve this goal. In fact, the current invasion is yet another attempt to change Ukraine’s foreign policy orientation via military means. The paradox of Russia’s aggression, however, is that it convinces Ukrainians that they must continue to chart an independent path, away from Russia’s sphere of influence.
Ukrainians’ pro-Western geopolitical choice grew stronger following 2014. In October 2011, EU integration was supported by 44 percent of Ukrainians and economic integration with Russia by 31 percent; in 2021, 57 percent of Ukrainians supported EU accession and only 11 percent were in favor of joining a Russian-led economic union. The current war has united Ukrainian society: 91 percent of Ukrainians support joining the European Union.
EU and NATO integration are enshrined as goals in Ukraine’s Constitution. Even though as part of the current peace negotiations, President Volodymyr Zelensky has said that Ukraine is open to renouncing NATO membership and becoming a neutral country, other officials in Kyiv have declared that Ukraine maintains EU integration as its main foreign policy goal and would not compromise to appease Russia. On February 28, 2022, four days after Russia began its invasion, Zelensky submitted Ukraine’s formal application to join the European Union. However, there is no consensus among European leaders on whether Ukraine should be given an accelerated path to EU membership. EU leaders follow a consistent policy toward Ukraine in this regard: despite significant diplomatic efforts by Ukrainians to receive a membership prospectus from the EU since the mid-1990s, the general view among EU leaders has been: “Cooperation – yes, aid – yes, integration – no.” In the long term, perhaps, Ukraine’s pre-war accomplishments and the resolve with which Ukrainian society has stood against Russia could enable post-war Ukraine to receive candidate status and eventually join the European Union.
The Fate of Pro-Russia Parties in Ukraine after the War
The West’s reluctance to offer Ukraine membership prospects in the European Union or NATO bolstered electoral support for pro-Russia parties and pro-Russia politicians in Ukraine. During the 1991 and 2012 parliamentary elections, there were as many pro-Western voters in Ukraine as pro-Russia ones. Kremlin-friendly parties, lobbying for and advocating rapprochement with Russia, have always held seats in Ukraine’s Parliament (Verkhovna Rada). However, since 2014, support shrank among Ukrainian voters for pro-Russia forces. Before 2014, the Party of Regions, a pro-Russian party and previously the biggest political party in Ukraine, used to garner one-third of the votes. Just before the current invasion, the share of votes for pro-Russia parties was around 10 percent. After the recent invasion, Kyiv suspended 11 political parties due to their political ties to Russia. The biggest among them was the Kremlin-friendly party Opozytsiyna platforma-Za zhyttya (Opposition Platform-For Life), with the second-largest faction in Parliament. In 2021, Ukrainian authorities charged its leader, Viktor Medvedchuk, with treason and placed him under house arrest. After the Russian invasion, he escaped, but Ukraine’s forces captured him.
The pro-Russia parties traditionally garnered most of their electoral support from the eastern and southern parts of the country. Now, however, since the Russian army has hit the south and east the hardest with shelling and missile attacks, it is going to be problematic for pro-Russia politicians to regain the trust of Ukrainians after the war. In a recent survey, 98 percent of Ukrainians saw Russia as a hostile country. In case some of these pro-Russia parties do come back on the political scene, the parliament is looking for mechanisms to prevent them from returning to power in post-war Ukraine and to make it harder for them to justify Russian aggression.
One tactic that Russia used since 1991 was to support politicians and public office holders willing to undermine the central government’s authority, either by organizing referenda to federalize Ukraine or by supporting the creation of autonomous regions. These attempts were visible after the Orange Revolution in 2004 and were accelerated in 2014 when the Donetsk and Luhansk republics were created. Since 2014, however, decentralization reform has empowered Ukraine’s local governments, giving them more funds to improve local infrastructure and public services and to increase standards of living in local communities. By 2021, Ukrainians were showing increased satisfaction with their public officials’ job at the local level. Since Russia’s invasion, no major pro-Russian local network has been available to collaborate with the Russian army. Local, regional, and national elites have exhibited a remarkable unity. Even in Russian-occupied cities, local officials, activists, and journalists are being kidnapped and some of them killed for their refusal to collaborate; local people have taken to the streets in protest.
Ukrainians have also grown more adept at detecting actors working in Russia’s interests and in reducing Russia’s infiltration of Ukraine’s military, intelligence, and security forces. A strong network of pro-Russia agents had infiltrated Ukraine’s political, military, and security forces to facilitate Crimea’s annexation and the separatist conflicts in Eastern Ukraine. Especially during Victor Yanukovych’s presidency from 2010 to 2014, Russian citizens or people interested in close collaboration with Russia were appointed to top positions in Ukraine’s security forces. Instead of strengthening Ukraine’s defense capability, the size of Ukraine’s armed forces decreased, military units were disbanded, and surplus weapons were sold. In the eight years since 2014, Ukrainian authorities carried out counterintelligence actions and reduced the presence of pro-Russia operatives. Since the February 24 invasion, Ukraine’s efforts to root out the Russian intelligence network have intensified. Ukrainians have expressed a remarkable sense of increased solidarity via citizens’ active involvement in uncovering saboteurs and infiltrators helping the Russian army. Ukrainians have mobilized to defend Ukraine’s eastern territories. Large-scale defense reforms were implemented, and the defense budget increased significantly. Ukraine’s army defense capability has been boosted by an increased supply of weapons from Western countries, with many Ukrainians returning home from abroad and other locations inside Ukraine, as well as many volunteering to fight.
Changes in Eurasia’s Regional Order
In recent years, Russia has reaffirmed its position as a regional hegemon in Eurasia, the dominant political actor and security provider. Most of the countries in Russia’s “near abroad” are either neutral states or are currently under Russia’s security umbrella. But the February 24 invasion has already triggered repercussions in Eurasia. It has profoundly breached the central principle of the 1975 Helsinki Accords, the inviolability of territorial frontiers in Europe. Countries like Moldova and Georgia, which together with Ukraine, are among the last post-Soviet countries hoping to achieve EU integration, remain very vulnerable. Russia invaded Georgia in 2008 and controls Abkhazia and South Ossetia (amounting to around 20 percent of Georgia’s territory). Moldova has the Transnistrian separatist region, where around 2,000 Russian troops are stationed and which has one of the biggest ammunition depots in Eastern Europe. Even if a full-scale invasion of Moldova and Georgia is not imminent, in these countries where public opinion on the geopolitical choice remains polarized, regime change and the installation of politicians with pro-Russia views is a highly likely scenario that Moscow can pursue.
Central Asian countries are walking on a tightrope and their traditional allegiance to Russia may be shifting as a result of the war. Traditionally, these states have seen Russia as a stable political actor, powerful economically and able to support their own economies. The unpredictability of Russia’s moves and the negative economic repercussions from the Ukrainian invasion may weaken the Central Asian republics’ ties to Russia. Officials in Kazakhstan (which has formal security and economic treaties with Russia and is one of its largest trading partners) and Uzbekistan declared that they respect the territorial integrity of Ukraine and that they recognize neither Crimea’s annexation nor the two Russia-backed separatist entities in eastern Ukraine. Aiming to attract economic investment, officials in Kazakhstan declared that their nation does not want to be “behind a new Iron Curtain” and that businesses leaving Russia due to the sanctions were welcome in Kazakhstan. Both countries have offered humanitarian aid to Ukraine.
Rebuilding Ukraine after the War
At the time of this writing, hopes for a speedy end of this war are low, with the intensity of hostilities increasing. Officials in Ukraine claim that at this time any temporary peace treaty would only mean “a war postponed” and that this conflict could last for years. As the fighting continues, Ukraine has suffered massive human and economic losses. Most losses are in human capital. As of April 27, more than 5 million people have fled Ukraine; the UN Children’s Fund reports that the war is creating a child refugee every second. With every young family that is leaving, Ukraine loses. It is apparent that just the first month of war has been far more economically destructive to Ukraine than the first two years of the COVID-19 pandemic. According to the United Nations, Ukraine has incurred over $100 billion in infrastructure damage and 90 percent of people in Ukraine are expected to fall into extreme economic vulnerability. It is estimated that the war could cost Ukraine $565 billion and could lower Ukraine’s gross domestic product by 45 percent. Since the start of the war, one in two businesses have shut down completely, while 53 percent of the Ukrainians who had jobs before the war do not work.
Kyiv has been creative at using innovative and traditional tools to raise money to fund its defense needs and gather funds to keep the Ukrainian economy functioning. While the government is raising funds through emergency financing from the International Monetary Fund and World Bank and the issuance of war bonds, Kyiv is also using newer tools, such as cryptocurrency donations, and has raised more than $600,000 by selling digital collectibles, in the first-ever sale of non-fungible tokens organized by a national government.
Significant effort will need to be directed toward reconstructing Ukraine. Establishing a Marshall Plan to rebuild Ukraine is one of the ideas proposed by European leaders to help gather the funds needed to support Ukraine’s recovery. EU leaders have agreed that they will develop a Solidarity Trust Fund to support rebuilding Ukraine. Loans from multinational organizations are helpful. However, given the scale of the reconstruction task, Ukraine will inevitably need substantial support that does not entail repayment obligations.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.