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Ukraine: Once a Buffer State, Always a Buffer State?

The most dramatic European stories come from the countries that were too small to become empires but too big to be assimilated into one. Just look at Ukraine. Even its name literally means on the edge. Throughout its history, it has been divided  and traded between Russia, Poland, and the Ottoman Empire.  Today, it is in a similar situation, trying to balance the interests of Europe and Russia against its own.

Euromaidan, the name given to the protests that have been rocking Ukraine since November, reflects just one side of the story, namely the country’s pro-western groups. But there is another group, silent yet numbering in the millions; a group that is predominantly of Russian ethnicity, and which feels confortable with the stance taken by Yanukovych towards Russia. How can any leader successfully rule this country, without upsetting a part of its multicultural society?

Two centrifugal and divisive tendencies are responsible for the cul-de-sac that is modern day Ukraine.

Internally, these divisions come to life with the ethnic conundrum that makes up the map of Ukraine. According to ethnic and cultural fault lines, we can see that we are talking in reality about three separate Ukraines. The western third of the country is deeply pro-European and has the highest concentration of native Ukrainian speakers. The eastern third is decisively pro-Russian and Eurosceptic, while the middle acts like a swing state, tilting to the West. The polls are the mirror image of this ethnic puzzle.

Externally, a quick glance in Europe’s history books paints a vivid picture. Since the fall of the Iron Curtain, Ukraine has enjoyed its longest period of independence in centuries, but the nation has never ceased to question which foreign power they should be aligned with. Before the presidential elections of 2004, the answer had been Russia but everything changed with the street protests of the Orange Revolution and the forced resignation of president-elect Yanukovych. Sadly, the pro-European government that took the reigns was plagued by scandal, corruption and internal disagreements. In 2010, Yanukovych returned to power in an election deemed free and fair.

Now, Ukraine is experiencing its most testing days since the Orange Revolution of 2004. The scenario is oddly familiar, with both internal and external actors locking horns. Europe and the US are openly supporting the opposition and the protesters while threatening sanctions against the government. At the same time, after lifting the sanctions imposed on Ukrainian exports, Russia has slammed Europe over its indecent support of the demonstrations and calls for negotiating an acceptable outcome.

This puts Yanukovych in a tight spot. Elected on a balanced platform, he has tried to escape the Manichean logic of choice between the two opposing sides and has sought to respond to the aspirations of both. It shouldn’t therefore come as a surprise that he halted talks with the EU and accepted a 15$ billion bailout package with Russia.

Despite its appeal and structural power, Europe proved unable to help Ukraine out of the economic abyss in which it found itself, instead offering medium to long-term solutions. What Ukraine needed was immediate relief from the scathing sanctions imposed by Russia that threatened to bankrupt the country. In hindsight, accepting the Russian deal was arguably the sole feasible decision that was on the table for Yanukovych in November.

The latest gesture came on January 19th, when Yanukovych agreed to set up a commission to resolve the crisis that turned violent in recent days. It aims to bring members of the opposition and delegates of Euromaidan together with representatives of the ruling Party of Regions to seek out a peaceful solution. Given the current animosity between the parties, any negotiations represent an uphill battle, but dialogue is especially necessary in such a divided country.

It is evident that this tug-of-war between Europe and Russia can only lead to zero-sum solutions. Yanukovych now seems ready to break this logic by choosing to wait out the protests and keep Ukraine on the border of both spheres of influence without committing to either.

It is not easy to break off the ‘buffer state’ status, partly because one don’t choose their geography. Ukraine has always been between a rock and a hard place, threatened with war and sanctions from both sides of the divide. The country should follow its own national interest and try to stay as independent as possible, without formulating its foreign policy according to the wishes of another, bigger partner. Ukraine will always be a strategic country and its history of being torn between East and West will not be easy to overcome. However, the most positive outlook for a unified and prosperous Ukraine involves moving beyond this false and outdated dichotomy.


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About the Author

Steven Paulauskas

Steven Paulauskas is an independent consultant based between London and Vilnius. His principal focus has been the evaluation of EU policies and in particular pre-accession programmes and Neighbourhood policy. 
  • Travler X

    I’m not very knowledgeable about the Ukraine, but I’ve been severely criticized for having said much the same as this article. I couldn’t agree more with Mr. Paulauskus. What he states is very obvious to me, and I do not understand people’s reluctance to admit the scope and depth of the situation. What is going on in the Ukraine is tragic. Its causations are forces with interests far beyond the Maidan.