Ukraine’s foreign policy in 2021 has finally reached a strategic impasse. What does he look like and should we be afraid?


Despite the beginning of a post-covid recovery (or, rather, addiction), 2021 became a revelation for our country in many aspects of foreign policy. There have been so many different events that it is time to draw some intermediate conclusions and sketch the general situation that is developing around Ukraine today.

To begin with, Ukraine’s foreign policy has finally reached a strategic impasse this year. By this I mean not so much the defeat of Ukraine in some specific areas (although there were a few), but rather the absence of any achievements, semantic stagnation and impasse of ideas.

Ukraine’s political rhetoric has remained virtually unchanged over the past 7 years. The aggressive and, in some places, inadequate return to the public discourse of the issue of Ukraine’s NATO membership in April-June is a good example of this. Taking advantage of the April escalation on the part of Russia, the Ukrainian authorities decided to shake the topic of Ukraine’s early accession to NATO in order to please their tactical political interests. For this, the narratives of 2014-2015 were revived, which, however, besides bewilderment and embarrassment, did not impress anyone in the West, because the gap between the categories of the past tense, in which the Ukrainian state lives, and the trends of the present, turned out to be too big.

Ukraine still remains cut off from the surrounding political ecosystem. With many countries (including our western neighbors and the European Union) we still have very limited, unequal and weak relations, which often do not turn into a practical agenda. Good and positive contacts with the Hungarian side this year did not end with the settlement of disputes or at least moving the bilateral agenda beyond the Transcarpathian region. And the recent signing by Hungary of a gas agreement with Gazprom has completely returned relations to their starting positions.

Or, for example, the partnership with the European Union does not move from its place, but remains closed in the “reform-corruption-Russia” triangle. The main focus is mainly on obtaining external financial assistance and on ritual political declarations. This year, this has also added to the already more frank and publicly declared by Europeans irritation and fatigue from the Ukrainian case – remember the speech of Valdis Dombrovskis and Josep Borrel at the Eastern Partnership summit or the interview of the ex-President of Estonia Kersti Kaljulaid.

The Chinese direction sank even more this year than in the previous year. The death of our ambassador Sergei Kamyshev in February undermined institutional and diplomatic ties between Beijing and Kyiv. The stories of failed contracts – from grain to Motor Sich – began to receive lawsuits. The aggravation of the confrontation between the United States and the PRC puts Ukraine in an uncomfortable position of tough choice, which we wanted to avoid. And the clumsy statements of the representatives of the ruling team about China gave rise to even more speculation in the society on this topic, which made the ties with the PRC even more toxic. This year we approached the 10th anniversary of the “strategic partnership” between the PRC and Ukraine with very modest achievements: we have increased trade through the export of raw materials, but at the same time the structure of trade has simplified over the past 5 years. Unfortunately, there is nothing to boast about in investment policy and infrastructure.

Other countries remain completely out of sight of Ukraine and Ukrainian society. For example, the countries of Southeast and South Asia remain a kind of “limited collection” for us, which we once saw, promised ourselves to somehow buy, but did not manage to do it: either there was no time, then there was no money, then and completely forgotten under the burden of current everyday problems. The same situation is with Latin America, for which there is simply no demand in Ukraine, and there is no one to create it. And the countries of the Middle East – using the examples of the Emirates and Qatar this year – are not deeply interested in Ukraine, and our relations with this region are mainly closed on the export of three types of raw materials: iron ore, ferrous metals and grain. However, it should be noted that our trade in raw materials with them is growing, and if this is considered the main task of Ukraine’s foreign policy, then the Middle East direction can be considered stable and quite normal.

But the struggle for the African continent that broke out with renewed vigor, into which Russia, Turkey, the United States, France, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, China, Japan, Britain and other countries rushed headlong, is taking place without Ukraine. So far, we have no serious ambitions in this direction. Although Africa’s potential for Ukraine’s export positions is huge, this market already occupies 10% of Ukrainian exports (almost $ 5 billion), although most of the goods go to the countries of North Africa – Egypt, Algeria and Tunisia, and this is, again, mainly raw materials.

With the United States, the semantic and ideological void, which I first described in an article in 2020, continues to be a defining feature of the bilateral agenda. With the only innovation of 2021: there was no longer hidden public irritation and disappointment, which was so clearly manifested during the April escalation from the Russian Federation, the May visit of Secretary of State E. Blinken to Kyiv and the Geneva Putin-Biden summit in June. In fact, 2021 was NOT a failure for American-Ukrainian relations, since this is not about defeat, as I wrote above. It means that this year’s events have confirmed how mediocre and limited they are.

The problem of Ukraine’s foreign policy lies in the global changes that have been “highlighted” by 2021.

The designation of China as the No. 1 US global rival has led to significant shifts in the White House’s foreign policy. Through the new “cold war” with China, the American elites intend to maintain their position as a global state, primarily in the scientific and technological, industrial, energy and military spheres.

The emergence of a new common enemy allows you to re-mobilize your allies around the world, building new stable alliances that the States need to keep the situation in those regions where they reduce their involvement in local processes or where they lack the strength or resources or desire or the will to act independently.

The reallocation of resources and optimization of expenditures accompanying the formation of a new conditional “bipolarity” helps the United States to direct some of them towards overcoming internal imbalances. The accumulation of all available resources within the country should help Biden and his team to launch the process of re-industrialization of the United States on the basis of a new scientific and technological order, in an effort to make a leap forward and occupy niches that will become defining in the new world order over the next 10-15 years. To do this, Biden’s team spent a lot of power and energy to push through Congress the Buy American bill and a new infrastructure plan for $ 1 trillion.

These processes have created an absolutely new international political reality, which now encapsulates Ukraine from all sides.

Russian “joker” in the Sino-American game

Within the framework of the Sino-American rivalry, Russia has acquired a qualitatively new role. It is no longer enemy # 1. Yes, a competitor in certain industries with its own ambitions. Yes, a state with expanded opportunities for influencing its periphery and “distant approaches”. However, this is far from a multilateral and global threat, as Washington sees China, and what the Soviet Union was.

Russia does not compete with the United States in the technology industry (with the exception of a couple of areas in the military-industrial complex), does not have strong positions in the markets for investment, R&D, renewable energy, mechanical engineering, robotics, etc. The States do not perceive today’s Russia as an enemy capable of overthrowing them or create a deadly threat.

In the end, the ambitions of the Russian Federation itself are not about destroying the United States or dropping them from the throne of the world leader in order to occupy it himself. I know that part of our society thinks of Russia in the absolute moral categories of “universal evil”, which is just waiting to enslave the whole world and destroy all living things. It is also true that some Russians themselves have their own fantasies about a “great Russia” that will rise from its knees and magically regain its former greatness, forcing everyone around it to respect.

However, it seems to me that with all the public bravado and cheap pathos that can often be heard from the lips of representatives of the Russian political leadership, they have long understood that they will not be able to cope with the United States, there is no sense or strength to overthrow them, and this is not particularly that’s what you need.

The real ambitions of the Russian Federation are rather reduced to recognizing their status as a global player with some elements of the fading old post-war world order, namely: the presence of a world platform for negotiations of the most powerful of this world and a fixed zone of influence, which, in Moscow’s perception, runs along their nearest periphery – Belarus. Ukraine, Black Sea, South Caucasus, Central Asia, Arctic and Far East.

In this context, the United States has no motivation or sense to wish for the total defeat of Russia in the form in which some of our citizens want. The overthrow of the Russian political leadership or the disintegration of the Russian Federation is disadvantageous to the States, since it doesn’t solve any problems for them. On the contrary, it creates a bunch of unnecessary challenges and risks, also for regional allies, including relatively new partners such as Kazakhstan, Poland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Finland. The Biden administration is not interested in deploying a full-scale confrontation with Russia, since it simply lacks any logic or ultimate goal. This allows us to understand why, to the unpleasant surprise of some of our people, against the background of the escalation with Ukraine, Biden offered Putin a dialogue and a personal meeting.

Moreover, I dare to suggest that the current Russian political elites are in some way beneficial to Biden and the United States, as they are predictable, understandable, studied and have specific interests that Moscow has been voicing for decades. An abrupt change in political power with many unknown variables is too risky game for Washington, at least for the time being.

Given the unfolding confrontation between China and the United States, Russia is acquiring another additional importance for the American elites. It can play the role of a kind of “joker” in the Sino-American game. The United States does not want to fight on two fronts, but on the contrary: at least, to secure the neutrality of the Russian Federation against China, and as a maximum – to engage with it in a semi-partnership relationship. The so-called “strategic dialogue” of Biden-Putin, which began in Geneva in June this year, is the first step by the United States in this direction. The Kremlin is well aware of the opportunities that their new role opens up for them. So far, they are skillfully using this, trying to break up with both the PRC and Europe/USA.

The changing role and perception of the Russian Federation for the United States is the most important trend for us. The pragmatization of the sanctions policy that we are observing from the part of the United States reflects the multilateral approach to the Russian Federation, which is now being promoted by part of Joe Biden’s team. It makes no sense for them to stifle the Russian economy with sanctions without any ultimate goal. Unless you can tie sanctions pressure to the fulfillment of specific conditions that will streamline the US-Russian confrontation.

The current goals of the United States are not at all defeating Russia or its military-political defeat, but what most often sounds in American policy documents – “containment”, that is, active defense, not an offensive. Therefore, the formation of a loyal Central-Eastern European pro-American arc with the participation of Romania, Poland, Hungary and the Baltic states is an element of the policy of strategic containment of Russia. And Ukraine is a part of this policy, but not yet included in this very arc, but rather viewed as a front-line territory (on a par with Moldova and Belarus).

Such formidable changes in the Russian direction (especially if they become entrenched in the American establishment) upset the Ukrainian security policy after 2014. It was based on a close alliance with the collective West, Ukraine’s accession to NATO, and dynamically expanding sanctions pressure. However, recent events related to the changing role of the Russian Federation due to the intensification of rivalry between the United States and China, are forcing a rethinking of this policy.

There is no longer a single West as it is; there are different blocks of it, with which it is necessary to work separately. And in relations with the United States this year, Ukraine has reached the “ceiling” in which they exist, largely thanks to Zelenskyy and his visit to Washington.

The sanctions policy has also undergone changes: it has become more pragmatic, less confrontational. Sanctions are no longer perceived as a panacea: the contagious example of the Iranian “economy of resistance” has shown that they do not always work as a tool for forcing states to take any action. And the increased criticism of sectoral sanctions in recent years from the liberal part of the American and European public for the harm they cause to ordinary people has made this policy toxic and inconvenient.

Finally, this year, the United States and European allies made it clear to us that Ukraine will not join NATO in the foreseeable future. Ukraine should not rely on unconditional and unequivocal military assistance from the EU and NATO in the conflict with the Russian Federation. This does not mean that our relations with these countries will collapse, or that they will immediately “hand over” us to the Russians. No, this means that Ukraine finally faced real politics, which it chose not to notice after 2014. And, perhaps, this is even good, because it shows us a concrete way forward.

New Europe: Towards Strategic Autonomization?

In addition to transforming the role of the Russian Federation, US foreign policy has created a new role for Europe. After Joseph Biden’s European tour, it became obvious that Washington again returned to the “Obama model” and entrusted the Ukrainian direction to its European allies, primarily Germany. In Ukraine, they continued to appeal to the United States as the only “correct” participant in regional processes, sometimes even in opposition to the Europeans. In fact, the value of Germany, which some Ukrainians condemned this year for an allegedly “pro-Russian” policy, will grow several times for the United States in the coming years, and Biden made this clear during his meeting with Merkel and signing the Nord Stream-2 agreements.

The United States needs Europe to oppose China and other competitors better. Without European allies, it is impossible to talk seriously about building some kind of transatlantic alliance of democracies. Germany is a key US ally in NATO, as well as one of the largest trade and economic partner of the Russian Federation and China.

In Europe itself, the US’s transition from global hegemony to a great-power confrontation with China and other countries was seen as a chance to revive the idea that they have been promoting over the past few years with the filing of the Franco-German tandem – “strategic autonomization” of the EU in foreign and security policy. We are talking about gaining greater independence in decision-making and shaping our own policies in energy, trade, industry and regional security. The United States has always been not happy with such initiatives, believing that they will weaken their influence on the European continent. However, now there is a moment when the Europeans can try to push this idea back to the United States in exchange for supporting their foreign policy in Asia.

It is in this context that the US-German compromise on Nord Stream – 2 should be viewed. For Germany and personally for Chancellor Angela Merkel, the completion of the pipeline was a major achievement in its policy of “strategic autonomization” of foreign policy from the United States. In a sense, in addition to the obvious commercial and geoenergy dividends, the Federal Republic of Germany proved by this that there are ways to make their own sovereign decisions in the energy sector.

France’s recent ambitious maneuvers in the Middle East are indirect signs of attempts by European allies to launch their autonomous game and increase their weight in the international arena. At the end of August, French President Emmanuel Macron was the only Western representative attending the Baghdad summit of regional leaders, and said his country would fight terrorism in Iraq, even if the US left Iraq. On September 5, French energy giant Total signed a $ 27 billion deal with Iraq to develop oil and gas fields. Paris played a key role (along with Iran) in the formation of the new Lebanese government on September 10 after 13 months of unsuccessful coalition negotiations.

Regional shake-up: new players and old challenges

I have already mentioned the shift of the US focus to the Asia-Pacific direction and their attempt to leave behind some flexible coalitions that can fill the post-American vacuum of influence. This trend also applies to Ukraine, as it launches completely new processes of redistributing the political weight of individual states and shaking up the regional balance of power.

Germany and Poland come to the fore in Central and Eastern Europe, becoming ideological and political rivals. Choosing each of them is accompanied by losses on the other side. Ukraine is economically dependent on Germany, but has close political relations with Poland, which is one of the most anti-Russian EU countries. And the more the disagreements between Warsaw and Brussels/Berlin escalate, the more dilemmas Ukraine will face in the European direction.

In addition, the crisis in neighboring Belarus has shown that Turkey and China have also joined the regional game – two more states with which Ukraine is just forming a long-term agenda (and with Beijing it is still falling into confrontation). Great Britain, intending to find its post-Brexit functionality in the world, having its disagreements with the United States, is promoting the idea of ​​”global Britain” in attempts to stake out a zone of influence in Eurasia, which also creates a separate British track for Ukraine.

In the Middle East, there are complex attempts to temporarily stabilize the balance of power in preparation for the offensive of the post-American order. By diminishing its role in the region, the United States is transferring some of its policing functions to its allies on the ground, such as Jordan. In parallel, the nuclear talks with Iran are designed to temporarily freeze this problematic track for the Americans and prevent a nuclear race in the region. Turkey is trying to return to a policy of stable relations with neighbors, fearing the formation of an anti-Turkish alliance, which the Emirates, Egypt and Greece began to gather last year. Saudi Arabia and the UAE are trying to return to Levantine politics and reach the strategic stabilization of the countries of the “Arab spring”, where they did not succeed: Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Lebanon and Libya.

In short, the reorientation of the United States to the Asia-Pacific region entails changes in regional orders, to which Ukraine does not have time to adjust, because either it does not fully understand them, or plays a modest role in these orders, or has no ambitions in these areas.

The US withdrawal into confrontation with China and the desire to maximize revenues for the consolidation of resources at home did not lead to the return of the globalist-liberal agenda. On the contrary: the United States began to rapidly abandon globalization with a liberal core, essentially continuing the course started under Donald Trump. This led to the fact that all other countries also began to close and move to the protection of their own markets and the formation of their own, autonomous blocs, independent of external players.

Ukraine in the shadow of change

Ukraine found itself in a situation where, as a result of the above-described changes in the internal political situation in a number of countries, there were changes in the global balance of power, which pushed our issue into the category of secondary ones.

In addition, the notorious “fatigue” of the West from Ukraine began to acquire quite rational and cynical features, when for many, “freezing” the Ukrainian track (in one form or another) becomes less costly than increasing support for Ukraine and its position with the risk of a head-on collision with the Russian Federation.

Since Ukraine has not yet fully proposed other initiatives for 7 years, the very hated Minsk agreements remain the “base” for settlement for many states, including the United States, Germany, France and Turkey.

Ukraine’s strategic impasse in foreign policy is due to the fact that:

  • The transition of the United States to a systemic long-term confrontation with China is not beneficial to us, it puts the country in a situation of tough choice with a weak negotiating position and a strong dependence of the economy on external factors;
  • The increase in the FRG’s value as one of the main US allies in Europe and the transfer by the States of partial responsibility for Ukraine to Germany and other EU countries runs counter to the stake on the Americans, which was made in the President’s Office this year, and weakens the idea of ​​direct US participation in the negotiations;
  • The growth of autonomist ambitions in Europe and the rise of regional players against the background of the weakening of the global influence of the United States creates the contours of a multipolar world, in which the stake on one foreign policy vector and on long-term alliances becomes not the most effective, flexibility, adaptability, situationality, blocism and pragmatism come to the fore;
  • The transformation of the role of the Russian Federation for the West weakens the anti-Russian rhetoric of Ukraine, forcing it to reconsider its approaches to security policy and the development of its own military potential;
  • The general idea of ​​a “strategic dialogue” between the United States and the Russian Federation and orderliness in international relations will push the West not to confrontation with Russia, but to find common points of contact in order to at least temporarily freeze its conflict with them and unblock the possibility of resuming trade and economic cooperation.

How does it all turn out in practice? In addition to the gradual marginalization of Ukraine’s international positions and the departure of our issue to the category of not the highest priority, another attempt begins to close the conflict between Ukraine and the Russian Federation, or at least freeze it at worst.

For the same Germans and French, who are even less interested in direct confrontation with the Russian Federation than the Americans, it is very important to somehow resolve this issue; it did not create geopolitical risks and additional tension in the region. In addition, the unresolved conflict between Ukraine and Russia prevents them from promoting their vision of future relations with the Russian Federation.

Therefore, Germany this year again returned to the public discourse the issue of the implementation of the Minsk agreements through the “Steinmeier formula” and the “cluster plan”, considering them more or less adequate formula for resolving or freezing the Russian-Ukrainian conflict.

For Berlin and Paris, these initiatives are indeed perceived as an opportunity to resolve the conflict. In Moscow, these agreements can leave Ukraine in their sphere of influence for a long time, and even create conditions for further swinging the situation if necessary. The key position of the United States on this issue is still incomprehensible to the end. There is a debate in the Biden administration as to whether to support the existing developments in Donbass, or to try to come up with something new, but this will require additional resources that Washington would not want to spend.

Ukraine should rethink its foreign policy, in particular, revise the fundamentals of security policy, which have ceased to be relevant in 2021. Perhaps rethinking will lead us to a more pragmatic and cold perception of foreign policy. This is not about “turning” to someone in front, but to someone backwards. Ukraine needs re-sovereignty, to restore the balance between the ideal and the real, in a sober and balanced approach to building relations, with an emphasis on integration into regional initiatives and a balancing multi-vector approach.

For example, it is obvious that the same USA, while remaining our partners in several industries, will not be able to become something more in the near future, and it is also not worth relying on them completely, especially with the baggage of problems that Joe Biden is now trying to solve. Therefore, while continuing to closely cooperate with the United States and NATO, Ukraine will have to move to a more independent, sovereign policy, rely on its own strengths and diversify ties at the expense of other regions.

Instead of blind faith in Euro-Atlantic integration as a mythical recipe for all troubles, start working on integrating Ukraine at least into regional situational alliances through such concepts as Three Seas, GUAM 2.0 and the Scandinavian-Indian transport corridors.

The priority of Ukraine’s foreign policy should be our closest neighbors – Poland, Hungary, Romania, Moldova, Slovakia, Czech Republic, Turkey and Belarus. There is a need to re-establish strong ties with Central Asia, especially in geoenergy projects. And the countries of Africa, Southeast Asia, Latin America and the Middle East can act as new markets.

Of course, this will require a painful acknowledgment of the policy failure of the past 7 years, taking a number of unpopular steps, abandoning some mantras that have become fetishes in Ukrainian political discourse, and a more mature conversation with the population.

However, is this not a path to rethinking and entering a new foreign policy, more relevant and adequate to modern challenges? After all, if Ukraine does not do this, we will simply lose the ability to form its own agenda, let alone impose it.