Irrespective of how one looks at the issue, it is not easy to be Ukraine in 2017.
Not easy at all: separate from the renewal of hostilities in Eastern Ukraine, geopolitical sands are shifting. The Trump factor has reset the global game of power and a new equilibrium, with major consequences for world politics, is in the making.
For Ukraine, this has all the characteristics of a critical juncture and the end of the year will tell us whether Kiev has possessed the political and foreign policy skills, the temper, and the openness to unconventional strategies to make of 2017 an admirable proof of resilience.
The Trump factor is not alone in influencing Kyiv’s action: Europe is remaking itself at a fast pace, in the context of Brexit and key elections in France, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands. So the result of the US presidential elections is only one of the sources of Ukraine’s strategic headache.
The EU’s ongoing legitimacy crisis, enhanced by the divide between protectionists (Marine Le Pen would call them “patriots”) and globalists becoming central in many Western European countries, does not offer too much optimism.
The sanctions against Russia, renewed by the European Council in December, will be again on the table in July 2017 and there are strong signals that some countries (Italy and Hungary, for example) would like to move towards a more accommodating position in relation to Moscow. President Trump’s recent call with Putin also signals a temptation in this direction. The geopolitical realignment only reinforces the pragmatic side of politics – unfortunately for the Ukrainians, for “realists”, Crimea is a settled matter, Ukraine is not worth the investment and the business with Russia should not be sacrificed for a principled, but illusory “stubbornness”. This is unfair to the Ukrainian people, and Russian propaganda only adds to the cocktail of factors diminishing hope for Kyiv both at home and abroad.
Is all lost? What can Kyiv do, in fact? The game is not at all lost, and the cliché pointing out opportunities in terms of crisis is more valid than ever. In times of acute change, President Porosenko and the parliamentary majority must learn to embrace this “brave” new world. While the country’s strategic national interests and objectives have stayed the same, the strategy and tactics to be used will have to be adjusted.
Kyiv is not alone in this pursuit: key people in Berlin, Paris, DC, London, Warsaw and Bucharest, to give just a few examples, are adjusting as well, either to the new US President and his administration’s apparent openness to a deal with Russia and to their own publics, due to the fact that 2017 is a key electoral year at home.
In this context, Kyiv should breath in and breath out, for a moment, look around and map the new, changing, environment: 2017 is more about listening and then acting, than about pursuing the same lines of action like in 2016. Simply, some of the old recipes may not work in such a fluid international environment.
For example, since stakeholders in key capitals already have tons of problems on their mind, it would be useful for Kyiv to start a conversation on when and how should it be present on the public agenda in the US and in other EU / NATO countries. It’s in Ukraine’s interest to be viewed as part of the solution for a successful national and international 2017, not as a nuisance, a part of the problem.
After this listening phase, it’s all about the basics of strategy, i.e. aligning ends, means and ways. It’s about coalition building with favourable EU / NATO states, about delivering on reforms at home, and the right touches of a charm offensive in key capitals, from a political, economic, security and cultural standpoint.
Ukraine has so much to offer and well-coordinated efforts will build true friendships with political, administrative and business factors in allied countries, as well as an efficient “divide and conquer” in countries where opinion on Ukraine is mixed and hesitation prevailed or might prevail.
This will contribute to Ukrainian progress more than the upsides or the downsides of a possible Western new reset with Russia and it would certainly help prevent a “deal” on Ukraine’s expense. Ukraine should build a coalition of transnational interests that would not allow it to become a collateral victim, a new case of what Thucydides wisely describes in the Melian Dialogue: “the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must”.
As regards reforms and EU / NATO membership, it’s almost impossible for the moment to get more than financial and technical assistance, enlargement fatigue mixed with populism on the rise in Europe makes it impossible to ask more from Presidents and Prime Ministers in countries facing elections.
At the same time, a charm offensive in Europe, plus a continued one in the US with more emphasis on core Republicans, can deliver a much expected victory, visa liberalisation for citizens, and signal continued military support.
In terms of uncertainty, it’s best for Kyiv to surprise its foreign partners and speed up the rhythm of reforms; it’s counterintuitive and reverses the typical “carrot and stick” approach.
A combination of delivery on reforms, timely international communications, and personal charm offensive, working behind the scenes in the West, can help President Porosenko and his team to find the right balance in between being enough on/ off the radar so as 2017 becomes more successful than anyone expects. Mastering the art of timing is one of the lessons of history that could help Ukraine sell its points: not offering satisfaction by knowing when to back off and by playing smartly the role of resilient victim, Ukraine can turn the table and bank on its newly-designed strategy.