U.S. Elections and Ukraine’s Multi-Vector Foreign Policy

October 25, 2011
James George Jatras
Deputy Director, American Institute in Ukraine

Understandably, during the past few weeks there has been much international focus on the ongoing saga of the conviction of Yulia Timoshenko and how it impacts Kiev’s dilemma between trade integration with the European Union or Russia. Articles in western media carry headlines like “Will Ukraine Choose a Sympathetic Russia over a Democratic Europe?” (Time U.S.) and “Ultimate Betrayal: Ukraine Retreats to a Dark Past” (Der Spiegel, Germany).

Certainly the issues raised in this context are important, and at some point Ukraine will have to choose – or perhaps be forced into a choice by circumstances. But to focus exclusively on this issue is to miss much else that is relevant to President Yanukovich’s active global policy. That is particularly relevant with respect to understanding American policy toward Ukraine and the possible impact of the current U.S. election campaign and U.S. domestic political considerations.

While President Yanukovich was to have travelled to Brussels last week, a trip that now has been postponed to November (we’ll see if it happens then, either), he has been anything but idle during late October. First he visited Cuba, where he met with current leader Raúl Castro Ruz, and his retired brother, Fidel, whom Mr. Yankovich described as “a man filled with deep thoughts about what is happening in the world. I was able to see a man who was full of life, was very energetic, enjoyed life, and who took a very good attitude to Ukraine.” Agreements for Ukraine-Cuba cooperation in a number of areas were signed, including direct flights between Kiev and Havana starting next year. President Yanukovich was awarded the Order of José Martí. Regarding the care of 20,000 Ukrainian child victims of Chernobyl, who have been cared for since 1990 in Tarara City, on the eastern side of Havana, Mr. Yanukovich was quoted as saying: “Cuba is to us the island of hope, it will save our children, was the only country that reached out to us, and we are eternally grateful.”

Ukraine’s Multi-Vector Global Policy

From Cuba, President Yanukovich proceeded on to Brazil, one of the key “emerging economies,” which together with China, India, Russia, and South Africa loom among Ukraine’s partners in alternative to the “developed” economies of Europe and North America. He continues to pursue a multi-vector policy that is not limited to the “either-or” between Europe and Russia, as the common caricature would depict it. From the perspective of Ukraine’s national interest, finding partners wherever they present themselves makes sense.

That is not, however, the way people in Washington necessarily see it. It should be kept in mind that the United States is in the middle of the campaign for elections that will not be held until November 2012. (While in many countries the period for political campaigns is limited by law to just a few weeks, American campaigns begin, literally, the day after the previous election. As soon as the ballots are cast on November 6, 2012, on November 7 potential candidates immediately will start hiring staff and drawing up their strategies for 2016.) This means that as campaign activities ascend to their crescendo – more than a year away – political considerations reflecting the specific needs of American parties and candidates will be projected onto the behavior of foreign nations and leaders, judging them not by criteria that define their countries’ interests but the unique features of politics in the United States.

To take an obvious example: Iran. For Ukraine, Iran is just another country. The Yanukovich administration has not indicated a presidential visit is in the works but has indicated interest in boosting bilateral ties with Tehran. For example, recently Iran’s state-owned Aircraft Manufacturing Industrial Co. announced that a model of the Antonov-158 airliner jointly built by Iran and Ukraine’s Antonov Co. may be in use in Iran as early as 2013. Kiev just hosted a visit by Iran’s Minister of Industry, Mine and Trade, Mr. Mehdi Ghazanfari, in connection with the fourth meeting of the Ukraine-Iran joint economic commission and the inaugural ceremony of a commercial fair in Ukraine positively showcasing Iran and Iranian products.

But for the United States, and for most American politicians, Iran is not just another country, it is the most dangerous country on the planet. This identity is not just a reflection of American humiliation at the 1979 seizure of the U.S. embassy in Tehran by radical “students,” with 52 American diplomats held hostage for over a year. Washington also worries about Tehran’s regional role, including support for Hezbollah in Lebanon and Shiite militias in Iraq, a suspected plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the United States, and most of all the prospect of an Iranian nuclear weapon to be used against the U.S. or Israel. In short, for many Americans, when Ukraine steps up cooperation with Iran, it is seen as cordially engaged with America’s most deadly enemy.

Official American attitudes toward Castro’s Cuba are similar. By any count, the man whom President Yanukovich described as “full of life” can be described as such only because the CIA’s numerous assassination attempts (believed to be in the dozens if not in the hundreds) have failed. Particularly in light of the intractable hatred of Fidel in the Cuban exile community in Florida – a “must win” state for anyone hoping to become president – isolating Cuba and maintaining the U.S. economic boycott remains one of American’s firmest policy positions.

Potential Consequences?

Does this mean that the Kiev administration risks its relationship with Washington by pursuing cooperation with countries the United States doesn’t like? The answer is not a simple one. Yes, Washington officials understand that policies of Ukraine and most other countries toward Iran, Cuba, North Korea, etc., are not what they would like them to be. While it would be hard to find a penalty Washington might impose on Ukraine, there are specific problems that could arise, for example, in the form of sanctions against non-U.S. companies that do business with such states in violation of American legislation, which assumes an aspect of extraterritorial reach.

At the same time, no one should think that Washington’s priority for Ukraine no longer remains trying to drag Kiev, one way or another, onto the path of “Euro-Atlantic” integration. This means not only economic ties with the European Union but, in some form, a security relationship defined by NATO. While that path seemed to have been rudely interrupted by the 2010 electoral defeat of Ukraine’s “Orange” forces, getting Ukraine back onto that path as part of an anti-Russian strategy, only partially offset by President Barack Obama’s “reset” with Moscow, remains the top U.S. goal for Ukraine.

It is through that lens that Ukraine and the Kiev administration need to anticipate how their actions will “play” in America during the campaign. Ukraine – which not only most Americans but most American politicians would have difficulty finding on a map – will figure very little or not at all in the positions and rhetoric of American politicians. But Iran will be a frequent point of reference. Cuba also will get some attention, largely due to the fact that for half a century Florida’s Cuban exiles have been among the Republican Party’s most reliable voting blocs, and the Republicans’ only significant share of America’s growing Hispanic community. Russia will also make an occasional appearance, mostly from Republican candidates looking to score cheap points against Mr. Obama, and perhaps each other, for being insufficiently hostile towards Russia and Russia’s once-and-presumed-future-president, Vladimir Putin. To the extent that Kiev’s policies tangentially impact what are called “hot button” concerns like these, Ukraine might come into peripheral view but not assume a central role.

But make no mistake, whoever gets elected – and more importantly, the permanent officials who remain under Democrats and Republicans alike – will be keeping tabs on “who is with us, and who is against us.” Does this mean that Kiev is wrong to pursue beneficial ties wherever they can be found? No. But it does mean that such perceptions will color official American attitudes toward Ukraine and should be taken into account.