Ukraine’s European Moment during the COVID-19 Pandemic

The COVID-19 crisis presents Ukraine with a unique opportunity to integrate further into the West. The crisis has weakened Russia’s position in the Donbas and has sparked key internal Ukrainian reforms that call for more robust action. An important first step should be Ukraine’s integration into the Three Seas Initiative. Second, Ukraine and the U.S. should negotiate the terms of a new relationship by designating Ukraine a Major Non-NATO Ally. Doing so will strengthen Ukraine’s democratic institutions, lift the economies of Central and Eastern Europe, and begin restoring American prestige in the region.

Oleksandr Yusupov
Nick A. Cohen
May 19, 2020

The novel coronavirus has made its disruptive presence felt all throughout the world –grounding economies, separating families, and even spurring authoritarian reforms in erstwhile democracies. Ukraine has shared in the negative economic consequences of the pandemic, with GDP expected to contract significantly as businesses are forced to shutter and important revenue streams from remittances run dry. These negative effects are exacerbated in the Donbas, where six years of war with Russia has already strained local health and transportation infrastructure beyond capacity.

Yet, at the same time, the COVID-19 crisis, and the responses that are required to overcome it, offer Ukraine a unique opportunity to realize its European ambitions. While the coronavirus crisis has not ended the war with Russia, it has weakened Russia’s position in Ukraine. The pandemic and the subsequent fall in oil prices have hit Russia’s healthcare and economy hard, making the Kremlin’s military adventures more costly.

Next, while many Central and Eastern European states revert to authoritarianism, Ukraine has doubled down on liberal reforms. Unlike its neighbor Hungary, Ukraine has not passed any laws that radically empower the executive, nor has it allowed for widespread privacy infringements as is the case in PolandRomania, and Bulgaria. Furthermore, the International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) requirements for a much-needed $8 billion loan have provided impetus for the Verkhovna Rada to pass critical banking and land reform laws.

Ukraine’s reform efforts should not stop with the passage of these crucial laws. Rather, reform efforts should accelerate, aided by the financial, technical, and consultative aid of Ukraine’s European and American partners. These democratic reforms, coupled with Russia’s weakened condition, present Ukraine with a unique opportunity to integrate further into the West.

An important first step should be Ukraine’s integration into the Three Seas Initiative (3SI), negotiations for which can and should begin immediately. Historically speaking, Ukraine is a critical member of the Three Seas community, with ties extending as far back as the medieval Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Today, many 3SI member states have citizens working or conducting business in Ukraine, and vice-versa. Building institutional ties will help leverage this economic capacity, which is particularly crucial as Central and Eastern European states face massive government debt and impending recessions as a result of the virus.

One key example of the benefits of economic coupling between 3SI member states and Ukraine is in the energy sector. Ukraine is a major natural gas and oil transit hub from Russia to Europe. Its inclusion in 3SI will facilitate further integration of the region’s energy infrastructure with Ukraine’s pipeline capacities. In the process, it would enhance regional energy security, as 3SI member states will be able to collaborate together to ensure stable supply and distribution.

Furthermore, Ukraine’s economy is larger than that of most 3SI member states and is growing rapidly. This large and dynamic economy would be a powerful addition to 3SI’s Business Forum and Network of Chambers of Commerce, allowing the Ukrainian business community to participate in and bring extra investment to these groups. Ukraine’s geographic location makes the country an important bridge for trade and travel between Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. By railway carriage volume, for example, Ukraine is the world’s 7th largest freight transporter, and the volume of goods transported by all transport means has been growing consistently at 2 percent annually

The pandemic underscores another reason why Ukraine should join 3SI, beyond the aforementioned economic benefits. 3SI, with Ukraine, could launch an anti-pandemic research and response unit, supported by a dedicated fund from the Initiative’s Investment Bank. Ukraine's scientists have won prestigious international awards in antiviral research and have taken part in joint trainings with several neighboring states, including Poland. Expanding these collaborations under the framework of 3SI would leverage the expertise of the region’s best epidemiologists and public health officials to create a shared stockpile of strategic anti-pandemic tools as well as develop a regional playbook for responding to future health crises.

The United States, a long-time strategic partner of Ukraine and a major financial donor to the Three Seas Initiative, could also play an important role in facilitating Ukraine’s membership. American influence in Eastern Europe has waned considerably in recent years, challenged by an increasingly assertive Russia and an ascendant China. This has become ever more acute since the pandemic, as China has leveraged this opportunity to cultivate goodwill by providing critical medical goods necessary to contain the virus’ spread. In this geopolitical environment, which Zbigniew Brzezinski predicted in 1997 would be America’s greatest strategic challenge, it is more important than ever to maintain and embolden U.S. strategic partnerships in the region. Supporting Ukraine’s membership in 3SI would return the U.S. to the strategic conversation in Eastern Europe, thereby demonstrating that it remains committed to the region’s continued inclusion in the Euro-Atlantic community.

In addition to supporting Ukraine’s 3SI ambitions, the United States and Ukraine should negotiate a new relationship granting Ukraine Major Non-NATO Ally status (MNNA). Such a status has been proposed by both states in the past and has broad political support among all major parties. Doing so would strengthen the pre-existing bilateral strategic partnership between the U.S. and Ukraine, enhance Ukraine’s security amid its protracted conflict with Russia, and further boost American influence and prestige in Eastern Europe.

Ukraine’s MNNA designation would also serve to project an important alternative political model to the creeping authoritarianism present throughout the region, particularly among Russians. As Ukraine is the second largest former Soviet republic with a sizeable Russian-speaking community, its successful transition from a post-communist state into a modern democracy with a flourishing free market economy, backed by the support of the United States, would offer Russians a clear and viable alternative to Putin’s neo-authoritarian regime. It is, therefore, in the strategic interests of the United States to support Ukraine’s coronavirus-related reforms through an expanded strategic partnership.

Of course, with great opportunity comes great responsibility. As Ukraine integrates into the Three Seas Initiative and expands its relationship with the United States, it must continue reforming its domestic institutions while doubling down on its fight against corruption. In this respect, Ukraine’s critical banking and land reform laws should serve as inspiration for further reforms, including judicial reforms in accordance with the Venice Commission recommendations as well as changing the State Security Service’s (SBU) mandate from investigating economic crime to working solely on matters of national security. Success in reforming the state will become Ukraine’s ticket to entry into the Euro-Atlantic community.

Oleksandr Yusupov is Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis International Fellow at Columbia University, where he studies European security and U.S.-EU relations. He is a member at Chatham House and a foreign affairs columnist for Ukraine’s Obozrevatel.

Nick A. Cohen is a graduate student at Columbia University, where he studies Central and Eastern European political history. Before his studies at Columbia, Nick worked in electoral politics and served as the Deputy Editor-in-Chief of Balkanist Magazine.