After the first round of the presidential election in Ukraine, it is clear that the hasty rush towards Europe, advocated by outgoing President Yushchenko, has exhausted itself. The question looming ahead of the 7 February run-off is if Mr Yushchenko's successor is going to steer the country's foreign policy away from Europe.
The final round of elections between Victor Yanukovych, leader of the main opposition Party of Regions, and Yulia Tymoshenko, the current Prime Minister, is shaping up to be an odd spectacle.
The two contenders, contrary to their campaign rhetoric, have in fact very few real disagreements, foreign policy issues notwithstanding.
Mr Yanukovich is allegedly pro-Russian, while the premier, Ms Tymoshenko is superficially seen as pro-Western. However, both have on a number of occasions reiterated their commitment to Ukraine’s European choice as their ultimate foreign policy goal, while at the same time calling for rapprochement with Russia.
Regardless of who wins on 7 February, Kiev is likely to pursue its foreign policy according to the same script: Less overtly pro-Western and more ambiguous. It will try to perform a delicate balancing act between the West and Russia.
After the war in Georgia in August 2008 and given their rather measured stance on Nato, neither Mr Yanukovych nor Ms Tymoshenko will ask for membership of the military alliance. Yet both are expected to push for closer ties with the EU, while remaining pragmatists to the bones, as they realise that Ukraine is in no position to join the bloc during their five year presidential term.
The ongoing talks on a new association agreement will keep the negotiators from Brussels and Kiev busy. Although it stops short of offering any hint of Ukraine’s eventual membership of the Union, the proposed agreement promises to deepen political and economic integration with the EU. From Kiev’s point of view, the most coveted prize is a free trade agreement and liberalisation of visa policy.
The stakes are high for Brussels too, as around 80 percent of Russian gas exports to Europe go through Ukraine. To secure an uninterrupted flow of gas is a high priority for European policy makers and this also directly feeds into the question of the country’s long term political stability. Brussels is hoping for a more predictable political scene in Ukraine after the February vote.
Should Ukraine under the new leadership manage to put its house back in order, there is a good chance that EU leaders might be more willing to reward Ukraine with some carrots.
But no one should overlook the Russian factor. Following the demise of Mr Yushchenko, Moscow might feel emboldened to reclaim the influence that it lost in the wake of the 2004 Orange Revolution.
Brussels will have to take Russia’s interests into account more than ever. Long gone are the times when Moscow viewed Ukraine’s membership in the EU as an acceptable alternative to the country’s admission to Nato. Moscow now views the EU’s role in its near abroad with growing suspicion.
Given its interests, the EU will have to remain involved in Ukraine and Brussels should start contemplating how to address the new political reality in the country. There are two salient issues to consider: First, the EU has promised a hefty financial package to help overhaul Ukraine’s moribund pipeline system. Russia can’t possibly hope to completely bypass Ukraine as a transit country. Hence, the EU should invite Russia to participate in upgrading the pipeline system as a confidence building measure between Brussels, Kiev and Moscow.
Second, the EU should closely watch the Black Sea fleet debate as it will become a major foreign policy issue down the road. The Russian navy is supposed to vacate its naval base in Crimea by 2017. The Russians would like to stay and this may stir up tensions between the two neighbors. The union should closely monitor the situation in Crimea and be ready to help mitigate any new disputes.