Cooperation Instead of Containment
No. 1 2010 January/March
Nikolai Kapitonenko

Nikolai Kapitonenko is an Assistant Professor at the School of International Relations at Kyiv’s Taras Shevchenko National University, and is an Executive Director at the Kyiv-based Center for International Relations Research. He has a Doctorate in Political Science.

Reflections on the Potential of Russian-Ukrainian Strategic Partnership

Building an acceptable system of security in Europe is at the center of the new Ukrainian president’s political agenda. The solution to this problem can be untapped by defining a mutually acceptable format of relations with Russia – Ukraine’s largest neighbor, a source of potential challenges and a potential partner in achieving the tricky goal of saving Europe from the risks of a new Cold War.

How is it possible to impart real content in cooperation with Russia? What is Ukraine ready to sacrifice for the sake of this goal and what concessions can it expect from Russia? Last but not least, what new principles of cooperation should be accepted (since old slogans unsupported by concrete decisions will bring new problems rather than any acceptable foreign policy vectors)?

I will try to formulate the starting points for the dialogue, discussion and mutual understanding concerning the challenging questions poised above.


Apart from the significance that relations with Russia per ser have for Ukraine, they have a distinct influence on the processes of transforming the European security system. It is precisely in this sphere that prospects for broad cooperation are opening for the two countries – on the condition that they map out the scope of identical interests and define common elements in envisioning Europe’s future. It is also here that the biggest risks may emerge should Ukrainian-Russian relations turn into a zero-sum game. Despite the seeming incompatibility of Moscow’s and Kyiv’s positions on certain key issues of European security, the sides should discern the interests lying behind them. This is critical for finding a way to possible compromises.

It is also essential that Russia and Ukraine understand that their interests are not directed against each other. This means that from the very start they must renounce marginal attitudes aimed at weakening the partner, or questioning its sovereignty or territorial integrity. Unless this is done both countries will seek answers outside the framework of bilateral relations, which is insufficient for fruitful interaction. In addition to ruling out apparently unacceptable attitudes, Russia and Ukraine must focus their attention and efforts on the spheres where they can look for and find joint solutions.

Generally, the fundamental strategic interest for both countries is preventing an increase in the risk of conflicts in Europe; as a growing risk of conflicts creates essential threats, albeit somewhat different in character. For Russia, a new Cold War would mean huge internal risks and a high probability of finding itself on the wayside of global social, economic and political processes, and a mounting risk of disintegration. For Ukraine, it may bring about a loss of statehood in one form or another. Apart from the essential risks, a resumption of the confrontation in Europe may affect other Russian and Ukrainian interests and result in economic losses, political instability, and the weakening of positions in the global competitive struggle.

In the meantime, the two sides view the resolution of this strategic problem differently. Russia believes that averting imbalances of force offers the best guarantee for preventing a new standoff on the continent. It is exactly in this light that Moscow views, for instance, the expansion of NATO or the zone of its responsibility. Ukraine sees the main danger in the shortage of reliable instruments for defending its own interests in relations with stronger partners rather than in the upsetting of continental balances. It perceives NATO – like all other institutions of multilateral cooperation – as an opportunity to make up for this asymmetry.

Russia’s interests in the current geostrategic situation were formulated by President Dmitry Medvedev in June 2008. His initiative envisions setting up a broad security zone that would span the entire territory of Europe and its proliferation to all the key spheres – political, military, energy and economic. The change in the rules of the game in Europe offered by Russia embraces the solution to the following fundamental problems:

  • resolving the controversies between the right of people to self-determination and the territorial integrity of states;
  • defining the limits to and conditions for the use of humanitarian interventions in conflicts;
  • formulating the principles for the functioning of military and military/political unions on the continent.

Each of these problems has been an obstacle in the way of implementing Russia’s geopolitical priorities for quite some time and has been serving as a source of double standards in international politics. And whereas the eradication of the latter meets the interests of European countries in general, the forms and methods by which Moscow hopes to achieve its objectives, especially in the wake of the 2008 events, give rise to many questions.

Kyiv, too, has its own questions and apprehensions. How are the accents placed in the Russian plan? If talk about law and non-use of force serves as a mere veil for turning international security in Europe onto the track of Realpolitik envisioning the division of spheres of influence and non-interference, a plan of this kind is unacceptable not only for Ukraine, but for the whole of 21st-century Europe. It would push European politics back many years to the times of rival alliances and antagonistic interests. In this case, the incumbent system of European security, however imperfect, better meets the needs of the mutually inter-dependent European structure.

If Russia really wants to make the mechanisms of a multilateral system of ensuring stability more efficient, its efforts should be supported and its plan should be discussed at multilateral talks. In Ukraine’s view, the areas for improvement may include:

Specifying the principles for the settlement of regional and local conflicts, including the correlation between nations’ right to self-determination and the states’ territorial integrity. Since Kyiv is concerned about settling certain conflicts in the territory of the former Soviet Union, especially the conflict in the Dniester region, it deems it important that its considerations on the issue be heard.

Determining the mechanisms of interaction among various international organizations in maintaining stability in Europe. For this it would make sense to reject the idea of non-interference in conflicts and fix the principle of maximum possible cooperation between all the existing institutions, with each of them making a contribution to the settlement.

Mapping out the general format of main approaches to the settlement of local and regional conflicts, determining a set of other admissible measures for conflict resolution and procedures for involving third parties;

Detailing Russia’s proposals in the field of energy security. More than a year and a half have elapsed since Medvedev announced his initiatives and this period was quite eventful for energy markets, resulting in the rise of a new format of Ukrainian participation in the energy security system; establishing to what degree the position taken by Russia today reflects its readiness to work for the emergence of a transparent, united energy system that would account for the interests of suppliers, transit operators and consumers. This is the key task for formulating Russia’s proposals.

Russia’s initiative is useful in the sense that it aims towards facilitating efforts in finding multilateral compromise mechanisms for ensuring security in Europe. Development of its major elements, including in the format of Russian-Ukrainian bilateral cooperation, may lead to building a common vision of the European security architecture.


In the same way that Russian-Ukrainian relations offer a clue to building the European security architecture, the NATO problem largely determines their relations. The first step towards easing mutual misunderstanding in that area could be defining the two countries’ interests that are affected by Ukraine’s prospective accession to NATO, and the second one, shifting discussions from the emotional to the pragmatic plain.

The second step seems to be simpler to make, but in practice it is not. The discussion of the NATO problem seldom avoids an outburst of passions, and this refers to all quarters, be it academic, political or public. The overcharge of emotions and values adds to the knottiness of the problem and creates dividing barriers, turning the problem into a zero sum game. NATO is a matter of the ideological choice, a self-styled historical and civilizational Rubicon for many people in both Russia and Ukraine. In essence, democratic values are part and parcel of the North-Atlantic alliance as such and an element of common identity of the countries making it up. Neither Russia nor Ukraine calls these values into question and this means that discussions of the problem should be limited to the issues of security, strategy and geopolitics. The more often they succeed in doing so, the less often they will find themselves at cross-purposes.

When discussed in the pragmatic plain, this problem involves interests that both Moscow and Kyiv regard as top priority and this explains why it is hard to achieve a compromise. Russia considers NATO’s expansion as a slashing of its own zone of interests and an immediate strategic threat. This stance stems from Moscow’s axiomatic treatment of NATO as an anti-Russian pact per se, and this specific perception provides the clue to understanding the interests that underlie Russia’s “No to NATO’s expansion.”

For Ukraine, accession to NATO is the most efficacious way to guarantee its own security and the only mechanism that it can use to make up for its weakness in relations with its neighbors. NATO membership, its structure and procedures of adopting decisions could furnish Ukraine with a real influence on the process of ensuring European security – without the reciprocal need to make unimaginable sacrifices. These considerations prove that Ukraine’s willingness for a closer cooperation with NATO cannot be explained exclusively by ex-President Victor Yushchenko’s personal partiality – something that analysts often do. Given the current picture of threats, interaction with the alliance will always present a special value for Ukraine under any president. This value is contingent on the structural specificity of the international system in Europe today. Yet Russia, too, will not stand idly aside watching. If it takes aggressive or unilateral actions, it will naturally augment the anti-Russian component of Ukraine’s North-Atlantic aspirations and will facilitate their intensification in general. A vice versa demonstration of a fruitful approach by Russia and its participation in multilateral formats of security maintenance may considerably reduce Ukraine’s need for NATO.

Even if the two countries succeed in minimizing the emotional component – which meets the interests of both countries – considerations of national and regional security will remain. Ukraine will continue to regard them as guidelines and they will keep pushing it towards NATO until some realistic alternatives emerge. One has to admit that there are no such alternatives today and no other collective security organization can give Ukraine equally reliable guarantees without infringing on the basic values and freedoms at the same time. Neutrality, which is peddled in Ukraine as an alternative to the NATO choice, is the worst option in fact – from both the economic and political angle. In spite of numerous problems and complications, NATO continues to inspire confidence as the most efficient mechanism of ensuring regional security – a fact that is of crucial importance for Ukrainian interests.

As for Russia, it could benefit greatly from Ukraine’s refusal to join NATO. The benefits would be felt on the bilateral, regional and global levels – in geostrategic and political terms, and in terms of international image. Unfortunately, today’s Russia cannot offer Ukraine anything of equal value for attaining the parity of mutual benefits. The high priority of that problem in the foreign policy agendas of both countries will most likely rule out its early resolution.

This does not mean, however, there is no field for compromise.


Rebuilding Russian-Ukrainian relations may be achieved through implementing the idea of expanding the areas of their relationship.

For its implementation one must realize what the two countries expect of each other, what issues have vital importance for them and what issues are of secondary importance. Also, both sides must be ready to make mutual concessions. The spectrum of mutual interests is broad enough and the degree of their interdependence is big enough too. This factor raises the value of compromise solutions and heightens the risks inherent in confrontation.

The list of Russia’s vital interests includes:

1. Maintaining influence in the territory of the former Soviet Union, including cases where it has to rule out whatever military threat from post-Soviet countries (except for the Baltic region, which has been lost in that sense).

2. Drawing maximum economic benefits from post-Soviet territory, effective use of ties in the spheres of production, transport and trade opportunities.

3. Stabilization of the post-Soviet territory so as to minimize the potential threats posed by Islamic fundamentalism, international terrorism and other manifestations of extremism.

4. Consolidation, if possible, of the country’s geopolitical positions in Europe and Central Asia; and the ensuing strengthening of influence on developments in East Asia and the Middle East. In other words, using the potential of the post-Soviet territory for strengthening Russia’s role in world politics.

One can easily see that Ukraine has a unique significance for the implementation of a greater part of Russia’s immediate interests. For instance, Moscow cannot achieve any satisfactory results on any of the above items – with the possible exception of the third one – without Ukraine’s participation. Furthermore, it is obvious that items two and three meet Ukrainian national interests as well, thus opening up the vistas for the broadest possible cooperation. Obstacles may arise only in a situation where Ukraine starts viewing Russia’s continued strengthening as a threat to its own security or, in other words, when the classical “security hoax” gets into play in Ukrainian-Russian relations. The theory of international relations prompts that security hoaxes are most successfully eliminated through the establishment of long-term cooperation and its repetitive supporting forms. This means that both countries should look for and develop the repetitive forms of this kind. They will have a good impact on the dynamics of relations between the two sides.

Some of Russia’s vital foreign policy interests are not relevant for Ukraine; for instance, it is not interested in the consolidation of Russia’s political influence or it may even be interested in weakening its influence, as long as the security hoax persists. To dispel the problem it is necessary to demonstrate in every possible way that neither side threatens the other in any way. Apart from that they must be ready to make concessions. An exchange of concessions in the issues that have primary importance for one side and secondary importance for the other side might be the best strategy.

For Ukraine the priority interests are:

1. Maintenance of a pluralistic system of security in Europe and preventing its slide towards bipolarity.

2. Defense of regional stability and the security and settlement of frozen conflicts, especially in Moldova’s breakaway Dniester region.

3. The maximum possible involvement in the processes of European integration from the strongest possible positions; maximizing profits from Ukraine’s transit transportation capabilities.

It is clear that Moscow can exert an impact on the implementation of Ukraine’s priority interests. It is also obvious that there are no dramatic differences in the strategic goals, although there are differences in the approaches, and this is plainly visible in the sphere of regional conflicts. The discrepancies in Ukraine’s and Russia’s positions on how the multipolar system of security should work have been analyzed above, but the very presence of this common interest may become a driving force for cooperation.

There is no doubt that both Moscow and Kyiv are interested in maximizing the benefits from economic cooperation and in strengthening positions in their relationships with the EU. The differences on the issues of tactics that emerge from time to time should look insignificant against the background of coinciding strategic interests. Placed in the context of what has been said above, today’s source of conflicts and tensions in bilateral relations – the natural gas issue – could serve as a model for establishing mutually beneficial cooperation on the European scale.

Other sources for boosting strategic partnership include mutual satisfaction of each other’s priority interests by dropping one’s own secondary interests.

The sets of each country’s secondary interests are quite variegated and multidirectional. Still some of them could lay the groundwork for compromise solutions. They are:

1. The activity of the CIS Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO).

2. The status and deployment of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet on Ukrainian territory.

3. The future of the CIS as an instrument of collective security and the operations of other regional interstate regimes.

The sides put different stakes on implementing these interests. For Russia, they matter largely in terms of defense of priority interests, but they do not rank among the priorities as such. For Ukraine, the same issues are tied to the “security hoax” and to the controversial attitude towards Russia’s growing role in the territory of the former Soviet Union.

Combining the two groups’ interests generates a broad spectrum of opportunities for possible compromise solutions. Taken in its maximized form, this program could even involve Kyiv’s renunciation of the idea of joining NATO. However, this step would require the removal of the “security hoax” and Russia’s taking effective measures to guarantee Ukraine’s sovereignty and security, as well as the maximum possible contribution to regional stability. At this point, the CSTO fails to meet such requirements.

Less extreme versions of the compromise may include Ukraine’s consent to extend the period of the Black Sea Fleet’s deployment in Sevastopol; stepping up partnerships with post-Soviet countries in counteracting transnational threats and terrorism; the deepening of economic cooperation and the development of free trade (including lobbying in Russia’s interests in the World Trade Organization); and the renunciation of any steps that Moscow may view as threats to itself (like the deployment of elements of the U.S. missile defense system on Ukrainian territory). The Kremlin could reciprocate by extending the guarantees for energy cooperation to meet both countries’ interests (including the renunciation of attempts to establish control over the Ukrainian pipeline network); Russia’s more active engagement in multilateral regional formats; and elaboration of common approaches to settling problems of regional stability. On the whole, the movement towards meeting each other might become the quintessence of this approach. Ukraine would thus demonstrate a greater understanding of Russia’s global aspirations, while Russia would make a contribution to the implementation of Ukraine’s regional interests.

Like what happens with any bilateral relations complicated by shared history, the sides should begin with mutual concessions in the spheres that are most sensitive and emblematic – culture, humanitarian issues and language. Compromises in these spheres bring up the smallest possible risks, but help build the most durable mutual trust.

Russian-Ukrainian relations have been uneasy and irrational for several years and have hindered the implementation of both countries’ interests in full. These complications have tangible implications, as they intensify mutual suspicions and aggravate the “security hoax.” This, in turn, subjugates bilateral relations to the logic of political realism. Meanwhile, they would gain much greater benefits from a strategic partnership of the neo-Liberal paradigm. Whether Russia and Ukraine manage to cope with the implacable logic of realism at a new stage in their relationship is crucial for the fate of all of Europe.