With Ukraine Continuing to Move West, Tensions with Russia Likely to Escalate

This week, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko signed constitutional amendments setting Ukraine’s national objectives to join the EU and NATO by 2023. These long-term objectives are symbolic as the amendments do not move Ukraine closer to membership but commit the country towards both. To be considered for membership, the EU insists countries meet the Copenhagen Criteria, which sets out measurable and qualitative requirements, including democratic governance, human rights, and a functioning market economy. Similarly, NATO requires countries seeking membership to meet military, political, economic, and legal requirements including democracy, peaceful settlements of ethnic disputes, and good relations with neighbouring countries. Although symbolic, the amendments are significant considering the current domestic and international landscape in Ukraine. Domestically, Poroshenko is aiming to gain support ahead of the presidential election for which polls show a tight race between him and his competitors. Internationally, tensions with Russia have recently escalated. The most recent incident occurred last year in the Kerch Strait where 3 Ukrainian vessels and 24 sailors were captured and imprisoned by Russia. Ukrainian officials continue to worry about future incidents occurring in that area.

Domestically, the amendments were kick-started last year with over a million Ukrainians signing a petition in favour of such a change. The constitutional changes were then supported by over two-thirds of the Ukrainian parliament with 334 votes, exceeding the necessary 300 votes. However, critics have argued that the bill detracts from Ukraine’s status as a bloc-free nation. Poroshenko responded to such critics arguing that Ukraine’s status as a bloc free country is what encouraged the initial Russian aggression. International support for the amendments has largely come from the West. Notably, European Council President Donald Tusk, stated: “there is no Europe without Ukraine”. Similarly, at the EU Foreign Ministers meeting in Brussels, Foreign Minister Sven Mikser said that Ukraine depends on increased support from the EU. Unsurprisingly, Russia is cautious and suspicious of Western influence in the region, with Russian diplomats questioning Western motives in Ukraine. Specifically, Russia’s UN envoy, Vasily Nebenzya expressed concern that the West is only interested in using Ukraine as a pawn against Russia. The amendments underpin the larger geopolitical battle between Russia and the West of which Ukraine has become a central flashpoint.

This week, US Destroyer Donald Cook re-entered the Black Sea to conduct naval exercises with NATO allies and Ukraine. The joint naval exercise is meant to reaffirm NATO’s influence in the region and its support of Ukraine. These naval exercises did not go unnoticed in Russia, whose National Defense Control Centre declared that Russia’s Black Sea fleet will “continuously to monitor the actions of the American destroyer”. Thus far, Russian President Vladimir Putin has remained quiet on Ukraine’s constitutional amendments. However, in response to increasing Western influence in the region, Putin has stated that although Russia “does not want confrontation”, Russia would respond if forced to. With growing Western influence and support of Ukraine and with Russia unwilling to back down, tensions will likely continue to escalate. Ukraine will remain a flashpoint as both sides struggle for influence.