What does the West want from Ukraine?

Experts say there's motivation beyond altruism for the US and EU trying to forge closer ties with the country in crisis

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, center, Ukrainian Parliament Speaker and interim President Oleksandr Turchynov, left, and Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk shake hands during talks in Kiev on Tuesday.
Yury Kirnichny/AFP/Getty Images

As the crisis in Ukraine drags on into its fourth month, the geopolitics of the situation have grown increasingly complex, with more diplomats, leaders and interested parties opining on each and every development in the country.

President Barack Obama and leaders from the European Union, for example, have spoken at length on what they want for Ukraine — that it determine its own destiny, and not just any destiny, but one that is different from its past of playing economic lapdog to Russia.

Going beyond the platitudes of supporting Ukraine's autonomy, however, what has gone without much discussion is why the cash-strapped European Union and the U.S. were motivated to step into the fray — to potentially spend billions of dollars on a country that without the support of Russia might face economic collapse.

With tension from military posturing in Crimea increasing, and the potential for bloodshed potent, foreign policy watchers say it’s important to suss out soon why exactly the EU and U.S. — which have been focused inwardly on domestic issues since the global financial crisis — now seem so intent on helping determine the direction of Ukraine.

Besides pure altruism, they say the countries have a lot to lose if Ukraine falls further into crisis, and perhaps just as much to gain if it doesn’t.

“This is a big country in the center of Europe that can affect the stability of all of Europe,” said William Taylor, vice president at the U.S. Institute for Peace. “A civil war there would affect energy supplies, trade, everything.”

Taylor and others believe all of the West, especially the EU, have a vested economic interested in making sure Ukraine stays stable.

For one, the EU exports over $20 billion in goods — primarily machinery, vehicles and industrial chemicals — to Ukraine annually. Ukraine is also one of the world’s largest growers of corn and wheat, and exports it to EU countries and elsewhere. Analysts believe that with heavy investment, Ukraine’s agricultural sector could grow exponentially.  

Beyond maintaining the current flow of trade, if Ukraine shuns Russia, experts believe EU countries will be able to benefit from increased trade with Ukraine. That’s why EU officials are attempting to sign a free-trade agreement with Ukraine even as the crisis escalates. And some say the country may even be able to eventually join the European Union.

But more important than crops and cars — for Ukraine, the EU and U.S. — is gas.

Experts say the EU and U.S. could profit economically if Ukraine begins to rely less on Gazprom, Russia’s quasi-governmental oil and gas giant.  

They point out that the protests in Ukraine started partially because of Ukraine’s near-complete reliance on Russian gas. And Ukraine has been trying to break away from that dependence for years. In November, it signed a $10 billion deal with Chevron to produce natural gas within Ukraine, but it could also look elsewhere for its supplies.

As the EU and U.S. discover new ways to extract oil and gas on their own soil — namely through hydraulic fracturing — and build liquefied natural-gas terminals to send it around the world, Ukraine could become a viable market.

“The whole natural gas market is changing dramatically,” USIP’s Taylor said. “Over the next five years, there’s going to be dramatic changes in the flows of gas, and the leverage Russians have over the EU and Ukraine is going to decline.”  

Because Europe also relies heavily on Gazprom, disrupting Ukraine’s relations with Russia is a risky prospect. Some believe it’s no coincidence that the countries that rely most on Russia for gas, especially Germany, have been more reluctant than the U.S. to suggest sanctions against Russia.

The EU may be seeking a middle ground — making sure the gas can keep flowing while Ukraine also builds closer ties with European countries. At least for the U.S., isolating Gazprom might not be as controversial of an option.

In the midst of a hydraulic fracturing-created gas boom, the U.S. has been looking to increase gas exports dramatically over the next few years. So the possibility that Ukraine, and therefore the EU, might break away from Russia’s gas supply might be considered both a geopolitical win and cash bonanza by U.S. politicians.

“The United States has abundant supplies of natural gas — an energy source that is in demand by many of our allies — and the U.S. Department of Energy’s excruciatingly slow approval process amounts to a de facto ban on American natural gas exports that Vladimir Putin has happily exploited to finance his geopolitical goals,” House Speaker John Boehner said Tuesday. “We should not force our allies to remain dependent on Putin for their energy needs. Ending this de facto ban and expediting approval of natural gas exports is one clear step the U.S. can take to stand by our allies and stand up to Russian aggression, while creating American jobs at the same time.”

Some analysts say breaking EU and Ukrainian reliance on Russia’s gas might not only be about the economy, but about something the U.S. has wanted to do ever since the Cold War: prove it, and not Russia, is the world’s preeminent superpower.

“The U.S. has never gotten over the Cold War, and (U.S.) leaders view Russia as a potential adversary,” said Michael Klare, a professor of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College. “(Russia is) a petro-state. Take that away and Putin’s power disappears.”

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