Maximizing the EU-Ukraine Strategic Partnership

On 13th of July, Maroš Šefčovič, the Vice-President of the European Commission and Denys Shmyhal, the Prime Minister of Ukraine, signed the Strategic Partnership on Raw Materials between the European Union (EU) and Ukraine. This accord marks a concrete step on the part of the EU to diversify its primary material suppliers and strengthen its resource base. It is also a stepping stone towards a green European economy, aiming to make mining sustainable and environmental-friendly. This objective is elaborated upon in last September’s report of the European Commission on “Critical Raw Materials Resilience”.

For Ukraine, the treaty is a reaffirmation of its path towards the European integration. However, the context of the agreement shows that a number of other aspects are also at stake. This accord, signed under the present geopolitical circumstances, is highly relevant, both in terms of what it symbolises and what it aims to achieve.  In what follows, we pinpoint and discuss the symbolic and security implications of the partnership for both Ukraine and the EU.

If we look back at the 2014 Euromaidan Revolution, we may find that the desires of the Ukrainian electorate were practically similar with European ideals of freedom and justice. A 2019 Pew Research Center survey also showed that 79% of Ukrainians perceive the EU favourably. The pro-EU question may be expressed in numbers, but it is in fact evidence of the current state of the EU. The cited study and the events of 2014 show that, to an overwhelming majority of Ukrainians, the Union is a symbol of democracy, justice and rule of law. This symbolic power can be the catalyst of the EU’s prospective  eastward enlargement.

Yet, the European integration of Ukraine is not only a matter of spreading the ideals of the EU, to consolidate its power through prestige. The process is a matter of security for both sides, in more ways than one. This is unequivocally exemplified by the partnership. The agreement has the potential to address the interconnected Ukrainian and European concerns.

Ukraine’s challenges demonstrate how geography shapes foreign policy. Kiev is a European city between Brussels and Washington in the West and Moscow and Beijing in the East.  From the East, both Russia and China have been applying pressure and strong-arming tactics throughout recent years. First, Russia illegally annexed Crimea and Sevastopol in February 2014, through unconventional sabotaging tactics. Then, this April, tensions mounted again, as Russian troops assembled at the border with Ukraine

The movements were described by the Russian defence ministry as a “surprise check of combat readiness”, with a pullback of all forces from 1st of May. However, even after nearly a month, Ukrainian officials noted that 100.000 Russian soldiers had remained in place. By some estimates, the Russian military may hold position at least until the Zapad drills with Belarus, in September. Moreover, British policy experts warn, that the troop movements may be a direct effort by Moscow to shape Ukraine’s foreign policy through intimidation.

In any case, the US and Ukraine pressed ahead with NATO’s See Breeze exercise in June. proving that Russia failed in its intimidation attempt. Ukraine’s commitment to the Alliance is all the more vivid, if we recount that the Russian navy practically isolated Ukraine’s Southern shores. In fact, just as Russian troops were gathering at its Eastern frontier, the Sea of Azov was being enclosed by the Russian fleet. There is a grim, but a real possibility that, in the medium-term plan Russia aims to critically weaken the Ukrainian economy by extended use of such tactics.

Here, the Partnership on Raw Materials becomes a decisive point of discussion.  Its signing is a definite proof that Ukraine has chosen to turn westwards for both traditional and non-traditional security reasons. Indeed, it may well be an economic lifeline or a trump card, when a large proportion of Ukraine’s maritime trade may be at risk. Its signing is designed to show Moscow that Kiev has genuine room for manoeuvre, even when the Kremlin attempts to leave it with no options. The partnership empowers Ukraine as a responsible and committed actor of the European economy, one step closer to the full EU membership.

The treaty is perhaps even more relevant in the context generated by Beijing’s recent actions. For over two years, there have been numerous reports of appalling human rights abuses by the Chinese government against the Uighur minority. Earlier this summer, Amnesty International published their own inquiry. Shortly afterwards, forty UN members, Ukraine among them, jointly declared support of an independent investigation of the case by Geneva. It emerged, however, that in late June Beijing blackmailed Kiev officials into withdrawal, by threatening to cancel the supply of half a million of Chinese CoronaVac doses.

The effects of such coercive influence are quite worrisome as it is. Yet, the 30th of June Sino-Ukrainian infrastructure deal seems to be a further means of pulling Ukraine away from the EU and the West. The Chinese state media hails it as “pragmatic cooperation based on mutual understanding and support”, but there is obviously a lot more at stake. Decision-makers in Washington and Brussels have long been concerned that Beijing is trading funds for political influence.

Indeed, this is not the first time China attempted business with Ukraine, with possibly serious political implications. In mid-January, the US Department of Commerce blacklisted the Chinese company Skyrizon Aviation, following the latter’s bid to take over Ukrainian aircraft engine manufacturer, Motor Sich. A Kiev court ruling in March, seized all Motor Sich assets and shares, moving it under state-ownership, with further sanctions ratified by president Zelensky.

However, we should not expect this to be the end of the story. Certainly, the courts and the state managed to prevent a key-player of the Ukrainian defence industry from being turned over to China. But the bigger picture of Chinese ambitions in Eastern Europe remains unaltered. As remarked by Washington defence experts, Beijing aims to establish a foothold in the area, so as to impact European affairs. For China then, it all comes down to a diplomatic game, rather than any particular business deal.

From the EU’s standpoint, raw material accessibility “is a strategic security question” directly linked to the Green Deal. This is made clear in the aforementioned report by the Commission. To understand why Ukraine’s part is critical, it is enough to look at the statistics of Gallium supply. Gallium is a critical  primary material of the defence sector, as it is used to manufacture aircraft electronics. The EU imports some 80% of its Gallium from China and only 5% from Ukraine.

Clearly, the partnership provides a definite opportunity to alter these proportions. This enhanced cooperation with Ukraine serves European grand strategy particularly well. Not only does the partnership strengthen the bloc’s position economically in relation to China, but it also enables European defence policy to be more self-sufficient.

Author: Sebastian Lajos – Europuls Trainee

Photo Source: EIT RawMaterials.eu