Ukraine: In the Middle of Great Power Politics

Ukraine: In the Middle of Great Power Politics

Under pro-Western President Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine has made substantial progress in its drive for EU and NATO membership. However, domestic successes have been overshadowed by the increasingly difficult international position Kiev finds itself in. Russia remains a security threat as the frozen conflict in the Donbass persists; yet the US appears to be pulling support, most notably by lifting sanctions concerning Nord Stream 2. China, a major trading partner and vital vaccine supplier, is offering a hand to Ukraine. But at what cost?  

Kiev’s Political Reset

In 2021, Zelensky launched a political reset intended to improve his waning reputation following controversial decisions to sack Prosecutor General Ruslan Riaboshapka and to reshuffle the government. The President’s anti-oligarch campaign thus far appears genuine, albeit somewhat rushed and implemented through mostly informal channels. Taking on pro-Russian oligarch Viktor Medvedchuk by charging him with treason represented a major step towards decreasing Russian influence and fighting corruption. Similarly, removing the powerful interior minister, passing a new anti-oligarch bill, increasing oversight in the defence sphere, and reforming the judiciary were watershed moments for Kiev’s efforts to meet criteria for Western support. 

But on the battlefield, there has been little rest. Despite progress on the release of political prisoners, the conflict in the Donbass remains frozen. Russian troop build-up along the border earlier this year demonstrated the stalemate’s fragility. Furthermore, the Kremlin recently outlined with renewed passion its belief that Ukraine should not be a separate state in a 5,000 word essay written by President Vladimir Putin. It is unsurprising, then, that Ukraine has placed all its eggs in the US basket.

Biden: Friend or Foe? 

Kiev expected transatlantic cooperation to flourish following Joe Biden’s election; Biden led Ukraine policy during his time as Vice President and visited the country on six occasions. But initial optimism has given way to scepticism and disappointment. Despite growing concerns over Russian military build-up in the Black Sea, the US canceled the deployment of two warships to balance the situation, and neither Georgia nor Ukraine were invited to the 31st NATO summit. 

Most significantly, the US-German agreement to end sanctions and essentially allow Nord Stream 2 (NS2) to be completed has been met with widespread condemnation in Ukraine. While promises have been made for future investments in Ukraine’s energy sector, Kiev views the decision as indifferent to Ukrainian security while underestimating the coercive power Nord Stream 2 gives Russia. Ukraine stands to lose between $2 billion and $3 billion in annual revenues from transit fees. This facilitates Russia’s narrative that the West will leave Ukraine to fend for itself, which could affect Ukrainians’ public perceptions of it. 

A growing concern is that the link between reform and support appeared to be breaking—while Kiev was making progress, Western support seemed to be eroding. This was somewhat addressed at the meeting between Biden and Zelensky at the end of August. Zelensky managed to secure around 60 million dollars worth of military aid for Ukraine, conditional on further reforms. Also, the US offered vaccines to Kiev, which would make it more difficult for Ukraine to continue its current path towards closer ties with China, but concrete results from this pledge by Biden are yet to be seen. Military aid is similarly not going to be enough to make up for the financial losses that Ukraine is likely to incur by the new natural gas deal signed by Russia and Hungary, which again will have deliveries bypass Ukrainian territory. 

China: The Knight in Shining Armour? 

Chinese interest in Ukraine became apparent in 2018 with the establishment of the “Belt and Road” Trade and Investment Promotion Center in Kiev, setting the stage for deepened economic ties between the two states. China has become Ukraine’s single largest import partner, bypassing Russia, albeit relations are tilted in China’s favour. More recently, Chinese Commerce Minister Wang Wentao and Minister of Infrastructure of Ukraine Oleksandr Kubrakov signed an agreement on Chinese investment in Ukraine’s infrastructure, focusing on road, bridge, and rail transit projects. This may provide an economic boost for Ukraine, given the losses it is likely to incur by NS2. However, the example of Montenegro amassing enormous  debt over Chinese-sponsored infrastructure projects should serve as a point of caution. 

Beijing has increasingly positioned itself as a strategic partner despite incurring losses along the way. The fiasco over the sale of Motor Sich, a local aircraft engine manufacturer, to the Chinese Skyrizon, a company blacklisted by the US, showed where Ukrainian priorities may lie. Ukraine was quick to buckle under US pressure, halting the deal and nationalising the company instead. It appears China remains open to cooperation, but is eager to use soft power to strengthen ties. Kiev struggled in securing vaccines for its large population, given a lack of access to Western supplies and its refusal to import Sputnik. Beijing offered support, sending over 1.9 million doses of Sinovac. In return, Ukraine removed its signature from an international statement calling for access to Xinjiang over human rights concerns. Beijing expects a tit for tat, which could alter Ukraine’s Western trajectory. 


Ukraine has found itself at the center of great power politics. Russia is unlikely to give up or compromise on its claim over the state during Putin’s lifetime and will continue to push the boundaries of international law in that regard. The US, traditionally a key ally in Ukraine’s path to Westernization, seems preoccupied with other interests. China’s goal to gain influence in Europe means luring Kiev in with investment opportunities, while expecting political favours in return. If conditions remain the same, it could cost the Eastern European state its integrity. Ultimately, Ukraine finds itself in a unique position. As it is a point of great interest to the world’s super powers, there are opportunities for a strengthened political presence for the state. In order to achieve this, however, Ukraine would need to adopt more strategic approaches to the parties at play, rather than acting as a mere pawn in their game. 

Categories: Europe, Security

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