Foreign policy and defense
Ukraine is a nation in Eastern Europe. Its capital city is Kiev. Ukraine’s foreign policy since independence in 1991 has fluctuated between close relations with neighboring Russia and heavily dependent on financial and political support from the Western powers. Following a pro-Western popular uprising and Russia’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula in 2014, relations with Russia have been marked by hostility and proximity to the West has become something of a lifeline.
For many decades, strong forces in Ukraine had wanted to make the country less dependent on Russia. Immediately after independence, the country’s leaders began trying to develop good relations to the west.
- Countryaah: Overview of business holidays and various national observances in Ukraine for years of 2020, 2021, 2022, 2023, 2024 and 2025.
Already in 1994, Ukraine initiated cooperation with both the EU and the western defense alliance NATO. But interest from the Western powers cooled off because of the Ukrainian leaders’ unwillingness, or inability, to cope with corruption, gun violence and the influence of organized crime in politics. A murder in 2000, on the regime-critical journalist Georgij Gongadze, and irregularities in the 2004 and 2010 elections contributed to criticism of Ukraine in the West.
After the orange revolution in 2004, EU and NATO membership became the main target, but since Viktor Yanukovych won the presidential election in 2010, interest was again directed towards Russia. Ukraine was increasingly isolated from the outside world and was almost granted international pariah status, severely criticized for undemocratic development and on some occasions boycotted by European leaders and threatened by the US with financial sanctions.
But Yanukovych, after all, continued the negotiations with the EU that his predecessors had begun on an association agreement, including, among other things, free trade. Negotiations were clear in 2011. But the EU pushed the signing of the future due to domestic political problems in Ukraine and doubts as to whether the country lived up to the requirements of a rule of law. However, when the EU in 2013 was willing to sign, the Ukrainian government jumped off after harsh pressure from Russia, which threatened to punish the country with reduced trade. The EU condemned the Russian intervention and a significant Ukrainian opinion demanded the resignation of the government and the president for “stealing the Ukrainians’ dream of being incorporated in Europe”.
The upset reactions, especially in western Ukraine, to the government’s break with the EU triggered major demonstrations that in February 2014 led to the western friendly opposition taking power. This, in turn, angered the Russian-dominated Crimea, which was exploited by Russia, which in practice occupied the peninsula and formally soon also annexed it following a coup d’etat which was not recognized by Ukraine or the outside world. This was quickly followed by a revolt among Russian-speaking people in eastern Ukraine, where armed separatists received military support from Russia, which also drew large troops along the border (see also Modern History).
The crisis was the worst in Europe since the end of the war. Not since World War II had a European state conquered territory from another country by force. The new Ukrainian government hastened to join the EU by joining the Association Agreement.
The intervention in Crimea meant that Russia unilaterally broke two settlements. One was the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, according to which three nuclear powers – Russia, the United States and the United Kingdom – guaranteed Ukraine’s territorial cohesion in connection with the abandonment of Soviet-era nuclear weapons. The second was a 1997 friendship agreement under which Russia and Ukraine recognized each other’s borders, in conjunction with Russia’s right to lease part of the former Soviet naval base in Sevastopol in Crimea for 2017 (during Yanukovych extended to 2042).
While Russian President Putin denies that the country has soldiers in Ukraine, examinations of, among others, the Russian national organization Gruz 200 (Freight 200; officially a code for transporting fallen soldiers) show that at least 167 regular Russian soldiers were killed in Ukraine until the summer of 2016 and that 187 “missing” and that more than 1,000 Russian mercenaries were killed or missing. The Russian Soldiers’ Mothers Organization estimated that up to 3,500 had been killed in combat. Soldiers’ activities on social networks have also shown that they were in the combat zone in Ukraine. Similarly, observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) have reported on Russian soldiers. The comments from the Russian government are that the soldiers have volunteered in Ukraine.
From the Russian horizon, Ukraine’s political swing towards the West has been perceived as a threat to the country’s own security. “Ukraine” means “borderland”; a name that the area gained through its position for many hundreds of years as a kind of buffer between Russia and western Europe. When the Baltic former Soviet states and the former Soviet allied countries in eastern Europe became members of the EU and NATO and formed close ties with the US, the Russian leadership felt surrounded by potential enemies. Ukraine’s cooperation agreement with the EU, which came into force in 2017, has also emerged as a threat to a significant proportion of Russian foreign trade.
In early 2017, Ukraine pulled Russia before the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague on charges of Russian support for terrorism by holding separatists to the east with money, weapons and soldiers. Mutual sanctions have been introduced between Ukraine and Russia, aimed at individuals as well as against companies and organizations.
Conflict around Russian gas
A recurring source of conflict has been the conditions for Russian gas supplies to and through Ukraine (a major main line through the country supplies many countries in Europe with Russian natural gas). In Ukraine, the gas is of vital interest to the important mining and metal industry. The dispute over gas prices has to some extent been political. Russian dissatisfaction with the strong Western-oriented leaders who took office after the 2004 orange revolution contributed to a major quarrel over the price of natural gas. Moscow announced an increase in the heavily subsidized price, which Kiev refused to agree to. As a result, the Russian gas company Gazprom in early 2006 ceased gas supply to Ukraine – leaving much of central and southern Europe also without gas, including EU countries paying full price. After a few days a compromise was reached. At the beginning of 2009 it was time again; Several countries in southeastern Europe were hit by gas shortages for a couple of weeks, in the middle of the cold winter. After many trips, a new price agreement was concluded between Ukraine and Russia.
The gas agreement of 2009 was disputed and considered unfavorable to Ukraine. This led to the imprisonment of then Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who was the signatory to the agreement with Russia. Although signals about cheaper gas prices came in connection with the 2010 Sevastopol agreement, the conflict continued to rage. Due to a link with global energy prices, the Ukrainians had to pay more for natural gas than many other countries. In early 2013, Ukraine was ordered to pay $ 7 billion for unused gas the year before, as the agreement said the country would have to pay for a certain amount of natural gas, no matter how much it was consumed.
After the power shift in Ukraine in 2014 and the conflict over Crimea, Russia used the gas again as a weapon and demanded sharp price increases under threat of completely strangled supplies. The conflict continued despite attempts by the EU to mediate. Ukraine turned to other gas producers and stopped buying Russian gas at the end of 2015.
Disputes over the gas agreements continued to be settled in arbitration. Finally, in the new year 2019/2020, a new agreement was signed between Ukraine and Russia on transit gas to Europe, while clearing financial obligations between the gas companies that were settled in arbitration. Russia and Germany’s joint project Nord Stream with gas pipelines through the Baltic Sea worries Ukraine, as the pipelines that enable Russian exports on other roads lead to Ukraine losing transit fees. The new agreement confirms that the gas volumes transported will be more than halved over a five-year period.
EU and NATO
While Russia wants Ukraine as a buffer against NATO, it is precisely this that lies between two strong military forces what Ukraine has feared. Ukraine was the first country within the post-Soviet organization US (1994) to join the NATO Partnership for Peace (PFF). In 2002, Ukraine’s leadership began to speak openly about NATO membership, and since Viktor Yushchenko became president in 2005, a dialogue began on possible future membership. However, the following domestic political turmoil in Ukraine contributed to NATO’s decision in 2008 not to proceed with an action plan for full Ukrainian membership. When Yanukovych took office as president in 2010, Ukraine put the plans for NATO membership on the shelf.
After the 2014 power shift, Ukraine renewed its ambition to become a NATO member and began close cooperation with the alliance, with joint military exercises and financial support for, among other things, modernization of communication systems and logistics, and assistance in responding to so-called cyber warfare, hostile attacks on computer systems. US and Canadian military personnel participate in training of Ukrainian soldiers.
In 2014, the Ukrainian parliament demolished the country’s official position as non-alliance and President Petro Poroshenko promised the same year a future referendum on applying for membership in NATO. The European Parliament acknowledged Ukraine’s right to apply for membership in the European Union in 2014, but in 2016, EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said that Ukraine could hardly be a member of the EU or NATO for at least 20-25 years.
Donald Trump’s resignation as President of the United States in 2017 raised concerns in Ukraine because of his outspoken skepticism toward NATO and hints that the United States would not obviously come to the rescue of the Eastern European countries in a crisis. His warm tone towards Russian President Vladimir Putin fueled the concern that Ukraine should be left to its fate, but Trump has since shown greater interest in Eastern Europe (not least Poland, as an attractive buyer of US energy exports).
Germany and France have acted as mediators between Ukraine, Russia and the pro-Russian separatists in an attempt to reach a ceasefire. The task of an international observer force compiled by the OSCE is to ensure that the decisions taken are respected. Belarus is the host country for the business. The latest ceasefire agreement in February 2015 was signed in Minsk in February 2015 and is called Minsk II. Since Volodymyr Zelenskyj became president, a dialogue with Russia has been opened. Prison exchanges have taken place, but a political solution to the Russian-backed enclaves in eastern Ukraine is waiting, while Russia is strengthening its grip on the Crimean peninsula, including through a bridge construction and a new rail link.
Ukraine’s membership of the CIS can be said to be on ice. The country has never formally adopted the organization’s statutes.
Together with Georgia, Azerbaijan and Moldova, Ukraine is part of an organization called Guam, which, however, maintains a relatively hidden existence. Guam’s main purpose is to develop new oil and gas transport routes outside Russian territory. The cooperation has so far not yielded any concrete results.
Despite major cuts over a number of years, Ukraine has one of Europe’s largest defense forces. In 2013, the government decided that the former military service army would be replaced by a professional army, but this decision was torn down when the conflict in the east broke out the following year. In the summer of 2014, the government announced that general military duty would be reintroduced.
The state budget for 2015 included appropriations for a defense force of 230,000 men. In addition, there were semi-military forces such as border protection with about 53,000 employees and a newly formed National Guard, the army’s main reserve force, of 60,000 men. Since 2016, women have the right to join combatants – in 2019, 26,000 were in active service.
In 2018, Ukraine established by law that defense spending must amount to at least five percent of GDP and orders for new equipment from the defense industry were announced. In addition, the president promised salary increases to the soldiers.
The Ukrainian defense was poorly prepared for the war that broke out in the east of 2014 and had to rely to some extent on voluntary forces. Most of these were later incorporated into the official defense forces. Some NGOs received bad reputation for attracting right-wing nationalists, including foreigners. The Azov Battalion, now the Azov Regiment, had its roots among Kharkiv football hooligans. They were often accused of torture and other war crimes.
The right-wing extremist so-called Right Sector, which emerged during the 2013–2014 revolution, also participates in the armed struggle against the separatists in the east and has not been allowed to join the army.
Among the separatists in the Donbas region in the east are a large number of official and voluntary military forces supported by an unknown number of Russian soldiers.
Ukraine has acceded to the international treaty to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons, and in 1996 the entire Ukrainian nuclear weapons arena was decommissioned. With the support of, among others, the US and Russia, the country has also disposed of its entire stock of high-enriched uranium.
FACTS – DEFENSE
Army: 145,000 men (2017)
The air Force: 45,000 men (2017)
The fleet: 6,000 men (2017)
Military expenditure’s share of GDP: 3.4 percent (2017)
Military spending’s share of the state budget: 7.8 percent (2017)