Intervention – 'Eastern partners or chaotic neighbors? The contested geopolitics and geoeconomics of integrating Ukraine and Moldova'

by Austin Crane, University of Washington-Seattle
, and Adam Levy, University of Colorado-Boulder


Since 2004, the European Union’s Neighbourhood Policy (ENP) instrument has governed external relations with 28 surrounding countries from Morocco to Belarus, offering the neighbours selective forms of integration and assistance outside of membership prospects. In November 2013 the EU held a now-infamous summit in Vilnius, Lithuania for its Eastern Partnership (EaP)–a club founded within the ENP in 2009 to link those six former Soviet states adjoining the EU. This summit sought to transform bilateral economic and political relations between the EU and Eastern Partners through showcasing and signing a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (DCFTA) linked to new Association Agreements (AA) and Visa Liberalization plans. This otherwise drab event was effectively derailed at the last minute when the largest partner, Ukraine, said it would not join the DCFTA, citing too much pressure from Russia and too little aid from the EU.

Ukraine has subsequently experienced an unprecedented crisis both domestically and diplomatically. Street protests that began in Kiev soon after Vilnius have intensified and diffused countrywide since December, culminating in an outbreak of state violence on February 18th-20th that resulted in nearly 100 deaths and numerous injuries to citizens and police. A tenuous caretaker government has assembled in the wake of Ukrainian President Yanukovych’s impeachment and subsequent disappearance on February 22nd. New elections are set for May 25th, but there are huge challenges at present to keep the Ukrainian economy afloat and quell the threat of territorial division.

Though the ENP has aimed to “prevent the emergence of new dividing lines” through promoting security and stability over the past decade, divisions now abound in the neighbourhood more than ever. In addressing recent developments in Ukraine and Moldova, we focus on the dialectical and discursive tensions between the geopolitical, or national security and statecraft, elements, and geoeconomic imaginations, with corresponding trade and labour market controls. We argue the present contestations are not simply about geopolitical orientation, but about an always-incomplete Europeanization and the production of its Eurasian other; not just about geoeconomic integration, but about the shifting, yet persistent, geographies of uneven development.

Formal Visions: Durable Tropes of Civilization and Barbarism

We begin by charting formal Russian and ‘EUropean’ geopolitical and geoeconomic aspirations for Ukraine and Moldova as borderlands. These visions remain incompatible because they imagine separate place-making projects of integration within competing civilizational blocs. For Mr. Putin, the problem appears as how to implement his personal project of regional power projection, where free-trade agreements are the chosen vehicles for reconstituting Russian power across the former Soviet Union. This vision is incompatible with the EU’s goals for trade integration through the DCFTA precisely because the EU wants to negotiate selectively with cooperative neighbours rather than with a larger trade bloc that includes Belarus and Kazakhstan– countries deemed too close to Putin to merit EU aid and trade integration.

Hackneyed notions of Ukraine’s geographic position between worlds east and west continue to anchor media coverage, allowing for the present debacle to be repeatedly framed as a “civilizational choice” for Ukraine. Putin’s geostrategic vision entails transforming former-Soviet space from a “periphery of Europe and Asia” into an “independent centre of global development”. His recent State of the Nation address imagines a world made of “large geopolitical units” in which Ukraine and Russia share a common civilization. Like the EU’s civilizational spatial imaginary, Putin envisions a “project for the preservation of the identity of peoples, of historical Eurasian space in the new century and a new world”. Much like Brussels’ plans for the ENP, Moscow’s “absolute priority” is the “technical integration of the neighbours”.

Compared to Russia’s, the EU’s approach is less about the preservation of old identities than the construction of new ties. Couched in a language of rule-of-law, the EU promotes democratic values as an existential antidote to illiberal oligarchies often linked to Russia. The long-extant trope of civilization versus barbarism is still reflected in comments like British Prime Minister Cameron’s claim that “[Yanukovych] is from a different civilization, he is not a partner for Europe“. Likewise, the EU Commission President responded to Russian interference in Eastern Partner countries by claiming that “the times for limited sovereignty are over in Europe”. The Russian Foreign Minister has rebuffed complaints about Russian meddling by charging that Brussels is “actually encouraging such actions“, and asking “what does incitement of increasingly violent street protests have to do with promoting democracy?“.

Ukraine thus confounds geo-strategic visions of both the EU’s EaP and Russia’s proposed Eurasian Customs Union, calling attention to how geopolitical and geoeconomic axes of differentiation are produced. Indeed, the US Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs’ craftily leaked “fuck the EU” comment, made when discussing US interests in influencing the new Ukrainian leadership, complicates the notion of a monolithic “West” as functioning civilizational entity. US Secretary of State Kerry’s recent emphasis on territorial integrity similarly reflects US dissatisfaction with the EU’s handling of events in Ukraine.

Once the poster-child of the EaP, the jailing of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko (now freed and possibly running for president) and the drama since Vilnius have tested the EU-Ukraine relationship. Bordering four EU member states with a population of 46 million, ENP relations with Ukraine have centred upon ensuring the country’s stability and managing cross-border flows in line with EU security and economy considerations. For EU-based capitalists, Ukraine represents by far the largest market in the EaP, with a larger population than the other five Eastern Partners combined. On the other hand, without Ukraine, Russia’s Customs Union is perhaps too geographically far-flung to integrate, and as conventional geopolitical wisdom claims: “without Ukraine, Russia ceases to be an empire”.

For the governments and citizens in Ukraine and Moldova, the problem appears as how to negotiate these powerful, externally-led and internally-divisive approaches to market integration and geopolitical orientation. The EuroMaidan demonstrations in Kiev have been consistently framed in Western media as primarily pro-EU in nature, and by the EU itself as proof of the power of its “civilizing mission”. However, this persistent narrative grossly oversimplifies what has taken shape to be a popular, anti-government revolt, and not necessarily a pro-Western, ethno-linguistic, or intra-nationalist one. The protests are a messy embodiment of resentment at the country’s leadership for self-interested and mafia-riddled corruption, expressing frustration with prolonged economic stagnation, the country’s subservience to Russia, and, not least, the violent and anti-democratic repression of the protests themselves.

Seen in more critical terms than the above traditional/hegemonic geographic interpretations, leftists have argued that the Black Sea shores have given rise to the “Siamese twins of civilization and barbarism”, or the urbane Europeans and their unintelligible others (Ascherson 1995). And since to be civilized is to be modern – in geo-historical imaginations and in present framings – the “people without history” (Wolf 2010) and those offering modernity have long come together in the Black Sea littoral and Moldo-Ukrainian borderlands. Critical, postcolonial, and feminist geopolitical scholarship has called for “situating knowledge” (Hyndman 2004) in contrast to present-day framings of chaotic and/or primitive outsiders. Such Orientalist notions of civilization and Europeanization (Kuus 2004) harken back to durable colonialist, modernizing, and civilizational notions of ordering inscribed by conventional powers (O’Loughlin 1999) and resonate with historical geographic explanations of this region as a geopolitical “pivot” (Mackinder 1904). These uncritical geographical imaginations remain powerfully present in the EU’s “neighbourhood” today.

The interaction between contemporary geoeconomic and geopolitical visions (Sparke 2007) of this space/zone can help us understand how the geography of Europe is worked out, technically and materially, in the face of repeated crises and conflicts. In the reconfiguration of these spaces, geoeconomic notions of modernization and progress undergird geopolitical discourses of civilization and barbarism. This is evident in how Ukraine’s instability and uncertain future is cast as a security threat to the EU, while also encapsulating the failure of the paternalistic goals for Europeanization as neoliberal incorporation through the ENP. In this way, we now move to contextualize and denaturalize recent events in Ukraine and contrast them with Moldova’s rather more peaceful experience.

Neighbourhood Geopolitics and Geoeconomics

The troubles surrounding Vilnius have exposed the wobbling legs undergirding the EU’s Eastern Partnership. This asymmetric framework seeks to reform markets and to regulate mobility without the offer of full EU membership. Its tools (e.g. AAs, DCFTA, Visa Liberalization) represent a form of “buffer-zone geopolitics” (Van Houtum 2010) that purport to incorporate neighbours through privileging security, stability, and economy. In short, the EaP aims to liberate particular forms of labour and capital.

EaP communications express the goal of guiding a transformation in the Eastern Partners towards a European future. For example, the infamously unsigned AA with Ukraine commits to promoting European-ness according to “common” histories and values, especially given “the importance Ukraine attaches to its European identity”. Such imagined geographies of socio-spatial difference and the ceaseless pursuit of modernization according to European values are central to present contestations in Ukraine. They partly explain why certain Ukrainians bristle at being lumped with other (read: non-white, Muslim) outsiders and resent being denied their proper place in ‘EUrope’, as imagined space, where common markets are held to trump arbitrary authority and endemic corruption. Ukrainian protests embody exhaustion with a political-economic landscape portrayed by EuroMaidan activists as “a social hell only Dante could live up to describing” where accumulation by dispossession through “raidership” is too common. The popular resistance (i.e. street battles) in Ukraine speaks to the EU’s appeal based on the rule of law–but it also reflects Ukrainians’ uneven incorporation into competing global orders.

Ukraine’s economy is bad and forecast to get even worse. Considering the terms offered by the EU and the country’s economic integration with Russia, analysts argued that Yanukovych tried to buy time and secure economic guarantees for himself and the country by playing to both of his neighboring alliances–especially with Ukrainian elections in the near future. Yanukovych’s claim that Ukraine needed more from the EU – while not discounting the self-serving mismanagement of his regime – nevertheless reflected Ukraine’s high unemployment (especially amongst youth), diminishing financial reserves, and limited economic integration outside of Russia–all problems that Western-backed austerity prescriptions are unlikely to cure. In the weeks after Vilnius, Ukrainian President Yanukovych went to Moscow for a “man to man chat” with Putin. This resulted in Russia offering $15 billion in aid, in contrast to the EU’s offer then of 600 million Euros. However, after dispersing only $3 billion, future Russian assistance is uncertain in light of recent events.

Since Yanukovych’s flight, EU, US and IMF technocrats have scrambled to “stabilize the economic situation” in Ukraine. Ukraine needs $35 billion in aid to stay afloat over the next two years, with $12b of a total $73b in debt scheduled for repayment this year, the bulk of which will likely only be administered conditionally as loans from the IMF and from US and EU members. US and EU leaders have wasted no time encouraging Ukraine to begin negotiations with the IMF, and if this sounds reminiscent of “shock therapy”, it’s because the same doctors are rushing in “to take immediate steps to help support Ukraine economically and implement the reforms necessary to restore Ukraine’s political and economic health”. Indeed, career triage expert Anders Aslund still recommends a painful cocktail of austerity by “cut[ting] budget deficits, […] decreasing public expenditures and […] abolish[ing] harmful enterprise subsidies”, most significantly calling out gas subsidies which many Ukrainians are dependent upon. Reflecting the IMF’s preference for amnesia rather than anesthesia, the present moment shows how integration through conditionality-driven neoliberal transformation seeks a spatial resolution to ongoing crises.

It is important to recognize that different kinds of conditional EU and Russian aid are only one part of the equation. Ukraine’s dire predicament is embroiled within the geopolitics of oil, as Russia is Ukraine’s primary supplier of gas and regularly employs pipelines for political aims. This situation has worsened since the completion of the Nord Stream pipeline between Germany and Russia in late 2011, which bypasses Ukraine, and means Germany will now be insulated but not isolated from Ukraine-Russia pipeline disputes. For Ukrainians seeking to approximate EU economic and legal standards, the ironic reality is that EUropean integration poses a direct challenge to Ukrainian industry (with significant exports to Russia) by placing it in competition with German producers. Ukraine’s turn towards Europe means an uncertain future for Ukrainian goods, a managed (im)mobility of potential Ukrainian migrants to the EU, and a likely contentious reshuffling of flows to Russian markets.

But what happened outside Ukraine, and what does the post-Vilnius landscape mean for other EaP countries? The fallout may have advantages for some neighbors, like Moldova and Georgia, who are pursuing tighter links with the EU rather than reinforcing old ones with Russia. For Moldova, Vilnius marked the first real success on closer EU relations when it initialed and made plans to sign a new AA this summer. Moldova has emerged as model for partial, peaceful European integration, offering the last and best potential token of success for the EaP. As evidence of its fast-track approach, the EU will make Moldova the first non-member state and only member of the EaP to achieve visa-free travel for its citizens in May/June 2014.

According to the pro-EU Moldovan Prime Minister, events in Kiev after the Vilnius summit offer important “lessons”, after initialing and signing the AA: “hesitations” and “doubts” are unaffordable and Moldova must accelerate reforms. With domestic elections scheduled between November 2014 and February 2015, the tenuous ruling coalition is pushing hard to adopt EU dictates laid out in the AA, and to spend aid designed, at least partially, to neutralize what it unapologetically sees as further Russian meddling. Elections will therefore be a referendum on European integration. Polls show a divided electorate split between the DCFTA and Customs Union, with over 20% of respondents remaining unsure how they would vote tomorrow. Consequently, if the opposition Communists win the next election, progress on EU targets could derail and Moldova might simply enter Russia’s Customs Union, after all (Botan 2013). In this light, the EU’s new PR campaign shows what it has learned from Ukraine in its approach to Moldova. This campaign seeks to counter Russian “disinformation” by promoting “the engagement of public diplomacy experts”, and anticipates the “constant flow of high-level EU officials” to enhance preparedness “in expectation of further external and internal threats or actions […] such as trade embargoes, restrictions against migrant workers, increased tension in protracted conflict”. In the wake of Ukrainian uncertainty, it is reasonable to think that a pro-West Kiev makes work easier for pro-European Chisinau.

Why does Moldova matter in this equation if it only offers a market of 500 million EU citizens another 3.5 million consumers, compared to Ukraine’s 46 million? The answer lies in the fact that the Moldovan case is about geopolitical and national-territorial questions as much as good governance. As the Moldovan President claimed before Vilnius, Russia’s “strong arm” tactics in trying to do “the impossible” and “recreate the [former Soviet] Union” have not hampered Moldova’s “European spirit”. Russian bans on Moldovan wine offer evidence of such meddling. Moldova’s large diaspora in both the EU and Russia remits home over a third of the country’s GDP so visa and seasonal worker policies are also effective cudgels. In 2005, two thirds of these remittances came from Europe and a third from Russia, but by 2014 the balanced had flipped, with almost 70% of the cash coming from Russia. This change means that fresh Russian controls for 100,000 Moldovan labour migrants rival EU visa liberalization (which is limited to travel only) as a development tool for regulating Moldovan growth. Moscow has already amended immigration laws to prevent 21,500 Moldovans from entering without permits, and Chisinau fears another 288,000 citizens risk losing labour market access because they will no longer be able to gain visas. Thus, the conflicts in Moldova and Ukraine between the expansive EU logic and the resurgent Russian one remain about how to order eastern European spaces and subjects.


In Ukraine and Moldova we can see how the “construction and projection of Europeanization” is a contested spatial process (Clark and Jones 2008: 301). These contests afford the opportunity to see how the world is imagined and divided, and how aid, security, and economic (dis)integration take place. Like Russia, the EU aims to stabilize its neighbourhood technically and territorially–visa agreements, AAs, and DCFTAs are the levers by which security and capital accumulation are manipulated. We have discussed a few of the assumptions and practices behind such boundary-making processes of “the new European architecture of capitalist transitions” (Smith 2002: 651) in order to attend to how they govern possibilities for people’s lives.

As EUrope is rescaled in Moldova and Ukraine, so are the measures for managing mobility and maintaining the EU’s “gated community” (Van Houtum and Pijpers 2007). It is telling that the EU continued to work together with Ukraine on externalizing migration and border management practices in the weeks after Vilnius. In Moldova, the government has approved the transposition of 83 acts from the EU in general including the wholesale transformation of border guards into “frontier police” and a separate visa liberalization regime. These technocratic transfers show that a few priorities have stayed the same in the neighbourhood. Nonetheless, tensions are expected to further rise as Putin’s attention turns from hosting the Sochi Olympics to Ukraine. EU diplomats fear “escalation in Ukraine”, which “raises questions on migration–people who might want to come and take shelter in the EU. As responsible neighbours, we have to prepare for such a possibility”. This neighborhood cooperation on managing EU borders proceeds seemingly outside of wider political turmoil according to a now-familiar neoliberal dialectic of market-led inclusion and biopolitical exclusion. We argue, however, that this bordering work represents a significant political dimension to the ENP’s carrot and stick processes of neighbourhood integration, and offers valuable insight into the quality of the EU’s “civilizational” values.

The stubborn persistence of uneven development in this region coalesces in the governance of trans-boundary flows of capital and workers, as well as the regulation of markets according to both capitalist and national-territorial logics. In the radical/critical tradition, our concern with these logics of power has been not only to focus on discursive/conceptual geopolitical imaginaries and their current formulations, but also to further interrogate political and economic sources of unevenness (Mercille 2008). The current negotiations between EU, Russia, and Eastern Partners remain about how people and places are repositioned within global flows and territorial regions.

This is the milieu in which we have sought to intervene with a critique of the capitalist expansionist and securitarian premises manifest in the EU’s decade old project of neighbourhood “bordering, ordering, and othering” (Van Houtum 2010). Since key elements of this morass will come to a head in 2014 and 2015 with general elections in Ukraine and Moldova and a spring 2015 follow-up EaP summit in Riga, we have drawn attention here to the geopolitics and geoeconomics undergirding why these relations remain so contentious. As geographers we have the opportunity to trace how these uneven spatial arrangements are constructed and contested, to critically, yet hopefully, attend to how opportunities and limits for people’s lives are managed, reconfigured, and resisted.


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Featured image by Alexandra (Nessa) Gnatoush from

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  1. Peter Gratton

    Reblogged this on PHILOSOPHY IN A TIME OF ERROR and commented:
    Intelligent analysis on the Ukraine you won’t find in the hyperventilating American press:
    Ukraine thus confounds geo-strategic visions of both the EU’s EaP and Russia’s proposed Eurasian Customs Union, calling attention to how geopolitical and geoeconomic axes of differentiation are produced. Indeed, the US Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs’ craftily leaked “fuck the EU” comment, made when discussing US interests in influencing the new Ukrainian leadership, complicates the notion of a monolithic “West” as functioning civilizational entity. US Secretary of State Kerry’s recent emphasis on territorial integrity similarly reflects US dissatisfaction with the EU’s handling of events in Ukraine.