This study, perfomed by Yurii Poita, expert of NGRN, attempts to reveal the specifics of political, economic, and defence relations between Ukraine and China within the framework of the BRI in terms of opportunities and risks for Ukraine. The article argues that, despite a number of opportunities, the BRI will not bring economic or technological development to Ukraine, nor will it bring security, including in the conflict with Russia. At the same time, the intensification of relations between Ukraine and China may create a number of geopolitical, technological, and informational challenges for Ukraine. In addition, there may be risks associated with the indirect impact of the BRI on democracy in Ukraine, some signs of which are already being observed.
The experience of Ukraine’s cooperation with China, as well as its participation in the BRI, has its own characteristics, and in many respects differs from the models of China’s interaction with other countries. Ukraine, unlike many post-Soviet republics, is characterized by a capacious market, developed industrial potential, access to the sea, and location in the region of Eastern Europe. This makes it attractive for China in terms of trade, exchange of technologies (especially in the field of mechanical engineering), purchase of raw materials and agricultural products, and creation of logistics routes for the delivery of Chinese goods to the EU (Goncharuk et al., 2016). Moreover, Ukraine is characterized by a developed defence industry, especially in the field of space, aircraft construction, shipbuilding, and missile technologies, which, in the context of the EU and US embargo on the supply of weapons to China, has made Kyiv an extremely valuable partner for Beijing (Gerasymchuk & Poita, 2018).
The second feature of Ukraine’s interaction with China is that, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, given its location in Central Europe, the country has for a long time adhered to a multi-vector and non-aligned policy, trying to be a “bridge” between West and East. This approach, obviously, has played out as a cruel joke for the government in Kyiv, since, not having joined the EU or NATO, Ukraine did not carry out the necessary political modernization or legal and economic reforms, and has remained a so-called “grey zone” of Russian influence (Horbulin, 2017). This aspect was probably also beneficial to China, which took advantage of the institutional and economic weakness of Ukraine to establish informal ties with the political elite and enter the Ukrainian market on preferential terms, purchasing military technologies cheaply and providing expensive and non-transparent loans under state guarantee in return (Samorukov & Umarov, 2020).
However, the situation changed after 2014, when, after the illegal annexation of Crimea and Russia’s armed aggression against Ukraine, Kyiv drastically revised the priorities of its domestic and foreign policy, declaring membership in the EU and NATO as its strategic goal (Horbulin, 2017). China, being Russia’s strategic partner, has formally distanced itself from the Russian-Ukrainian conflict. However, Beijing’s ambiguous position, as well as its negative vote on the resolutions related to Russian aggression in the UN General Assembly, was perceived in Kyiv as tacit agreement of China with the actions of Russia (Gerasymchuk & Poita, 2018). It is likely due to this and other reasons that, since 2013, the political dialogue at the highest level between Kyiv and Beijing has been practically frozen. From then until now, there has not been a single visit at the level of heads of state or government. However, this has not prevented the progressive increase in trade turnover between the countries. This fact confirms the possibility of separating politics from economics in bilateral relations between countries.
At the same time, the intensification of the United States’ strategic competition with China has created a number of tough questions for Kyiv: how to build its policy with China, which in the US and the EU is viewed as a systemic adversary, and on some issues even as a threat? How can Ukraine, which is trying to integrate into European structures with a priority on liberal-democratic values, react to violations of human rights in Xinjiang, or China’s actions in the waters of the East China and South China Seas? It is obvious that for Ukraine, which is trying to become part of the European and Euro-Atlantic communities, the strategy of keeping economics and politics separate in its interaction with China is becoming more and more difficult to implement. Moreover, since 2019, China has become the main trade partner for Ukraine, and likely has intentions to continue deepening economic cooperation, intentions which Ukraine likely shares.
The purpose of this article is to analyse the state of the Ukrainian-Chinese relations and the reasons why there are risks in the relationship for Ukrainian interests, and to provide an overview of the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats presented by Ukraine’s participation in the BRI in different spheres as well as in the national and geopolitical contexts. It also reflects on the implications of the BRI for democracy in Ukraine. The correctness of our assessment was confirmed by the reaction of China to the Russian invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022.
2 Political and Economic Relations Between Ukraine and China
Bilateral relations between Ukraine and China are based on a broad regulatory framework. Since 1991, a significant array of agreements have been signed in the field of political relations, trade, law, science, defence, space exploration, transport, education, culture, sports, health care, etc. (Golovko et al., 2021). Since 2011, the two countries have officially declared their relations strategic by signing a Joint Declaration on the Establishment and Development of Strategic Partnership Relations, and in 2013 the second set of documents was signed, according to which the parties pledged to deepen strategic partnership relations.
Only in 2017 did the Ukraine government sign agreements with China on the BRI, the so-called “Ukraine-China Action Plan for the implementation of the initiative to build an economic belt of the Great Silk Road and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road.” In 2020, the parties signed the Program of Bilateral Cooperation between Ukraine and China for the period until 2025 as part of the joint construction of the “Silk Road Economic Belt” and the “21st Century Maritime Silk Road.”
These agreements contributed to the progressive deepening of trade and economic relations. Trade turnover increased to US$10.6 billion in 2013; after the illegal annexation of Crimea by Russia and the occupation of part of the Ukrainian territories, the trade turnover between Ukraine and China fell to US$6.2 billion. However, the turnover gradually recovered and, in 2020 reached its maximum (US$15.4 billion), in which the share of Ukrainian exports was $7.1 billion (14.5% of total exports), as shown in Fig. 1 (Ukrstat, 2021).
Fig. 1 – Trade turnover between Ukraine and China, 2010–2020, (US$ billion)
Trade with China in 2020 amounted to 10.9% of GDP and 15.1% of the total foreign trade turnover of Ukraine, whereas 20 years ago, these shares were 1.9% and 2.3% respectively (Goriunov et al., 2021).
Military-technical cooperation was one of the most promising sectors of relations. Ukraine has become an important partner for China as a source of defence products and technologies for aircraft, spacecraft, and shipbuilding. For example, the first Chinese aircraft carrier, Liaoning, was originally purchased from Ukraine in 1998, then refined and put into service with the People’s Liberal Army (PLA) Navy. It became the basis for the further construction of China’s aircraft carrier fleet, and the first aircraft carrier built by the Chinese industry, “Shandong,” has a design similar to the Liaoning. Another area of cooperation was in the supply of gas turbine installations for the Chinese Navy, as well as amphibious assault ships, aircraft engines, etc. (Poita, 2021a). According to SIPRI (2021), the volume of Ukrainian exports to China is estimated at approximately US$ 80–90 million annually, although exact figures are unclear due to peculiarities of methodology.
However, economic relations have significant drawbacks. First, the quantitative and qualitative imbalance of trade should be noted. Since 2005, the balance has been negative, while, on average, Chinese exports were almost three times higher than Ukrainian, and in 2008 almost nine times. The exception was 2020, when Ukrainian exports were almost equal to Chinese ones. Bilateral trade is also unbalanced in its structure. Ukrainian exports are almost entirely raw materials (in 2020, iron ore was 35%, grain 25%, oil and fats 15%, ferrous metals 9%), while Chinese imports are predominantly high-tech (Goriunov et al., 2021; Ukrstat, 2021).
Second, the investment is far from the desired. Even though China is one of the largest investors in the world, the share of Chinese investments in the Ukrainian economy is negligible. According to the State Statistics Service of Ukraine, direct investment in the Ukrainian economy from China in 2015–2019 was only $127 million, bringing China’s share over this period to only 0.07% of all foreign investment in the country (Ukrstat, 2021).
Third, most of the promising economic initiatives have remained unfulfilled. For example, the Ukrainian-Chinese industrial parks built as part of the Action Plan did not bring any results (Samorukov & Umarov, 2020), let alone create jobs, or any innovation and industrial production. Ukraine’s efforts to be integrated into Chinese production chains ended in nothing. A series of negotiations on the establishment of a Chinese-Ukrainian aircraft plant in Odessa (Ukraine) did not bring about any positive outcomes. China, having received the required sample of weapons, as a rule, masters the technological cycle, copies the sample, and subsequently refuses the services of Ukraine. With significant production advantages and huge economic resources, China could squeeze Ukraine out of the global arms market (Poita, 2021a).
As a result, the economic participation of China in Ukraine remains weak. On the territory of Ukraine, with a few exceptions, there are no industrial Chinese companies. This suggests that China is not interested in creating production in Ukraine but is continuing to use Ukraine in order to access cheap raw materials and agricultural products, as well as a source of military technology. Most of the existing Chinese companies in Ukraine create little added value, few jobs, and no value to production chains. The largest Chinese assets were created by other companies and then bought or received as collateral (Goriunov et al., 2021).
Some Ukrainian politicians and experts believed that the signing of an Association agreement with the EU could breathe new life into Ukrainian-Chinese cooperation, allowing it to be taken from just trade to the level of joint production (Goncharuk et al., 2016; Venher, 2018). For instance, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba has stated, “We have an Association Agreement with the EU and a deep and comprehensive free trade zone … Therefore, the interests of Ukrainian business, EU business and Chinese business should converge not only in terms of logistics of goods from China to the EU, but in terms of production. To produce goods here, saturate the domestic market and also export to the EU.”
The geographical proximity of Ukraine to the EU, the availability of a fairly qualified and cheap labour force, and the liberalization of trade with the EU, in theory, should have facilitated a more active participation of Chinese business, which would help Ukraine create new jobs, produce products with high added value, and strengthen its economic security. However, these expectations did not come true. The share of Chinese investments in the Ukrainian economy did not increase, neither after the signing of the Association Agreement nor after joining the BRI. Most of the projects proposed within the BRI have remained on paper, and those implemented have not become elements of transport connectivity between China and Europe. As the late ambassador of Ukraine to China Sergii Kamyshev said in 2020, “The strategic partnership between Ukraine and the PRC remains largely declarative” (Gazeta Den’, 2020). By contrast, in 2007 he had outlined colossal plans to deepen relations in a number of industries, from aircraft construction to the creation of joint technology parks (Gazeta Den’, 2007).
3 Risks of Ukraine’s Cooperation with China
In addition to these aspects, which are generally quite common for international cooperation, China has recently brought a number of risks and even threats to Ukraine. One of these concerns an attempt in 2016 by the Chinese company Beijing Skyrizon Aviation Industry Investment to acquire the Ukrainian company Motor Sich, which is one of the key defence enterprises of Ukraine in the field of aircraft engine building (Hurska, 2021). In 2017, the Security Service of Ukraine stopped the deal by opening a criminal case under the article “sabotage and destruction of the enterprise.” The situation remained unresolved until the US Department of Commerce added Skyrizon to the Military End User list due to ties to China and that country’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA). According to Washington, “Skyrizon is actively seeking to acquire intellectual property and technology to advance key military capabilities that threaten US national security, including the capability to develop, produce, or maintain military items, such as aircraft engines, satellites, and cruise missiles” (US Embassy in Ukraine, 2021).
According to the Kyiv-based Center for Army, Conversion and Disarmament Studies (CACDS), the cooperation of Motor Sich with Skyrizon creates both internal and external threats to Ukraine. For example, if China gains control over the enterprise, Ukraine’s capabilities in the development of aircraft and missile programmes in the interests of the Armed Forces of Ukraine and for export would be significantly reduced. Experts have also mentioned the possibility of critical technology being laundered to Russia via Chinese companies, particularly in connection with the implementation of joint Chinese-Russian programmes in the helicopter industry. Finally, Ukraine could see the development of military-political, military-technical, and military cooperation with NATO partners threatened. This includes a number of promising projects in the fields of aviation, navy ships, air defence, and missile defence—all of which are now urgently needed to build an effective defence system in the context of the military conflict with Russia (CACDS, 2021). The sensitivity of the situation was also confirmed when US National Security Advisor John Bolton visited Kyiv in 2019 to prevent the Chinese from acquiring Motor Sich. Based on these and other concerns, the Ukrainian government began the process of the nationalization of Motor Sich, drawing criticism from Beijing which has demanded US $4.5 billion in compensation “for alleged unfair treatment of Chinese investors by Ukraine” (Global ). It is obvious that the Chinese leadership, when trying to gain access to the enterprise, clearly understood what threats this would present for Ukraine, but the desire to obtain technology for the PLA was more important than the consequences for Ukraine.
In addition, a number of other developments in 2021 demonstrated China’s attempts to influence Ukraine. One of the most striking of these was Ukraine’s withdrawal of its signature from a joint UN statement condemning human rights violations in Xinjiang.
According to several media reports, Kyiv’s withdrawal was the result of Chinese pressure and threat to cancel the previously planned delivery of 500,000 doses of the COVID-19 SinoVac vaccine (AP News, 2021). This fact not only demonstrates that China is using vaccine diplomacy for political purposes but was also attempting to influence Ukraine’s value priorities, forcing it to abandon its position on human rights, drawing criticism in the political and expert circles of Ukraine (Poita, 2021c). A number of subsequent developments made the situation more acute and uncertain: Ukraine’s statement on the signing of a deal with China on deepening partnership in the construction of infrastructure and obtaining a soft loan; and statements by some Ukrainian politicians about their readiness to deepen relations with China and even use Chinese experience in state-building in Ukraine (Poita, 2021b).
In fact, the intensification of Ukrainian-Chinese relations in 2021 cannot be considered simply a return to multi-vector policy in Ukraine, a pivot towards China, or an attempt to use the “China card” to put pressure on the West. It is clear that integration into the EU and NATO are key in terms of the survival for the Ukrainian state in the face of a permanent threat from Russia. Moreover, Ukrainian society does not accept other vectors of development (Ukrinform, 2021), and China cannot substitute for Ukraine what the West offers in terms of economy, security, and values. Most likely, Ukraine is trying to be more pragmatic in its relationship with China, trying to expand markets for its goods, attract investment, and rebuild decrepit infrastructure. Simultaneously, Kyiv is trying to draw “red lines” in its relations with China, limiting these to trade and investment issues, leaving strategic sectors of the economy, 5G networks, and critical infrastructure facilities closed to Chinese involvement. Foreign Minister Kuleba’s statements that “China is not an enemy, not a friend, but just a trading partner,” confirm such an understanding. This is also reflected in Kyiv’s recent actions, including a bill on the screening of foreign investments and keeping Chinese companies away from strategic sectors in Ukraine (Poita, 2021b; EAST Center, 2021).
Nevertheless, the situation with Motor Sich, vaccine diplomacy, and the strengthening of the US-Chinese strategic competition raised a number of questions regarding what risks relations with China pose for Ukraine; what consequences the increased dependence on China will bring; whether Ukraine’s values are being undermined; and how to shape Ukrainian-Chinese relations in such a way that the greatest possible economic benefits are derived from the cooperation while any possible threats are neutralized.
4 Analysis of the Impact of the BRI on Ukraine
An analysis of strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats (SWOT) helps us to better assess the possible long-term impact of the BRI in a country such as Ukraine. Since the BRI is not just a connectivity project for the transportation of goods but provides for the deepening of political, economic, and cultural cooperation with China (Sarker et al., 2018), this analysis includes Ukraine’s participation in the BRI in a broader context—considering the advantages, disadvantages, risks, and opportunities not only of the BRI itself, but also of a general deepening of cooperation between Ukraine and China (Table 1).
Table 1 – SWOT analysis of BRI impact on Ukraine
The SWOT analysis shows that the strengths of participating in the BRI lie in the easy acquisition of membership (as opposed to, for example, EU membership) and likely easier subsequent financing for projects that China considers to be part of its transport initiative for interconnection with Europe or economic expansion. It is also likely that active participation in the BRI will allow Ukraine to more actively interact with China on investment and trade, and to do business with Chinese partners (Gerasymchuk & Poita, 2018; Goncharuk et al., 2016; Goriunov et al., 2021).
However, participation in the BRI also presents a number of weaknesses that Ukraine should take into account. First, there are geopolitical risks, such as a possible weakening of Ukraine’s integration into the EU and NATO, since the EU and NATO view China as a challenge or threat in a number of areas (Financial Times, 2021a, 2021b). Second, receiving Chinese funding will force Ukraine to adapt its legislation to something that differs from the approaches, norms, and standards of the EU (Mladen, 2019). This aspect is important in terms of the possible creation of problems for the further enlargement of the EU, as it can slow down reforms in Ukraine, in particular the adaptation of Ukrainian laws to common European practices.
Third, greater participation in the BRI will most likely increase Ukraine’s economic, technological, and financial dependence on China, which, in the face of increasing US-Chinese strategic competition, might be used by Beijing to put pressure on Kyiv, for example to prevent Ukraine from adhering to the position of Western partners on human rights violations in China (Poita, 2021c), the situation in the East China and South China Seas, or other initiatives that Beijing views as anti-Chinese.
Fourth, from an economic point of view, given the specifics of China’s geo-economics, it is unlikely that China will use the BRI to create value-added enterprises in Ukraine. Most likely, Chinese involvement will focus on loans for the construction of infrastructure and the obtaining of cheap raw materials and agricultural products (Goriunov et al., 2021). In this regard, the likelihood of Ukraine being able to use the BRI to benefit from inclusion in global production chains remains low. Fifth, it has also been shown that China’s foreign investments may contain a corruption component, or hidden conditions with benefits for China (Ferguson, 2017).
A final weakness concerns the possibility of the BRI increasing Chinese influence not only in the field of economics and financing but also in politics, education, culture, and ideology, which can bring more complex risks for Ukraine.
The list of opportunities for Ukraine is quite large; however, many of these are assessed as unlikely (their inclusion in the analysis was due to an ongoing discussion on them in the Ukrainian scientific and expert environment).
For example, Ukraine’s prospects of being included as an element of transport corridors from China to Europe are low based on the fact that the cheapest and shortest overland route has already been built and passes through Belarus. The transport of Chinese goods through the territory of Ukraine is probably less profitable economically, and the use of Ukrainian seaports in the Black Sea requires the use of the BRI branch across the Caspian Sea, which is much more costly and time-consuming than the others (Samorukov & Umarov, 2020). Furthermore, full use of the northern branch of transport corridors will certainly be limited by Russia, which will use this route as a means of putting pressure on Ukraine.
Secondly, some Ukrainian researchers advocating deepening relations between Ukraine and China believe that China’s more active participation in Ukraine will reduce the threats posed by Russia, and that, if China had had large economic assets in Ukraine, Russia would not have dared attack Ukraine in 2014. From our point of view, this hypothesis is untenable, since many cases confirm China’s unwillingness to become involved in conflicts that do not directly affect it. China has kept distance from all Ukrainian initiatives related to Russian aggression, including participation in the Crimean platform. Additionally, its pattern of votes against UN resolutions on the conflict with Russia demonstrates its unwillingness to spoil relations with Moscow.
This relationship can also be seen in China’s vote in abstention during the UN Security Council Resolution on the War in Ukraine in February 2022. China’s position on the Russian-Ukrainian war is often phrased as “pro-Russian neutrality.” China, on the one hand, says that it supports international law, the UN Charter, territorial integrity, sovereignty, and the independence of Ukraine, but, on the other hand, never criticizes Russia for the invasion. China says instead that Russian so-called security concerns should be respected; the reason for the war is expansion of NATO and the irresponsible policy of the US. China also criticizes Western sanctions and even spreads Russian disinformation such as that Ukraine boasts 20 US biolabs, or even that the atrocities in Bucha have been faked.
This illustrates that, in the context of strategic competition with the US, China’s partnership with Russia has much greater value for Beijing (Kashin, 2019).
Thirdly, it is possible that participation in the BRI will provide more opportunities for Ukrainian companies exporting to China, which will have a positive effect on revenues and the Ukrainian budget. At the same time, as practice has shown, expansion of trade can happen without active participation in the BRI. Also, the increase in exports would be quantitative, not qualitative, since high-tech development of the Ukrainian economy with the help of the BRI is unlikely due to China’s interests and strategy in Ukraine.
Moreover, some of the opportunities offered by participation in the BRI may be associated with additional risks or disadvantages. For example, as mentioned above, the prospect of obtaining alternative financing for projects in Ukraine, including infrastructure renovation, requires adaptation of legislation to standards other than the EU standards. In addition, conditions for Chinese loans are often worse compared with the EU’s; they are not transparent, contain hidden political conditions, and could have a corruption component (Goriunov et al., 2021). The same issues can be said about the possibility of developing military-technical cooperation between Ukraine and China. In theory, more active political ties within the BRI could enhance cooperation in the defence sector; however, in practice China will not undertake efforts to strengthen Ukrainian defence capabilities. Projects to create joint defence enterprises have not been implemented, and Ukraine’s transfer of sensitive technologies to China is associated with the geopolitical risk of undermining defence cooperation with Western countries (New Europe Center, 2020; Poita, 2021a).
The list of threats is longer than the list of opportunities, and these are more complex. Many of these are implicit and might occur under certain circumstances. Obviously, if Ukraine is much more dependent on the Chinese economy, it will be more difficult for the Ukrainian leadership to resist China’s attempts to acquire strategic assets in Ukraine. For example, China’s purchase of strategic defence enterprises in Ukraine (as demonstrated by the Motor Sich case) entails a number of associated risks, such as the leakage of military and dual-use technologies, transfer of Ukrainian production assets to China, de-industrialization of the Ukrainian industry, and disruption of the implementation of existing promising defence programmes. It may also bring a deterioration of relations with allies and partners who regard China as a threat to their national security, the inclusion of Ukrainian defence companies cooperating with China on the US sanctions list, and the weakening of military cooperation between Ukraine and its Western partners (CACDS, 2021).
Furthermore, the financing of projects by China, including infrastructure projects, can bring significant risks. Ukraine’s dependence on Chinese funding, equipment, and markets can be used by China to exert political pressure to achieve its political objectives. It is expected that, in the event of a further increase in China’s share in Ukrainian exports, Chinese propaganda will intensify, using narratives of further deepening relations on the basis of an “important trade partnership,” discrediting Ukraine’s relations with the West, and creating conditions for the further penetration of Chinese companies into sensitive sectors of the Ukrainian economy.
Fourth, similar assessments can be made for technological dependence. It is expected that, via the BRI, China will promote its information and telecommunications services, including the construction of 5G networks, which will lead to: the formation of technological dependence on the products of Chinese IT companies; access of Chinese special services to the personal data of citizens of Ukraine, including those who work in government, government agencies, and strategic enterprise; threats of leakage of sensitive information from Ukraine to the PRC; and weakening of relations with partners of Ukraine who consider the PRC to be a threat in the cyber sphere (Kaska et al., 2019; New Europe Center, 2020).
Risks are also presented by the deepening cooperation in the field of education. The signing of an agreement on the creation of a Ukrainian-Chinese alliance of universities in 2021 (MON, 2021) can bring about the strengthening of the information and propaganda influence of China, the spread of Chinese narratives, the formation of pro-Chinese expert and public thought, and the creation of pro-Chinese lobbies in the academic environment.
Last but not least, deepening cooperation within the BRI could lead to a weakening of Ukraine’s position on human rights and international law. Economic, technological, financial dependence, and vaccine diplomacy can become an effective tool for Beijing to place pressure on Kyiv, including in the ideological and value spheres (Poita, 2021c).
5 Impact of the BRI on Democracy in Ukraine
In general, no evidence was found for the direct impact of the BRI on democratic institutions in Ukraine, including on free and fair elections, political rights and civil liberties, an independent judiciary, citizen participation, and civil society. Since Ukraine joined the BRI in 2017, the main indicators of democracy (for example, the Democracy Index, compiled by the Economist Intelligence Unit, and the V-Dem Liberal Democracy Index) have not changed, and have even shown a gradual increase (Table 2) (EIU, 2021; World in Data, 2021).
Table 2 Changes in the democracy index in Ukraine, 2015–2020
Free presidential and parliamentary elections in Ukraine in 2019 may confirm adherence to democratic norms, and in this aspect, the influence of Russia is much more significant and dangerous for Ukraine than that of China.
This may suggest that the BRI, in the case of Ukrainian, has not had a direct destructive influence on democratic processes. However, it should be noted that China’s influence on democratic processes can be indirect and may not be reflected in the indicators of democracy. Considering that the CPC’s efforts are aimed at achieving two main goals, expanding its influence abroad and promoting a positive image of China in the world, the following areas of Chinese activity in Ukraine, which may have an indirect impact on democratic processes, should be noted.
First, the use of vaccine diplomacy and economic dependence aids in the formation of a favourable attitude of Ukraine towards China, including on human rights and international law. This can be seen as an attempt to change the country’s values, encouraging Ukraine to ignore basic human rights in exchange for medical and economic cooperation (Poita, 2021c; AP News, 2021).
Secondly, given that the main beneficiaries of trade with China are large agricultural holdings and metallurgical companies, it is possible that China, via ties with oligarch owners, will try to promote its interests among the political elites of Ukraine (EAST Center, 2021). These issues can increase the risks of a stronger Chinese economic and political lobby in Ukraine, as well as the development and encouragement of corrupt practices. This could have a negative impact on the political system of Ukraine in terms of democratic development, transparency, and the rule of law.
Third, China has made efforts to create a pro-Chinese lobby in the scientific, media, and expert environment. China’s narratives in Ukraine generally do not differ from its narratives in other countries (for example, that China will never be a hegemon, that it helps other countries in the fight against the pandemic, that it maintains mutually beneficial cooperation, that the BRI initiative is a blessing for the rest of the world, etc.). However, other narratives, aimed directly at Ukraine, may contain risks as these are focused on changing Ukraine’s foreign policy priorities and weakening liberal-democratic values. These include, for example, the narratives that Ukraine should build a policy towards China independent of the US and the EU; that Motor Sich should be handed over to China, since this issue will cause problems in trade; and that Ukraine should not endorse the statements of Western countries critical of the human rights situation and the situation in the South China Sea (EAST Center, 2021).
To spread these narratives, China has created and funded a few media, scientific, and expert organizations that actively criticize Ukraine’s attempts to define so-called “red lines” around its cooperation with China, calling instead for closer cooperation with the PRC. These efforts already demonstrate results: academics and experts in Ukraine, as a rule, try to avoid talking about the risks associated with China, eschewing sensitive topics, for example, violations of human rights and the actions of the PRC in the East China and South China Seas, or Chinese cyber activity. According to sources in the media, China has entered into deals with a number of Ukrainian online media outlets that regularly publish positive information about China, often directly from Chinese media. These issues can create risks for democratic freedoms (such as restrictions on the freedom of academic and cultural expression, and media self-censorship).
From the case of Ukraine, one can draw some conclusions on how economically dependent countries in Eurasia will develop their political and economic relations with China in the light of the BRI. Relations between Ukraine and China could present prospects for the Ukrainian economy in terms of increasing its exports, obtaining loans on favourable terms, and using Chinese companies to modernize Ukrainian infrastructure.
At the same time, these opportunities are accompanied by the risks of the use of economic, technological, financial, and vaccine dependence by Beijing to pressure Kyiv, penetrate critical sectors of Ukraine, gain access to sensitive technologies, and encourage corrupt practices.
Moreover, some of the risks relate to changes in the value priorities of Ukraine, which could affect the processes of democratization and the adaptation of Ukrainian legislation to the norms and standards of the EU. Other risks could undermine the geopolitical prospects of Ukraine in terms of European and Euro-Atlantic integration.
The effects of China’s influence, and of the BRI in particular, on democratic processes in Ukraine have not been studied and require additional research. At the moment, however, it can be said that China has begun to use Ukraine’s vulnerabilities (in terms of economy, technology, and health) to achieve its geopolitical goals. Achieving a balance between economic cooperation and threat reduction will depend on Kyiv’s clear understanding of both the opportunities and risks presented by cooperation with China, as well as the willingness of Western partners to offer an acceptable alternative to the Chinese BRI “carrots.”