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Geopolitical Hotspot – continuing tension in Ukraine as China moves in

Geopolitical Hotspot – continuing tension in Ukraine as China moves in
07 Feb
Klaus Dodds turns his attention to Ukraine and examines the growing influence of China in the region

The Ukraine crisis rumbles on in a variety of ways. Crimea continues to be annexed by Russia and there is little prospect of that being overturned despite the persistence of EU and American sanctions. The UN General Assembly condemned the occupation of Crimea in December 2019 and described Russia as an ‘occupying power’. The non-binding resolution passed 63 to 19, but notably the United States choose not to vote and more than 60 members abstained. The resolution also criticised Russian interference of Ukrainian naval vessels around the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov. While Russia did release three captured Ukrainian ships taken in November 2018, it raises disturbing questions about how the right of innocent passage will be affected for others, not just Ukraine. Tensions remain high and peace talks between the two sides have made tentative progress. Further afield in Washington DC, a Democrat-controlled House of Congress initiated impeachment proceedings against President Trump on the basis that there was evidence of improper presidential behaviour involving Ukraine and US promises of military aid.

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What is less appreciated is the role of another actor in this geopolitical melee – China. While Russia views Ukraine as integral to what is understood to be its ‘near abroad’ and as a security buffer zone against NATO forces, China sees Ukraine as a transit point between the EU and Central Asia. As part of its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative, China views Ukraine as a prime candidate for investment in infrastructure, agriculture and as a transit hub for Chinese goods. In the last couple of years, the Chinese government established a Trade and Investment Development Centre. While the EU remains the most important trading partner for Ukraine, China is growing in significance and has accelerated past Russia. International events have enabled this tilt towards China. Worsening relations with Russia impacted on bilateral trade with Ukraine. China’s demand for food is considerable and this, in part, enabled Beijing to become the sixth largest export partner for Kiev and the largest supplier of corn for China.

Ukraine aspires to NATO membership in the future and the NATO-Ukraine commission continues to meet to consider this proposition. Kiev also wishes to join the EU. President Volodymyr Zelenskiy is clear on this twin-track strategic ambition. Both are problematic not least because Russia does not want Ukraine to slip out of its geopolitical and geo-economic orbit. While a sizeable element of the Ukrainian population would conclude that the country would be safer if it was covered by the NATO security umbrella, Russia’s continued destabilisation of eastern Ukraine is making NATO partners uneasy about whether they want to take on this additional commitment. 

In other words, Russia has little to no incentive to allow Ukraine to strengthen its connection with either the EU or NATO. While Ukraine is an extreme case, it is worth bearing in mind that Sweden and Finland to the north also represent NATO-related challenges. Neither are formal partners of NATO. Russia would resist both becoming full members. Would the easing of EU and US sanctions against Russia bring about a shift in Moscow’s attitude towards further expansion of EU and NATO? Unlikely, as President Putin sees the Arctic, the Baltics, Central and Eastern Europe, the Caucuses and the Middle East as one extended ‘security arc’ for Russia.

Given these complexities affecting Russia, Ukraine, the EU and NATO, it is not surprising that this creates openings for powerful players such as China. In the next five years we are going to see further Chinese investment in infrastructure. One such plan is to invest in ports such as Mariupol in southeastern Ukraine on the edge of the Sea of Azov. Mariupol’s fate was complicated further by a Russian bridge across the Kerch Strait that prevents larger vessels from entering the Sea of Azov. Up to $7bn has been pledged and Ukraine has described China as a ‘strategic partner’.

Other investment will be in the banking sector, the metro in Kiev and continued support for the Ukrainian agricultural sector. 2019 was the ‘Year of China’ in Ukraine and featured profile-raising exercises designed to highlight the opportunities to take advantage of Chinese investment. 

Two things to watch. First, Chinese investment in military-industrial companies such as the well-regarded aviation company Antonov. Ukraine needs to modernise its armed forces and hence the importance of that promise of US military aid that brought scrutiny to bear on Trump’s telephone calls. How does NATO’s strategic situation alter if China ends up being the driver of Ukrainian military-industrial innovation and development? Second, if China invests more in Ukrainian infrastructure, how does that alter Russian strategic calculation if Chinese civilian and even military vessels start to enter the Sea of Azov?

For now, the Ukrainian government is hoping for progress following a December peace meeting in Paris brokered by Germany and France. But Ukraine’s future will not escape the strategic calculations of Russia, China, the EU and the United States.

Klaus Dodds is Professor of Geopolitics at Royal Holloway, University of London and author of Geopolitics: A Very Short Introduction

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