Russia Could Slow But Not Stop Ukraine NATO And EU Bid

BRUSSELS, Belgium - Russia will not stop Ukraine on the road to NATO membership but could slow it down, according to Kiev's deputy prime minister, Oleh Rybachuk. The country also faces dangers to its internal reform process and EU accession prospects, the minister warned.

"Ukraine joining NATO or the EU does not depend on Russia's position," Mr Rybachuk told EUobserver in Brussels on Thursday.

"We are patiently waiting for Moscow to understand that we should have different levels of partnership than in the past," he said, adding, "Russia is stubborn."

Mr Rybachuk's remarks followed a meeting of NATO foreign ministers in Vilnius earlier the same day, involving the organisation's chief, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, Ukrainian foreign minister Borys Tarasyuk and Russia's foreign minister Sergei Lavrov.

Mr Scheffer declined to endorse Kiev's tentative target date of 2008 membership but gave the green light to start talks, while Mr Lavrov signaled Moscow's goodwill by saying that joining NATO, "is the sovereign matter of Ukraine", according to agency reports.

But Mr Rybachuk hinted that Russia's actual policy may differ.

The minister indicated that Kiev is braced for "psychological warfare" in which Moscow could use economic measures, such as diverting oil and gas flows or manipulating energy prices, in order to exert pressure on Ukraine.

"They will also use telephone diplomacy, calling their friends, slowing things down," he indicated.

Consumers of Security

A western European diplomat explained that Russia's opposition to Ukrainian NATO membership runs deeper than its mistrust of the Baltic states' place in the transatlantic alliance.

"Russia will intrigue against it," the source said. "The Baltic countries are consumers of security with no real capability. Even if NATO puts forces on the northern Russian border, it would not be a big threat to the Russian forces stationed on the other side. But the Ukraine has over 200,000 men under arms as well as a developed military infrastructure."

He added that Kiev also has the capacity to build weapons of mass destruction (WMD).

"Ukraine gave up its nuclear weapons under the US/Russian agreement at the end of the Cold War. But it still has the brains to develop WMDs. Russian strategic missiles were built and designed in Ukrainian factories," the diplomat explained.

Mr Rybachuk also foresees Russian intervention in the upcoming parliamentary elections in March 2006. The ousted presidential candidate, Viktor Yanukovych, is widely expected to run for parliamentary office in the poll, and could become a hub of anti-Yushchenko sentiment if he scoops enough votes.

Mr Rybachuk said that Moscow is likely to use the same propaganda tools as it did during last year's Orange Revolution to foment tension in the country.

"They used the mass media and formed a partnership with the Russian Orthodox Church. We found black propaganda literature inside monasteries in the Ukraine and we have testimonies saying that priests were instructed to oppose Yushchenko in their prayers," he explained.

"They will try it again in this parliamentary election, with the same advisors paid to play the Russian card. But sooner or later, the Kremlin policy makers will realise that this does not work," he said.

Enlargement Fatigue

President Yushchenko's efforts to push through political and economic reforms, as well as tackling corruption under the terms of the EU-Ukraine Action Plan, risk alienating Ukrainian oligarchs who want to protect their steel and coal interests in the Russian-speaking east of the country.

Ukrainian exporters are keen for the country to gain Market Economy Status, which would open doors for tariff-free trade with the EU. But the business lobby could turn against Mr Yushchenko if the corruption purge throws the privatisation deals of the 1990s into question.

On top of this there is a certain degree of mistrust toward the EU goal at grass roots level.

"We have enlargement fatigue, perestroika fatigue and glasnost fatigue, because people talk a lot and do little," Mr Rybachuk indicated.

"People want EU membership to get better living standards and visa-free travel but some of them don't want to pay the price to get there. There is a sweet and bitter part of the cake. But it's one cake, you can't divide it."

On the EU side, Mr Rybachuk said that Ukraine will focus efforts on winning over the hearts of the French people in the short term.

He quoted a recent TNS Sofres poll showing that 58 per cent of French respondents support Ukrainian accession, with 37 per cent against.

Mr Rybachuk also won the agreement of the head of the European Parliament's foreign affairs committe, Elmar Brok (EPP-ED), to address the committee on 14 June ahead of the October EU/Ukraine summit.

But the western European diplomatic source indicated that accession prospects remain dim at this stage.

"Ukraine needs to make a super effort to fulfill Mr Yushchenko's promises and it needs the EU and NATO to respond appropriately, but at the moment they are still lukewarm," the contact explained.