Ukraine-NATO Talk Annoys Russia

KIEV, Ukraine -- As Ukraine makes steady progress towards joining NATO, Russia’s grumblings grow more threatening and some observers warn the US against provoking the “Russian bear” unnecessarily.

Anyone who heard Russian President Vladimir Putin recently grumbling and vaguely threatening over Ukraine’s possible entry into NATO should get used to it. For all the grand talk about speeding up NATO integration following Ukraine’s “Orange” revolution, it will still be years before Ukraine joins the alliance. Neither Ukraine nor NATO appear in much of rush, though Russian opposition is only partly to blame.

Ukraine Minister of Foreign Affairs, Borys Tarasyuk (L) and NATO Secretary General, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer

While Ukraine’s membership is not yet on the horizon, Putin has evidently decided that he should air his displeasure as soon as possible. “The fact that NATO exercises a great influence on Ukraine or Georgia does not indispose us,” he said in an interview broadcast on French television on 7 May. “On the other hand, all enlargement of NATO does not (necessarily) improve security in the world.” And, he said, rather ominously, “Ukraine could have problems, I say this frankly.”

Ukraine’s Westward Progress

Whatever his motivations, that Putin even deemed it necessary to express his misgivings about Ukraine’s integration represents progress in itself. Just a few months ago, before the election to the Ukrainian presidency of the reform-minded and pro-Western Viktor Yushchenko, Putin’s words would have seemed premature. Under the previous government of president Leonid Kuchma, integration had stalled over continued democratic failings and rampant corruption.

Kuchma himself was implicated in the illegal sale of the Kolchuga radar system to Iraq, and, in response to repeated criticism from NATO, he signed a decree changing the country’s defense doctrine. The specific goals of joining NATO and the EU were removed and replaced with the vaguely worded intention to strive for “Euro-Atlantic integration”. Kuchma had also hand-picked a successor, then-prime minister Viktor Yanukovych, who seemed intent on closer ties with Russia. NATO membership seemed only a dream to a group of pro-Western reformers.

Kiev Readies Itself Militarily

Yushchenko’s victory and his vow to make NATO accession a major priority have rapidly reversed those previous calculations. Foreign Minister Borys Tarasyuk has said that Kiev could complete the necessary military and political reforms within just three years. Yushchenko just celebrated his first 100 days in office - far too early to make any judgments about democratization - but the idea that Ukraine could be ready militarily in the near future is not far-fetched.

Ukraine has been involved in NATO’s Partnership for Peace (PfP) activities since the program began in 1994, and in 1997, the country signed a “Charter on a Distinctive Partnership”. In December 1999, Kuchma initialed a decree on defense reform that paved the way for NATO to monitor Ukraine’s reforms and provide regular consultations and advice. In the past few years, real defense reform has taken place, with sharp reductions in troops, an increase in readiness levels, and heightened transparency.

Western Reluctance

The real obstacles to accession may loom elsewhere, including in the West’s reluctance to upset Putin. In April, NATO foreign ministers offered Ukraine a plan for fast-track membership, but officials stressed that Kiev would not be offered a fixed date for entry, for fear of harming relations with Russia. Those sensitivities may have been heightened further last week with the signing of a partnership between the EU and Russia.

On Tuesday, the two sides initialed an agreement on boosting cooperation in areas such as the economy and external security. The EU is Russia’s largest trading partner, with over half of Russia’s exports going to the bloc, including one-fifth of the EU’s oil and gas need. Russia is the EU’s fifth-largest trade partner, with bilateral trade totaling US$125 billion in 2004.

‘Poking the Russian Bear’

In addition, for all the admiration and raucous applause that Yushchenko received on his recent visit to Washington, opinion in the US also appears split on how quickly to push for Ukraine’s membership in NATO. The lead editorial in last Wednesday’s LA Times, for example, called on President George Bush to tone down his rhetoric about NATO accession for some of the former Soviet republics. Entitled “Poking the Russian Bear”, the article read: “Before he goes any further in emboldening Georgia and Ukraine, Bush should reconsider and avoid needlessly antagonizing Russia.

Washington should have good relations with the former Soviet republics and encourage their democratic evolution, but it would be counterproductive for the US to make Russia feel increasingly encircled by NATO.” The editorial continued: “The fate of Russia’s own democracy is uncertain under Vladimir V. Putin, and Western disregard for Russian pride and security concerns could make matters far worse by unleashing a nationalistic backlash.”

A Repeat of NATO’s 1990s Accession

In many ways, the talk of Russian pride and a “nationalist backlash” is remarkably similar to language used in the early 1990s before the first wave of NATO accession. The Times’ warnings that “the West needs Russia as a friend, not an enemy” (to deal with problem areas such as Iran and North Korea) could have been lifted verbatim from editorials opposing NATO enlargement a dozen years ago, especially in relation to the Baltics. Yet, over time, Russia modified its stance and understood that it could do little to nothing to delay the process.

Putin made clear in the interview on French television that the incorporation of Lithuania, Estonia, and Latvia still represented a sore point. “I don’t see in what way enlarging to our Baltic neighbors, for instance, can improve the security of the world,” he said. His bitterness, however, seemed just as much tied to what Russia perceives as discrimination against the Russian-speaking minorities in these states.

Other Reasons for Western Reluctance?

Yet “not upsetting” Russia may also be a convenient excuse used to mask the unwillingness of key Western allies to enlarge for different reasons. “I suspect Western resistance to Ukraine’s Western integration [into NATO and the EU] has increasingly less to do with Russia,” says Tomas Valasek, the director of the Brussels office of the Center for Defense Information (CDI). “Now that the Baltic states are in NATO the Rubicon has been crossed, so to speak.

Some of the allies - mostly grouped around the key EU founding states [such as France and Belgium] - are not too keen on seeing NATO enlarge or do anything particularly useful, for that matter. They would like to see most of its defense and security responsibilities gradually migrate over to the EU. Enlargement of NATO to Ukraine goes against this strategy; it makes NATO more useful, more relevant, more vigorous.”

Practical Concerns

But there are a number of practical concerns that also make Ukraine’s accession unique compared with the other Central and Eastern European states that have entered the alliance in recent years. For one thing, none of the new member states still had Russian troops or bases on their territories during the accession process. Ukraine does and will have for the near future. Stationed in the port city of Sevastopol on the Crimean peninsula since the early 19th century, the Black Sea Fleet’s continued presence on Ukrainian territory falls under a 1997 agreement that will expire only in 2017. Top Ukrainian officials, including President Yushchenko, have complained numerous times in recent weeks that Russia has refused to honor key points of the deal, including allowing Ukrainian inspectors to enter the grounds of the Sevastopol naval base to check on the technical state of the berths.

In March, a more visible violation occurred when a Russian naval landing force conducted a large-scale military exercise, entered Ukrainian waters, and seized a beachhead without notifying Ukraine or asking for permission. But despite their criticism, Ukrainian officials have said they would not unilaterally cancel the agreement. They have also insisted that NATO has made clear that the Black Sea Fleet would not be a stumbling block in accession talks. “The Black Sea Fleet is not an obstacle for NATO ‘in principle’,” says James Sherr, a fellow in the Conflict Studies Research Centre at Britain’s Defense Academy and a leading authority on Ukraine and defense reform. “Yet it will be in practice until Ukraine is happy with the terms under which the fleet is based and with Russia’s observance of those terms.” What is needed, he says, is for the two sides to work out their differences and for the Ukrainian parliament to approve a NATO-style Status of Forces Agreement. “NATO will pose no obstacle so long as the basing modalities are not a subject of dispute,” he adds.

A Legitimate Area of Concern

Putin may have been trying to intimidate with his talk of the “problems” that integration would bring Ukraine, but one of the examples that he raised - military research and development - is a legitimate area of concern for both Russia and Ukraine. Currently, many Ukrainian companies act as suppliers for the Russian military machine.

Putin said that relationship would end: “If there were a NATO military presence in Ukraine, I wouldn’t maintain our latest technologies and our sensitive armaments.” The cancellation of such contracts would certainly lead to a loss of jobs and could have a serious financial impact on parts of the country that are dependent on military production.

Ukraine’s Own Political Will

Despite all these largely external obstacles, the greatest factor in slowing down Ukraine’s integration in the alliance may actually be the country’s own will. Yes, Yushchenko and others have reaffirmed the Ukraine’s bid and become welcome guests in Brussels, but they have also said EU accession was more important. Much of the political elite does, however, understand that NATO membership will be a key step that will make the EU more obtainable. The question remains if the public will agree. Yushchenko has said the issue should be put to a referendum. And, unlike the experience in most of the new NATO member states, a “yes” vote could be very much in doubt.

“There should be no hurry with this,” says Oleg Varfolomeyev, a Kiev-based political analyst. In fact, if a NATO membership referendum were held now, Ukrainians would most certainly reject the idea. NATO is unpopular in Ukraine, and not only decades of the Soviet brain-washing are to blame for this.” Varfolomeyev points to the unpopularity of the NATO-led bombing of Yugoslavia, as well as the popular confusion that NATO played a role in the Iraq war. “Last week, Yushchenko mentioned some sociological research that showed that only 2 per cent of Ukrainians are sure that they know what NATO is all about. Education will take time,” he adds.

Source: International Security Network