NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer headed a delegation of the North Atlantic Council (NAC), the alliance’s standing decision-making body in Brussels, comprising the 26 member countries’ ambassadors, on a visit to Ukraine on June 16 and 17. The visit was the first high-level NATO-Ukraine consultation since NATO’s Bucharest summit in April, where the alliance postponed a decision on Ukraine’s application for a membership action plan (MAP) pending further high-level meetings.
This visit revitalized the “Intensified Dialogue on Ukraine’s aspirations to membership and relevant reforms,” a process launched in 2005 by NATO and Ukraine. This year’s NAC visit was, however, the first since 2005, a hiatus reflecting the Ukrainian political forces’ immersion in factional struggles to the detriment of national strategic priorities.
A meeting of the NATO-Ukraine Commission (NUC) in the ambassadorial 26 + 1 format discussed recent and planned steps to advance cooperation, which should strengthen the case for a Ukrainian MAP. With Ukraine’s Foreign Affairs Minister Volodymyr Ohryzko and Defense Minister Yuriy Yekhanurov, the Commission took stock of Ukraine’s important contributions of airlift capabilities to allied missions and significant participation in the NATO-led Kosovo Force, as well as token contributions to Operation Active Endeavor in the Mediterranean and NATO Training Mission Iraq. The Ukrainian side confirmed its recently expressed willingness to participate in the British-French Helicopter Initiative and in the alliance’s Air Situation Data Exchange.
Furthermore, Ukraine now offered to participate in the NATO Response Force as the first partner country to do so and also to facilitate land transit through Ukraine for the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan (ISAF). The allies also welcomed Kyiv’s consideration of the possibility of deploying additional personnel to ISAF. A meeting of the NUC at the defense ministers’ level on June 13 had prepared the groundwork for political decisions on these issues (NUC communiqué, June 17).
These issues are additional to the NATO-Ukraine Annual Target Plans for security and defense sectors reforms, which aim at gradual downsizing and modernization amid severe budgetary constraints.
The allied delegation encouraged Ukraine to finance properly the 2008-2011 State Program to Inform Ukrainian Society about the alliance and about the government’s own MAP aspirations. Previous programs to educate the Ukrainian public about NATO have suffered from financial and political neglect.
Speaking at Kyiv’s Mohyla Academy and in a discussion organized by the Open Ukraine Foundation and Pinchuk Art Center, de Hoop Scheffer signaled in strongest terms that Russia was not entitled to influence decisions on a Ukrainian MAP or ultimate membership in the alliance: “It is crystal clear that any policy course Ukraine might wish to follow is strictly a sovereign decision by the Ukrainian government and finally the Ukrainian people.” By the same token, “Decision-making in NATO is by the 26 allies and by them only. Any decision regarding Ukraine’s application would not be subject to the influence of third countries.” De Hoop Scheffer also “debunked the myths” that Ukrainian membership in the alliance would involve NATO bases on Ukrainian territory or Ukrainian soldiers being forced to participate in allied operations (NATO press release, June 18).
President Viktor Yushchenko and Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko each held talks and press briefings with de Hoop Scheffer in Kyiv. On that occasion and in a follow-up speech in Vynnytsya two days later, Yushchenko linked NATO membership aspirations with the most basic security of statehood: “We want to see Ukraine politically independent and its territory whole.” “To preserve Ukraine permanently, it should be a member of the common security system. It is incumbent on our generation to ensure that Ukraine remains sovereign and independent” (Interfax-Ukraine, June 16, 19). For her part, Tymoshenko de-dramatized the internal Ukrainian debate on this issue by citing Party of Regions leader Viktor Yanukovych’s earlier endorsement of Ukrainian membership in NATO. Tymoshenko displayed a book published in 2004 in which Yanukovych, prime minister at that time, apparently envisaged Ukraine joining NATO by 2008 (Interfax-Ukraine, June 16).
On the second day of the visit, NATO ambassadors fanned out in groups to three regions of Ukraine for information and outreach events. In the eastern cities of Dnipropetrovsk and Kharkiv they were met, as on the first day in Kyiv, by fringe protest groups from the Communist and Progressive Socialist parties. The Party of Regions did not seem to be involved. The envoys merely commented that the freedom to protest was a sign of democracy in Ukraine (Channel Five TV, June 17).
NATO will next evaluate Ukraine’s MAP application at ministerial meetings in December and early 2009, leading up to the alliance’s April 2009 summit. Ukraine and supportive countries will have to work around four distinct challenges: lack of enthusiasm among Ukraine’s populace (and opposition in some sensitive areas), politicians’ involvement in seemingly permanent electioneering, Russian threats of reprisals against the Ukrainian state, and indirect Russian influence in certain European capitals, potentially distorting NATO debates and decisions.