NATO and Ukraine’s Security Vacuum

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 11 Issue: 46

(Source: NATO)

Russia has seized Crimea from Ukraine by military force, wholly unprovoked, and without having to fire a shot (see EDM, February 28, March 3–7, 10). Furthermore, Russia has “legislated” its own right to intervene militarily in any part of Ukraine by unilateral decision of Russia’s parliament and president (Interfax, March 1–5).

Given Russia’s crushing military superiority in a one-on-one situation, Ukraine has necessarily refrained from exercising its legitimate right to use force in self-defense. While characterizing Russia’s actions as aggression, Ukraine continues to avoid even the slightest move that Russia might construe as military resistance to Russia’s own actions. Kyiv anticipates that just one firing incident could provide Russia with a pretext to send troops beyond Crimea into eastern Ukraine and ignite centrifugal movements there. Ukraine’s government, all parliamentary parties, and the military share this analysis of the present situation, irrespective of their views about Ukraine’s future. The country’s Western partners are praising Ukraine for its total restraint, turning necessity into virtue.

Ukraine unilaterally declared its status as a non-aligned (“non-bloc”) country in 2010, following the election of Viktor Yanukovych as president. That status has manifestly not protected Ukraine from Russia’s aggression. Instead, nonalignment has only prevented Ukraine from strengthening its ties with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), which could have deterred Russian aggression. Consequently, Ukraine cannot count on effective security assistance in its current predicament. According to its Ministry of Foreign Affairs, “Ukraine is not raising the issue of international military assistance at this time. [Instead,] it seeks internationally mediated talks with Russia in order to settle the conflict.” The minister, Andriy Deshchytsya, considers the possibility of suing Russia in Ukrainian or international courts, in the absence of external security assistance (Interfax-Ukraine, March 7, 10).

In the absence of any international instruments to protect Ukraine at this time, an extraordinary session of its parliament on March 2 appealed to various international forums—the United Nations, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the powers signatory to the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, the Council of Europe, the European Union, NATO and even the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS)—to send delegations on visits to Ukraine, set up a joint group with Russia to defuse threats to Ukraine, and uphold Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. The parliament’s appeal notes that any passive acceptance of Russia’s military actions against Ukraine would irreparably damage the international order (Interfax-Ukraine, March 2, 3; see EDM, March 10).

This reads like a desperate appeal to everyone in the world and no one in particular. None of those international forums have undertaken any assistance commitment to Ukraine; some of them are notoriously ineffective; and others among those forums operate under Russia’s veto power. Appealing to such forums is a necessary action, but its value is likely to remain symbolic.

Ukraine finds itself in a vacuum of international security, by far the largest security vacuum in Europe. Although NATO shares a long border with Ukraine, the Alliance has failed to secure its own eastern neighborhood. This failure helped pave the way for Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008 and the attack on Ukraine now. Failure to assist Georgia (a frontrunner aspirant to NATO membership) could to some degree be rationalized post factum with claims that Georgia had allowed itself to be “provoked” by Russia. Such rationalizations are not available in Ukraine’s case. However, as a self-proclaimed non-bloc country, Ukraine is hardly in a position at this stage to solicit security assistance from a military alliance.

Even after Georgia in 2008, the Alliance has not yet come to grips with the security vacuum in its own neighborhood. Specifically, NATO’s missed opportunities in Ukraine ought to form the subject of a retrospective, lessons-learned analytical exercise by the Alliance and in Washington.

Ukraine’s new authorities seem ready for a fresh start with NATO. On March 5, the Verkhovna Rada’s (national parliament) secretariat registered draft legislation that would reinstate the goal of joining NATO as a centerpiece of Ukraine’s national strategy. The bill would amend two existing laws that form the basis of Ukraine’s national security policy and foreign policy, respectively. The bill proposes to enshrine the goals of “membership in the European Union and NATO,” thus adding NATO membership to the existing law on the principles of Ukraine’s national security. The same bill proposes to remove the “non-bloc status” from the law on the principles of Ukraine’s foreign policy, replacing that with a new paragraph setting the goal of “Ukraine’s membership in NATO and participation in the creation of a collective security in Europe” (the latter referring to European Union intentions). The explanatory introduction to the bill ascertains the fact that “Ukraine’s decision in 2010 to declare a non-bloc status has not provided security for the country, but instead has lowered the level of its national security and defense capacity.” Former minister of foreign affairs Borys Tarasiuk and two colleagues from the parliamentary group of Batkivshchyna (Fatherland, the party of acting president Oleksandr Turchynov, Prime Minister Arseniy Yatseniuk, and potential presidential aspirant Yulia Tymoshenko) have submitted this legislation to the Verkhovna Rada (UNIAN, Ukraiynska Pravda, March 5).

Addressing a European Union summit on the common security and defense policy, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen stated that the Alliance’s 2008 decision about the open door to Ukrainian membership remains valid. Rasmussen was speaking in December 2013, before the Maidan had gained momentum in Kyiv. He pronounced the North Atlantic Alliance satisfied with the level of cooperation achieved under Yanukovych’s presidency, such as Ukraine’s participation in NATO-led peacekeeping missions and planned contribution to the NATO response force’s 2014 rotation (Interfax-Ukraine, December 19, 2013).

This, however, is still a far cry from the level of cooperation that NATO and Ukraine had achieved from the mid-1990s until 2005. Both sides share the responsibility for failing to capitalize on that period’s achievements. NATO and Ukraine had signed in 1997 an ambitious Charter on a Distinctive Partnership. The document may have fallen into semi-oblivion but it retains undiminished validity. It stipulates inter alia that “NATO and Ukraine will develop a crisis consultative mechanism, to consult together whenever Ukraine perceives a direct threat to its territorial integrity, political independence, or security” (, Accessed March 11).

NATO can restore, operationalize and upgrade the Distinctive Partnership Charter with the new government in Kyiv. This is the only way to remedy the security vacuum that confronts Ukraine and NATO itself. The present crisis offers NATO and Ukraine an unexpected chance to get serious about each other.