With the formation of “NATO at 20,” the alliance’s relations with Russia have almost overnight surged far ahead of NATO-Ukraine relations in political terms. Ukrainian officials are concerned lest this development translate into a Russian voice in the new forum on matters affecting Ukraine, in the latter’s absence. The sudden dynamic of NATO-Russia political cooperation contrasts with the long-standing dynamic of NATO-Ukraine functional cooperation. From 1997 to date, Ukraine has shown incomparably greater initiative and openness than Russia ever has or does in developing both functional and political relations with NATO. Without aspiring to become a member of the alliance, Kyiv pioneered on military cooperation with it, ahead of many countries in the region.
The meeting of the NATO-Ukraine Commission, held on May 15, may partly have alleviated Kyiv’s concern over the growing discrepancy between the level of Ukraine-NATO practical cooperation, and the level of its political expression and institutionalization. The allied ministers held out the prospect of a significant upgrading, within the next few months, of NATO-Ukraine political relations. The commission, meeting in a foreign affairs ministers’ session–attended by the nineteen allied ministers and their Ukrainian counterpart, Anatoly Zlenko–acknowledged and “commended Ukraine’s practical contribution” to a wide range of allied endeavors.
To illustrate, the commission’s communique listed the active involvement of Ukraine’s long-range military transport aviation for deployment of allied troops in Afghanistan; the opening of Ukraine’s airspace to allied planes en route from NATO Europe to Central Asia and Afghanistan; Ukraine’s participation in NATO-led peacekeeping operations in the Balkans; the successful development of the Polish-Ukrainian joint battalion (the only joint unit created by a non-candidate country and a member country of NATO); and the ongoing implementation of the NATO-Ukraine Work Plan for 2002, which encompasses NATO-assisted military reforms in Ukraine. The allied ministers welcomed Kyiv’s support for NATO’s eastward enlargement.
The commission scheduled a special meeting in Kyiv in July to mark the fifth anniversary of the NATO-Ukraine Distinctive Partnership Charter. “Paying tribute to the strategic nature of the Partnership,” the commission at the ministerial level tasked the nineteen plus one ambassadors at NATO, “building on the Charter, to develop a deepened and broadened NATO-Ukraine relationship… a reinforced relationship.” That upgraded relationship is to be defined in time for, or prior to, NATO’s summit in Prague this coming November. The presidents and prime ministers of Russia and of Ukraine are expected to attend that summit as guests, formalizing the upgraded relationships of NATO-Russia and NATO-Ukraine.
Kyiv’s activities, listed by the commission, meanwhile continue to develop closer cooperation with the alliance and its individual member countries. Ukraine provides the main air route for allied military flights–mainly American ones—involved in the antiterrorist operations. As of May 13, more than 1,900 such flights had crossed Ukraine’s airspace, assisted by Ukrainian military and civilian air space control and traffic control systems. Ukraine is renting its heavy-duty Antonov military transport planes to such major NATO countries as Germany, which for years underspent on defense and now lacks strategic airlift capacity.
Meanwhile, on a visit to Estonia last week, Zlenko publicly expressed strong support for NATO’s Baltic enlargement, along with hope that the Baltic states would be able to meet the admission criteria and join NATO soon. Zlenko also told the Estonian press in oblique terms that Ukraine itself hopes to join NATO in the future. Ukraine had all along supported the Baltic states’ aspirations to join NATO, during the years when Russia strongly opposed the alliance’s enlargement.
The NATO-Ukraine Commission’s press release did not mention Ukraine’s pathbreaking role in Eastern Europe as host of military exercises involving NATO countries’ forces. At the moment, the French Army’s second armored brigade is holding a battle exercise at Ukraine’s Shiroky Lan training range near Mykolaiv. At least 1,200 French soldiers with some forty-five heavy Leclerc tanks are involved, along with an unspecified number of armored personnel carriers, self-propelled artillery units, and an armor maintenance mobile workshop. The French Armed Forces’ chief of staff, General Jean-Pierre Kelche, and his Ukrainian counterpart General Petro Shulyak were on hand to watch the May 18-19 phase of the exercise. This exercise is a bilateral French-Ukrainian activity, unlike most past and planned exercises in Ukraine, which are NATO-Ukraine activities.
Ukraine is renting Shiroky Lan to the French for this exercise, and will again rent it to Italian forces for an exercise later this summer. France will pay a part of the rent in the form of modern equipment for the Shiroky Lan range. This is the second Ukrainian military range to be made available to Western forces for exercises. The Yavoriv range, the first to have been made available, has the status of a training center for peacekeeping forces involved in NATO-led operations. Meanwhile, on May 17 in Ukraine’s Carpathian Region, the first full-fledged command exercise was completed by the joint Ukrainian-Hungarian-Slovak-Romanian military engineering battalion (Tisa Battalion). This is the second unit in which Ukraine joins a NATO member country (Hungary) along with–in this case–two candidate countries (NATO communique, May 15; Unian, May 8, 11, 13, 15, 17; BNS, May 13; see the Fortnight in Review, March 15).
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