The reelection of President Leonid Kuchma has removed a set of temporary constraints on Ukraine’s cooperation with NATO. During most of the election year, Kuchma deemphasized that particular aspect of his foreign policy, one apt to have alienated more voters in eastern Ukraine than it attracted in the western part of the country. Kuchma, moreover, needed and received political support from the Kremlin down to the wire in his reelection effort; that, too, had the effect of sidetracking Ukraine-NATO relations for the duration of the campaign. The Kremlin’s preference for Kuchma stemmed from its own concern to prevent a Red victory in Ukraine ahead of the parliamentary and presidential elections in Russia. That short-term consideration prevailed over Russia’s long-term interest in forestalling the Ukraine-NATO rapprochement. The Kuchma administration for its part had embarked on that rapprochement during its first term and looked set to continue that policy if returned to office. That this is now taking place should hardly come as a surprise to Moscow.
Barely one week after the November 14 election runoff, the U.S.-Ukraine committee on security issues–an interagency body led by the Pentagon and Ukraine’s Defense Ministry–met in Lviv and at the Yavoriv training range in the Lviv region. Then, in December, the Ukraine-NATO Commission conferred in Brussels at the level of defense ministers. There followed a bilateral meeting of Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksandr Kuzmuk and U.S. Defense Secretary William Cohen. The Lviv and Brussels meetings produced a set of Ukrainian-NATO and Ukrainian-U.S. military cooperation agreements envisaging assistance to Ukraine in personnel training, military reform and military-industrial research and development, as well as the holding of joint exercises by land forces and navies of Ukraine with those of NATO member countries and aspiring countries. Later in December, the Yavoriv range was designated as a training center for peacekeeping forces under NATO aegis–the first such designation in any post-Soviet country. That decision is a tribute to Ukraine’s frontrunner role in terms of hosting military exercises with NATO troops.
A Ukrainian-British military cooperation agreement was also signed last month. This document is said to focus on personnel training, joint troop exercises and British support for the Ukrainian-Polish battalion, a unit that has been in existence since 1997. Poland’s admission to NATO means that the Ukrainian-Polish battalion is the first joint unit ever to be maintained by a post-Soviet country with a NATO member country.
On December 15, the Ukraine-NATO Commission conferred at the Foreign Ministers’ level. It favorably rated the performance of the Ukrainian peacekeeping contingent as part of the NATO-led forces in Bosnia and Kosovo. And on December 20 in Kyiv, Foreign Minister Borys Tarasyuk and the Secretary of Ukraine’s Defense and Security Council, Yevhen Marchuk, met with the NATO member countries’ ambassadors in Kyiv. In that meeting, and in an accompanying press interview given by Tarasyuk, the Ukrainian side expressed the wish for a more active planning of joint activities, moving from annual to multi-year programs of cooperation with NATO. The alliance’s Secretary-General, George Robertson, is due to visit Ukraine this month, and a session of the Ukraine-NATO Commission at ambassadorial level is scheduled to be held for the first time in Kyiv in March.
Alluding to these developments in a Russian press interview, Robertson noted the fact that Ukraine has “left Russia far behind in terms of cooperating with NATO.” He commented that this asymmetry is a consequence of Russia’s policies, not NATO’s, “and if Russia continues distancing herself from NATO, it will happen through her own choice.”