Presidents Vladimir Putin of Russia and Viktor Yushchenko of Ukraine met on February 12-13 in Moscow for their final bilateral summit before the end of Putin’s presidency. The meeting opened with Yushchenko describing Russia repeatedly as Ukraine’s “strategic partner” in front of the assembled media. “Russia has been, is, and will be our strategic partner. And we shall conduct all our relations with Russia based on this understanding.” Further in the same vein, “We confirm our sincere wish to develop the strategic partnership with Russia and we are determined to achieve results” (Russia TV, Ukraine TV Channel One, February 12).
Putin did not reciprocate such compliments, however. And in concluding the meeting, the Russian president urged “doing everything so that our partnership acquires a strategic character, without any reservations” (Russia TV Channel One, Interfax, February 12). Russia’s own reservations stem most recently from Kyiv’s decision to seek a Membership Action Plan (MAP) with NATO, following the recent change of government in Ukraine.
At the joint press conference, Putin lent additional weight to Russia’s previous warnings against Ukraine joining NATO or otherwise hosting NATO or U.S. military installations on Ukrainian territory. Replying to a leading question, Putin warned, “It is horrible to say and terrifying to think that Russia could target its missile systems at Ukraine, in response to deployment of such installations on Ukrainian territory. Imagine this for a moment. This is what worries us.”
While acknowledging that Russia has “no right to interfere” with Ukraine’s decisions, Putin nevertheless cautioned Kyiv against accepting “limitations on its sovereignty,” which he claimed are inherent in NATO membership. “But if Ukraine wants its sovereignty restricted, that is its own business.”
Yushchenko mustered a response the following day in a televised interview and while visiting the Ukrainian cultural center in Moscow to meet community representatives. He cited Ukraine’s constitution, which bans the stationing of foreign forces on Ukrainian territory, with the temporary exception of the Russian fleet in the Crimea until 2017. “Can one imagine that there will be a NATO base in Sevastopol [post-2017]? Of course not, and there never will be.” And in general “we are not going to take any steps that would create threats to Russia.” Reaffirming the Ukrainian leadership’s decision to submit the issue of NATO membership to a referendum prior to any decision, Yushchenko called for patient and calm discussions on this issue within Ukraine as well as between Ukraine and Russia (Russia TV Channel One, UNIAN, February 13).
Ukraine requested a NATO decision on MAP in a January 16 joint letter by Yushchenko, Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, and Verkhovna Rada chairman Arseny Yatsenyuk to NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer (see EDM, January 18). Kyiv looks forward to a decision to that end by the Alliance at its Bucharest summit in early April. In the wake of that request, Ukrainian officials have redoubled assurances that Ukraine’s advance toward NATO membership would proceed gradually — Yatsenyuk envisages 10 years (Glavred, January 30), leaving ample time for mutual adjustments in Ukraine-Russia relations.
Moreover, Ukrainian officials at home and abroad underscore the need to inform the Ukrainian public systematically about NATO. The Alliance’s approval rate in Ukraine has not exceeded 20% in recent years. The Orange authorities had in 2005 envisaged a campaign to educate the Ukrainian public about NATO, but have yet to deliver on that intention. At present, a critical mass in the opposition Party of Regions under former prime minister Viktor Yanukovych vocally opposes the idea of NATO membership and demands that the request to NATO for a MAP be officially retracted.
From January 18 to date, the Party of Regions and the Communist Party have blocked physically most of the time the presidium and rostrum in the Parliament’s chambers, making it impossible for the legislature to operate (Interfax-Ukraine, UNIAN, February 12, 13).
The Party of Regions is opportunistically catering to its Russia-oriented electorate in the eastern regions. Yanukovych and politicians around him had officially supported the goal of joining NATO in 2003-2004 during Yanukovych’s first premiership, under then-president Leonid Kuchma. However, NATO’s 2004 Istanbul summit cold-shouldered Kyiv; and the ensuing political turmoil in Ukraine has meant a net loss of almost four years before a bid for MAP could be resubmitted.
The governing coalition holds the slimmest possible majority of 227 seats in the 440-member parliament. However, the Party of Regions is facing a possible split, with a small but influential group under Renat Akhmetov evidencing a degree of receptiveness to the ultimate goal of NATO membership and to a MAP toward that goal.