On May 29-30 at NATO headquarters in Brussels, Ukrainian Foreign Affairs Minister Anatoly Zlenko handed over a message from President Leonid Kuchma to the alliance. The message officially confirms and elaborates on the Ukrainian executive leadership’s May 23 decision to initiate preparations toward full membership of Ukraine in the alliance, and to draft a strategy toward that goal. NATO Secretary General Lord George Robertson and Zlenko conferred on preparing the two events immediately ahead, at which Ukraine’s draft strategy will be considered and finalized: the July 9 meeting in Kyiv of the NATO-Ukraine Commission at ambassadors’ level, and the November meeting in Prague of that same body at the heads-of-state level, on the sidelines of NATO’s summit.
Meanwhile, on May 28 in Kyiv, Ukrainian National Security and Defense Council (UNSDC) Secretary Yevhen Marchuk discussed this initiative with the visiting president of the U.S. Committee on NATO, Bruce Jackson, and the U.S. ambassador in Kyiv, Carlos Pascual. On the record, Pascual hailed Ukraine’s move as “a landmark statement about the priority of Euroatlantic integration in its policy.”
The UNSDC’s May 23 session Kuchma chaired had approved that decision unanimously. Marchuk is the prime mover behind the decision, and has personally conducted since then an active public relations campaign to educate the Ukrainian public about the implications of this move. In a continuing series of media interviews, Marchuk has buried the self-denying ordinances known as “nonbloc status” and “multivector foreign policy.” Although never written into law, these tenets had severely constrained Ukraine’s leeway until now.
Those constraints had perhaps been unavoidable during the 1990s, given Ukraine’s deep internal east-west, left-right and generational divides, which created insurmountable political obstacles to any clear-cut Western orientation. In some ways, however, “nonbloc status” and “multivector foreign policy” also served as a political smokescreen for the Western-oriented groups in the presidential camp to pursue–with Kuchma’s approval–active cooperation with NATO. More recently, however, “nonbloc status” and “multivector foreign policy” had been turned by some groups at and near the top into rationalizations for cooling off to the West while warming up to Russia. The Kuchmagate scandals in Ukraine pushed the president further into the Kremlin’s arms.
While the Communist and other constituencies on the pro-Russian left underwent natural erosion, a more influential constituency–namely, Ukrainian business interest groups linked with Russia–began pulling Ukraine eastward. Russian President Vladimir Putin staked his policy toward Ukraine on precisely those groups, even lending them his own public relations apparatus in the recent parliamentary elections. The new slogan, “to Europe with Russia,” departed from the evenhandedness implied in the “multivector foreign policy,” not to mention the “European choice” that Kuchma himself proclaimed–and, for a while, actually pursued. “To Europe with Russia” not only tied Ukraine’s future to its eastern neighbor, but also implied ceding Kyiv’s sovereign latitude of choice to Moscow.
Kyiv’s decision to initiate a rapid movement toward NATO would seem to end the drift, restoring a sense of direction and purpose to Ukraine’s policy. Kyiv’s decision coincides in time with the European Union’s move to work out a strategy of direct neighborly relations with Ukraine. These two policy directions ought to prove mutually reinforcing. But the immediate catalyst to Kyiv’s pro-NATO initiative is the recent Russia-NATO rapprochement. Kyiv is concerned lest it ends up isolated, in a situation of semi-dependency on Russia. Moreover, Ukraine seeks something more fundamental than matching Russia’s just-upgraded relationship with NATO. Whereas Russia has no desire or chance in the foreseeable future to become a member of NATO, Ukraine is now openly aiming for full membership in NATO within a definite time frame.
Marchuk and other officials estimate that time frame at seven to ten years. Ukraine is a late starter, compared to the countries–up to seven in the Vilnius Ten group–that may be invited in November to commence the NATO accession procedures. Ukraine will need a preparatory period, now estimated to last up to two years, before embarking on a Membership Action Plan which–in the case of the Baltic and other aspirant countries–took three years, making these countries eligible for consideration by NATO as candidates. But, while the Balts built modern forces from zero, Ukraine faces daunting tasks and costs in reforming its massive, Soviet-type forces. That factor may well lengthen the time-frame of Ukraine’s entry into NATO.
The executive branch will soon seek parliamentary support for its NATO initiative. Ukraine’s new parliament differs from the preceding chambers in that it contains a clear majority that would support the presidency’s pro-NATO course (Unian, Den, Zerkalo Nedeli, One Plus One TV, May 24-30; see the Monitor, May 20, 24; Fortnight in Review, March 15).
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