Publication: Prism Volume: 3 Issue: 6

Ukraine’s cautious movement towards NATO

By Dmitry Koublitsky

Into NATO or Towards NATO?

There is a reason for using this subtitle, which comes from a well-known statement by Ukrainian president Leonid Kuchma, for this is exactly the way that the dilemma which Ukraine now faces, and which undoubtedly occupies a priority position in all of Kiev’s foreign policy activity, can be characterized. What was it that made this a pressing problem for a country which, back on August 24, 1991, in adopting its Declaration on State Sovereignty, set forth Ukraine’s desire to acquire the status of a neutral power? To explain the reasons behind Ukraine’s gradual movement towards NATO, one must single out several factors which, in one way or another, influence Kiev in the context of forming relations with the North Atlantic Alliance.

The "Russian factor" clearly plays the dominant role in Ukrainian foreign policy. The Ukrainian leadership’s numerous statements about how "Russia is pushing Ukraine into NATO’s embrace" are only a reflection of the entire complex of contradictions between Ukraine and Russia, which are much broader in scope than the problems connected with the division of the Black Sea Fleet and the latent conflict around the Crimean peninsula. On a political plane, Russia is increasingly seen by Kiev as a potential source and exporter of instability in the region — an idea which is not entirely unfounded. Russia’s economic crisis, the signs of the beginning of the disintegration of the Russian Federation as a political unit, official and unofficial Russian foreign policy documents, and those who call on Russia to destabilize the situation in the so-called "near abroad" — all these things lead representatives of Ukraine’s ruling elite to think that preventative measures are necessary to protect Ukraine’s sovereignty and guarantee her security.

A second factor is Ukraine’s geostrategic position. Ukraine is finally conscious of its shaky position as a "gray zone" or "buffer" in Eastern Europe. In Ukraine, people recall with increasing frequency the sad experience of Poland in 1939. Naturally, few are now inclined to draw a direct parallel with events 57 years ago, but the prospect of being squeezed between two "strategic partners" clearly does not suit Kiev. On the one hand, one would hardly expect NATO to bind itself legally not to deploy troops and weapons (including nuclear weapons) on the territory of new alliance members; moreover, it is quite doubtful, according to the head of the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry’s department of political analysis and planning, Igor Kharchenko, that NATO would give legally binding security guarantees to Ukraine, which is not a member of that bloc. On the other hand, if Russia reexamines individual provisions in the CFE Treaty, and increases the concentration of its troops and weapons along the Ukrainian border, it would pose a direct threat to Ukraine’s security. This is not merely an abstract threat, and it is covered in a point of the Conception of National Security recently adopted by Ukraine’s Supreme Rada. And one must not forget the presence of the Russian Black Sea Fleet on Ukraine’s southern borders.

There is finally the internal political factor. According to the classical textbook definition, foreign policy is a logical continuation of internal politics, in which the interests of the ruling elite dictate the rules of the game. In this case, we are speaking of an elite which was brought up on Soviet traditions. Its main interest is in the preservation of its own power, which, here, is directly linked to the preservation of the sovereignty of the state under its control. Hence, there is the desire to guarantee Ukraine’s sovereignty by any means, movement towards NATO being one of them.

But the theses advanced above to explain Ukraine’s movement towards NATO nevertheless do not give an answer to the question of Ukraine’s goal: is it to get as close as possible to NATO or to become a full-fledged member of the Alliance? In trying to answer this question, let us examine the roles played by the following groups:

The Ruling Elite and the Political Parties

In analyzing the dynamics of what the Ukrainian leadership designates as its national interests and foreign policy priorities, one may state that Ukraine’s position on the question of relations with NATO is… not to have a position. It would be a mistake to define Ukraine’s position in terms of Leonid Kuchma’s words on "non-bloc status," or in terms of Foreign Minister Hennady Udovenko’s periodic statements that Ukraine has no intention of "joining NATO." It is equally mistaken to do so on the basis of the words of the same Udovenko on the subject of possible "associate membership in NATO" or the remarks of National Security and Defense Council secretary Volodymyr Horbulin about "NATO’s open door" for Ukraine or about Ukraine’s joining the Alliance, which, perhaps, could take place "much earlier than 2010."

Until recently, such vagueness has worked in Ukraine’s favor. On the one hand, by declaring its abstract desire to "become integrated into the world community," Kiev has succeeded in developing relations with the West and has received financial aid from the developed Western democracies. On the other hand, by insisting on its desire to "secure its neutrality in the future," it has managed to keep relations with Russia on more or less an even keel.

But this position is no longer as ideally convenient as it once was. One way or another, Ukraine will have to face not only the problem of choosing the direction of its future integration; it will also have to choose the best way to guarantee its own security. The need to define Kiev’s position clearly and unambiguously is dictated by several factors:

1) The bundle of contradictions in relations with Russia.

In the process of resolving them, the vagueness of Ukraine’s position on the direction of its political, economic (true, to a lesser extent), and military integration has turned from being a "shock absorber" against periodically recurring stresses into being a brake on Ukraine’s further development, which leaves Ukraine vulnerable to unlimited Russian pressure.

2) The West has no reason to offer any tangible support for Ukraine if the aforementioned pressure is applied.

It would hardly be worth risking relations with Russia by supporting a country which doesn’t even know which structures it wishes to enter, and whose weight in the world is clearly not commensurate with that of Russia.

Ukraine’s leadership, in principle, is ready to accept the idea of the need for the country to join NATO, and, moreover, to make an official statement of that position. But doing so now would be virtually impossible. If President Leonid Kuchma made such a statement, it could cost him his second term. In Ukrainian society there is no consensus on the need to join NATO. Therefore, unlike Poland, where the ruling elite can rely on the support of an overwhelming majority of the voters, in Ukraine, the idea of joining NATO is met with bewilderment from the electorate.

It would also be impossible, at the present moment, for this process to be initiated by the Ukrainian parliament, due to the disposition of forces in the Supreme Rada. Opponents of a Western orientation for Ukraine, although not a majority, are rather influential and are able to block any decision. The representatives of the pro-presidential forces in the parliament, if they had their preference, would keep collective silence until the next parliamentary elections in 1998 — so that they could get as many seats as possible throughout Ukraine. For the very same reasons, one cannot expect any initiatives from the parliamentary supporters of Kuchma’s probable opponent in the 1999 elections, Yevhen Marchuk.

Nevertheless, it is easy to imagine the following scenario. If, as the result of the 1998 parliamentary elections, a group of parties supporting Leonid Kuchma succeeds in winning a significant number of seats in the Supreme Rada, and the disposition of the rest of the political forces makes it possible to form a bloc with potential supporters of Ukraine’s integration into European and transatlantic structures, the Ukrainian parliament may well proclaim — and it has some authority to do so — Ukraine’s intention of becoming a member of NATO in the future. This would deflect the lion’s share of accusations of being "excessively pro-Western" from Leonid Kuchma in the presidential elections.

On the question of Ukraine’s movement to or from NATO, it is easier to speak of the positions of political parties, although the centrist parties elude easy classification on this score. Thus, parties of a right or center-right orientation (Rukh, the Ukrainian Republican Party, the Congress of Ukrainian Nationalists) are clearly defined by their vision of Ukraine as a member of NATO. Rukh, several days ago, even officially demanded that President Kuchma announce Ukraine’s decision to enter the Alliance. The parties of the left, extreme left, and extreme right are no less clearly defined: the left-wing Communist and Socialist parties, the extreme left-wing Citizens’ Congress of Ukraine, All-Ukrainian Union of Workers, and Slavic Unity Party, and the extreme right-wing Ukrainian National Assembly and National-Socialist Party are unambiguously opposed to the idea of Ukraine joining NATO. The parties’ positions will clearly be the dominant factor in defining the position of the future Ukrainian parliament, and this fall, when the congresses of most parties will be held, it will already be possible to make the first predictions as to the general attitude towards NATO of the new legislative branch representatives.

The Population

To determine the general attitude of the (voting) population of Ukraine towards NATO, it is enough to take a look at a map of the country. In this case, we are speaking of regions of Ukraine where the situation differs from that in the capital. In Kiev, according to a poll conducted recently by the "Democratic Initiatives" Foundation, about 35 percent of the residents supported the idea of Ukraine joining NATO.

In the regions the question of Ukraine joining NATO is far from being an issue only of military integration. If Ukraine’s course towards integration into European structures is supported by the Western region of the country, one may also say, with a great degree of confidence, that it supports Ukraine’s entry into transatlantic structures. And the military aspect does not play a decisive role: the deciding factors would be "the return to a civilized Europe" and "distancing ourselves from Russia," an attitude which, in the case of the Western Ukrainians, is dictated by history, including very recent history.

The situation in the central oblasts of Ukraine is more complicated, and one can hardly speak with any confidence of the dominance of a positive or a negative attitude towards NATO here. The next parliamentary elections could shed more light on this.

The situation in the eastern and southern regions of Ukraine is a little more definite. The oblasts located closest to the border with Russia are traditionally considered "red" (and are adjacent to Russian oblasts which are part of the Russian "Red Belt"). The position of the overwhelming majority of the electorate here is clear: it is against NATO, first, because Ukraine’s Western orientation is automatically associated with its "moving away from Russia" — a course which is unacceptable to Russian-speaking voters. Second, because of the absence of information, or — with the help of the leftists — the presence of distorted information about the bloc, NATO is still seen as a threatening monster which poses a danger to Ukraine.

President Kuchma’s inability to make a public announcement of Ukraine’s desire to join NATO is thus clear: in a presidential campaign, it is the south and east of Ukraine that exert a decisive influence on the outcome of the elections. Taking into account Kuchma’s currently low popularity in these regions, such a proclamation could fatally undermine his chances for reelection.


One may state the following: if NATO has an interest in Ukraine’s existence, even if not as a member of the Alliance, then it must work out a concrete strategy of action. Ukraine’s active participation in the "Partnership for Peace" program is an unconditionally positive fact, but it is insufficient. One must not forget that, in spite of the pro-Western aspirations of the Ukrainian ruling elite, no one can guarantee that this elite will remain in power after the 1999 elections. If a representative of leftist forces comes to power in Ukraine, the question of the continuation of this foreign policy course may become very problematic. Therefore, the activity of the NATO Information Center, which will be opening this year in Kiev (and the information centers of other European institutions) must be directed towards Ukraine’s regions, and more concretely — to the southern and eastern oblasts. It is hardly worthwhile to try to get people there to love NATO; that could prove to be a Sisyphean labor. But if they succeed in at least breaking down the subconscious image there of NATO as an enemy, the results could exceed all expectations.

Translated by Mark Eckert