Publication: Prism Volume: 3 Issue: 15

Western and Ukrainian leaders made a strategic mistake by not treating Ukraine as a serious candidate for NATO admission

By Volodymyr Zviglyanich

According to Ukrainian deputy foreign minister Anton Buteiko July 9, 1997, was "the day of Ukraine." It was then that Ukrainian president Leonid Kuchma and the leaders of NATO’s sixteen member-states met in Madrid to sign the "Charter on a Distinctive Partnership between the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and Ukraine." The signing of this document (and NATO’s earlier invitations to Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic to join the alliance) fundamentally changed Eastern Europe’s political landscape.

The decision to accept Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic into NATO has strengthened the resolve of other countries in the region, which are also former members of the Soviet bloc, to become members of NATO. Romania, Slovenia and the Baltic states are among possible second-tier candidates. There is much discussion on whether the alliance’s planned expansion will take place on schedule, about the cost of the operation and the possible difficulties in getting the relevant agreements ratified by national parliaments. In all these debates, the meaning traditionally associated with the region of Eastern Europe is somehow being forgotten.

The states of the region are being treated less and less as countries on their way to democracy and the market, and beginning to be treated as full-fledged members of the Western community. A new political paradigm is being elaborated, a paradigm of a truly united Europe — united on the basis of the values of Western liberalism and Christian morality and ethics and by an understanding of the value of labor for the achievement of individual freedom and responsibility.

For countries that have already realized the significance of the new paradigm, the problem consists only in when and how their entry into the Euro-Atlantic community will take place. But for countries that have not yet made that choice, achieving economic progress and becoming a part of the Europe of the twenty-first century will not be easy.

Ukraine’s adherence to the "Charter on a Distinctive Partnership Between NATO and Ukraine" leaves an ambiguous impression in this regard. On the one hand, one may agree with Buteiko and Kuchma that an event of historic significance occurred on July 9 in Madrid, and that the civilized world "turned" toward Ukraine. But did Ukraine "turn to" the civilized world? Does the Charter not carry within itself the hidden danger of delaying Ukraine’s realization of the importance of adopting the new paradigm, causing it to be left by the side of the road, untouched by the fundamental changes taking place on the continent at the turn of the century?

Anatomy of the Charter

The charter does not entail military commitments by NATO toward Ukraine, such as Kyiv originally sought. It is instead a political document entailing some binding obligations, whose force some observers have compared to the 1975 Helsinki Final Act’s stipulations on security and human rights issues. The charter is not subject to ratification by national parliaments, and this reduces its legal significance.

The charter affirms the obligations and commitments undertaken by the NATO countries and Ukraine as members of the United Nations and as participating states in the OSCE. It stresses that NATO members and Ukraine acknowledge that no state may pursue its own security at the expense of that of another state, and that no state may regard any part of the OSCE region as its sphere of influence. (1) The NATO allies reaffirm their support for Ukrainian sovereignty and independence, as stated in the Budapest Accord of 1994, in which three NATO-members — the U.S., Britain, France — joined Russia and China in giving Ukraine security assurances against nuclear attack.

The charter does not, however, give Ukraine such assurances from NATO itself. It presupposes areas for consultation and cooperation between Ukraine and NATO, in particular through joint seminars and working groups covering a broad range of topics including civil emergency planning and disaster preparedness; civil-military relations, democratic control of the armed forces and Ukrainian defense reform; defense planning; defense conversion; economic aspects of security; environmental security; nuclear safety, and so on. Additional areas for cooperation will include armaments cooperation; military training, including Partnership for Peace (PfP) exercises on Ukrainian territory and NATO support for the Polish-Ukrainian peacekeeping battalion; and promotion of defense cooperation between Ukraine and her neighbors. Ukraine will establish a military liaison mission as part of its mission to NATO in Brussels.

However, as Canada’s prime minister Jean Chretien noted during the signing ceremony, what now needs to be done in Ukraine-NATO relations is to create the machinery for consultations. (2) The weak spot of the charter remains the absence of concrete mechanisms to implement the measures outlined. This is in contrast to the Founding Act on relations between NATO and Russia, which envisions the formation of a NATO-Russia Permanent Joint Council with the participation of NATO’s secretary-general. The charter, on the other hand, does not provide for the formation of a separate consultative body between NATO and Ukraine, nor does it specify the level of the participants in the consultative process.

The NATO-Russia Permanent Joint Council promised Russia a voice (but not a vote) in NATO deliberations. Ukraine will have no such voice in NATO deliberations. The charter signed by Ukraine is therefore several orders of magnitude lower than the Founding Act signed by Russia. (3)

Weimar Ukraine?

As a result of Russia’s negotiations with NATO, it has become commonplace to assert that the West is conducting a policy of appeasement to prevent Russia from becoming an analogue of Germany between the First and Second World Wars. But few people seem interested in whether the same thing could happen to Ukraine. This issue was ignored when the charter was debated by the Ukrainian parliament. There, the Left criticized Kuchma for betraying Ukraine’s interests and flirting with the West. The Right and the centrists enthused about security guarantees and Ukraine’s territorial integrity, forgetting that all this had already been guaranteed to Ukraine. The main issue, for which the Eastern European countries wanted to join NATO in the first place — becoming part of a united Europe and ridding themselves of the very concept of "Eastern European-ness" — got forgotten.

Excessive emphasis on external security guarantees now penetrates Ukraine’s political establishment, giving rise to a sort of "post-Madrid euphoria." This distracts people from the fundamental problem, which is the achievement of internal security guarantees by means of a shift in mentality not only of the elite but also of society, bringing Ukraine into harmony with the processes now taking place in Europe, of which NATO expansion is only a part.

This incompatibility between the value systems of the West and the Ukrainian elite explains the paradoxical phenomenon of economic stagnation in Ukraine, now almost the only country in the post-Soviet bloc to have undertaken no structural economic reforms in the last six years. According to World Bank figures, as many as 90 percent of the Ukrainian population live below the poverty line. GDP is still falling and the average salary is about $80 per month, or half of what it is in Russia. There is a real danger of the emergence of a "Weimar Ukraine" in which a corrupt political establishment is unable to conduct radical reforms because they would threaten its relative prosperity, while a passive and unstructured civil society is distracted by paternalistic illusions about the need for a "strong hand" to implement reforms and give the people prosperity.

The West’s most perceptive politicians understand the danger of "Eastern European provincialism" which now hangs over Ukraine. Zbigniew Brzezinski, an active supporter of Ukraine’s modernization, has recently advocated Ukraine’s inclusion in sub-regional integration processes (Ukraine-Germany-Poland, Ukraine-Poland-Romania). The goal of such initiatives would be, first, to weaken Russia’s influence over Ukraine by fostering a sense of national self-sufficiency in Ukraine’s political establishment and, second, to prepare the way for the eventual inclusion of Ukraine into NATO. (4) For all the importance of such initiatives, their significance would be greater if the Ukrainian leadership took an unambiguous position in favor of seeking NATO membership, as the leaders of Romania, Slovenia, and the Baltic states have done.

The Dangers of "Eastern European Provincialism. The admission of new members into NATO will leave Ukraine in a gray area between Russia and an enlarged NATO. Russia is likely try to reestablish its hegemony over Ukraine regardless of cost. Ukraine may well turn into a testing ground, not only of Russian intentions, but of the West’s willingness to fill the post-Soviet security vacuum.

In these circumstances, Ukraine faces several potential dangers:

* isolation from the mainstream of European politics and the European security architecture, leading to a syndrome of "being along with them but not of them";

* failure to conduct sweeping military reform to meet NATO admission standards or OSCE commitments;

* failure to strengthen civilian administration and oversight of the military;

* increased economic dependence on Russia, especially in the sphere of energy supply and orientation of the Ukrainian market toward Russia;

* increased political and regional tensions between the Ukrainian political elites over the issue of NATO membership;

* increased anti-Western sentiments among the population, based on the feeling of being abandoned.

These possible consequences of Ukraine’s non-inclusion in the first intake of would-be NATO members could thwart Ukraine’s political and economic reforms. Ukraine risks becoming a pariah-state characterized by a stagnant economy, institutional corruption, and unclear prospects for democracy and the rule of law. (5) It was a strategic mistake by both Western and Ukrainian leaders that Ukraine was not treated as a serious candidate for NATO admission.

In the West, the unspoken assumption was that Ukraine’s participation in the PfP program and peacekeeping operations in Bosnia were enough to bolster its "separate" position from Russia. But the main obstacle to Ukraine’s inclusion into the ranks of potential claimants to NATO membership was the Kremlin’s furious resistance and Western anxiety not to undermine relations with Moscow.

The Ukrainian government lacked the political will to pursue a policy of national independence and joining NATO with the same persistence as Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary. Now, after the signing of the charter, the position of the Ukrainian political elite is especially ambiguous. The voices of those who understand the inadequacy of this document for the achievement of Ukraine’s strategic goals — to be an active, not an observing, member of the European community — are being drowned out by official propaganda, which presents the charter as an outstanding achievement for the administration. What could be done in these circumstances?

* The Ukrainian leadership should realize that Ukraine’s non-bloc status is in contradiction with its strategic goals — to be a full-fledged member of the Euro-Atlantic community — and strive to change it.

* Ukraine should do all it can to be included in the second tier of candidates for NATO membership and should start looking for support from the leading members of the alliance, taking advantage of the experience of Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary.

* Ukraine should concentrate all its efforts to implement economic reforms as a pledge of achieving internal guarantees of its security.

* These efforts should be made in parallel with the implementation of broad military reforms, in accordance with NATO’s requirements for potential candidates;

* The Charter on Ukraine’s relations with NATO should be treated as only the first step (and not the last) for Ukraine on its way to Europe.


1. Charter on a Distinctive Partnership between the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and Ukraine. Madrid, 9 July 1997, part II, art. 2

2. The Ukrainian Weekly, No. 28, July 13, 1997, p.1

3. Vladimir Vernikov, "‘Novyi oblik’ NATO poka ugadyvaetsya s trudom," Izvestia, July 9, 1997

4. Presentation by Zbigniew Brzezinsky at the Poland-Romania-Ukraine Conference at CSIS on June 30, 1997

5. Kuchma, who as president is supposedly the main guarantor of the Constitution, recently advocated postponing parliamentary and local elections, constitutionally mandated for March 1998, for a year

Translated by Mark Eckert

Volodymyr Zviglyanich is a senior research fellow of the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Sociology, a research associate at George Washington University, and a Senior Fellow of the Jamestown Foundation.


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