Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 53

Recent suggestions from major European chancelleries to include Russia in NATO’s decisionmaking process were individual initiatives, poorly coordinated with one another, and required a collective allied effort to water them down in the advent of upcoming summits. The proposals share a common set of omissions. One of these concerns those countries aspiring to NATO membership and/or already enjoying close links with the alliance. As U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has remarked, NATO cannot elevate noncandidate Russia to a status above that of candidate countries and proven partners.

A closely related omission concerns Ukraine’s relationship with the existing NATO, the enlarged post-Prague NATO and the proposed “NATO at 20” (in which Russia would have a seat, a voice and–in the vision of some of its proponents–a vote not called veto). None of these terms and concepts have yet been clarified. However defined in the next few weeks and months, and whatever its role in relation to the NATO military alliance, “NATO at 20” would in itself mark a sharp departure from the alliance’s established policy of developing relations with Russia and Ukraine on parallel tracks, without elevating one above the other.

That policy had found expression in the parallel signing of the NATO-Russia Founding Act and the NATO-Ukraine Distinctive Partnership Charter in 1997. Moscow, resentful all along of NATO as such and of American preeminence in it, has declined to take advantage of the opportunities for cooperation laid out in the alliance’s Founding Act. Ukraine, by contrast, has developed active relations with NATO across the spectrum of military, security and international political issues. Although lagging in some respects–notably military reform–the balance sheet of NATO-Ukraine relations is clearly positive and promising, as NATO’s Secretary-General Lord George Robertson pointed out at the recent Aspen-Berlin conference, which was devoted to the Distinctive Partnership Charter’s upcoming fifth anniversary (NATO press release, March 4).

Against this background, an allied decision to privilege Russia over Ukraine could send the wrong political signal to both countries. It could also lead to a situation in which decisions that relate to Ukraine might be referred for vetting to that mechanism–now termed “NATO at 20”–of which Russia would be a part and Ukraine would not. Such a situation could place Moscow in a position above Ukraine, and might even result in interposing Moscow between Kyiv and Brussels, affecting the terms of Ukraine-NATO cooperation. Safeguards would seem required in order to keep the NATO-Russia cooperation track from crossing the NATO-Ukraine cooperation track. If the latter is to fulfill its promise, those two tracks would have to be pursued as hitherto in parallel and on the same level.

Ukraine-NATO cooperation under the Distinctive Partnership Charter has been constrained, with damaging effects at times, by Ukraine’s slow pace in reforming its political system, its economy and its military, and by its electoral cycles. Western-oriented and pro-NATO circles in Kyiv are often critical of the Ukrainian leadership’s hesitancy in tackling those constraints with due resolve (Zerkalo Nedeli, February 16-22, March 2).

Nevertheless, the record of Ukraine-NATO cooperation in recent years–and especially since the signing of the Distinctive Partnership Charter–is impressive, and not only by comparison to Russia-NATO relations. Among the noncandidate countries, Ukraine has been by far the most active and frequent host of NATO military exercises by ground and naval forces. It has turned its Yavoriv military range–one of the best in the former Soviet Union–into a NATO training center for peacekeeping forces. It is the only noncandidate country to maintain a joint military unit with a NATO member country–the Ukrainian-Polish joint battalion, which participates in NATO peacekeeping missions. It supported NATO’s actions in Bosnia and Kosovo, “despite significant pressures to follow a different course,” in Lord Robertson’s words at the Aspen-Berlin conference, in which wording “significant” means Russian. From October 2001 to date, nearly 1,200 military flights–primarily American ones–have crossed through Ukraine’s airspace, en route from NATO Europe to Afghanistan and Central Asia.

While Moscow opposed NATO’s enlargement in Central Europe and then in the Baltic region, Ukraine all along welcomed the former and supported the latter publicly. Official Kyiv declared its interest in NATO’s becoming a direct neighbor of Ukraine in order to bolster the country’s security and indeed its ability to maintain balanced and constructive relations with Russia. In supporting the alliance’s Baltic enlargement, Kyiv wanted above all to bolster the principle that any European country is entitled to join the alliance of its choice. Meanwhile, Moscow insisted both that NATO would be a dangerous neighbor and that former Soviet-ruled countries are not entitled to join NATO.

Within Ukraine, the Soviet-bequeathed prejudice against NATO is steadily fading, as shown by the latest opinion survey, conducted last month and just released in Kyiv by the Oleksandr Razumkov Research Center–an institution known for promoting balanced relations by Ukraine with the West and with Russia. According to the data, 51 percent of Ukrainians would variously support or accept Ukraine’s accession to NATO, with 31 percent opposed and 19 percent undecided. The findings show not only a continuing, but a somewhat accelerating westward shift in public opinion on this issue. They also show a lower disparity between western and eastern Ukraine in terms of attitudes toward NATO. According to the center’s programs director, Valery Chaly, the questioning of respondents indicates that the shift is attributable to the American world leadership as demonstrated in the antiterrorism operations, to NATO’s support for the United States, to Russia’s presence in the antiterrorist coalition and the improvement in NATO-Russia relations (UNIAN, March 5).

Ukraine’s electoral cycles and military reform remain the neuralgic issues in Ukraine-NATO relations. The electoral cycles are to some extent linked to the issue of corruption, which weighs heavily on every aspect of Ukraine’s relations with the West, while favoring relations with a Russia equally marked by the culture of corruption. Ukraine’s elections compel the president and various oligarchic “parties of power”–which are diverse and mutually competing–to seek Moscow’s political and economic favors, but also to prevent Ukraine’s leftist forces from playing the Russian card. The current parliamentary election campaign, therefore, tends to inhibit official Ukrainian initiatives for upgrading the existing mechanism of NATO-Ukraine relations. With the upcoming parliamentary elections viewed as a dress rehearsal for presidential elections, that inhibiting factor may continue to make itself felt, unless Western-oriented and reformist political groups succeed in forming a majority in the new parliament, and on that basis a government capable of new initiatives.

On military reform, Ukraine needs urgently to take such overdue steps as downsizing its antiquated armed forces and modernizing their structure, closing superfluous military bases, scrapping excess weaponry, expanding its industrial conversion programs, and–as an integral part of military reform–modernizing the internal troops and border guards to enable them to cope with transnational terrorism, crime, drugs and weapons trafficking, and contraband–all of which constitute potential or actual threats to NATO and European Union member countries. All these challenges underscore the need to qualitatively upgrade the NATO-Ukraine cooperation mechanism, to take account of the vast changes that have occurred since 1997, to preserve the integrity of NATO-Ukraine relations from non-NATO, third-party inputs, and to fulfill that relationship’s demonstrated potential (Den, Unian, March 5-6, 11).