Europe, Headlines

UKRAINE: Debate Over Joining NATO Erupts Again

Zoltán Dujisin

PRAGUE, Feb 15 2008 (IPS) - Ukraine’s pro-Western ‘Orange’ leaders seem to be aiming at NATO membership, but face hurdles from Russia, public opinion and even politicians in their own camp.

The debate has re-emerged after Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko, Prime Minister Yuliya Timoshenko and Parliament Speaker Arseniy Yatsenyuk sent a letter to NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer on Ukraine joining the organisation’s Membership Action Plan (MAP) during the Bucharest NATO summit to be held in April.

Never have all branches of power in Ukraine expressed their opinion on NATO so clearly. It is a sign that the country’s leadership is trying to accelerate the process of euro-Atlantic integration, and make it irreversible.

“Deep and irreversible democratic changes have today become an objective background for solving the principal issues on complying with the criteria necessary for NATO membership,” the leaders wrote.

After 10 former states of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact joined NATO in recent years, Moscow sees in Ukraine’s aspirations a further advancement of Western interests in its vicinity.

Furthermore, Russia is engaged in active military cooperation with Ukraine, and has a strong military presence in Crimea.

In a recent joint press conference in Moscow, which mostly focused on gas talks, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko agreed that Ukraine’s NATO aspirations are an internal issue, and Putin promised not to interfere.

Nonetheless, the Russian President, in the vein of what had recently been said by a handful of Russian officials, indicated that Ukraine’s NATO membership would force Moscow to take measures.

“Russia will strongly oppose any Ukrainian move in the direction of NATO until Ukraine actually becomes a member. Once it is, it will finish,” Natalya Shapovalova, foreign policy analyst at the Kiev-based International Centre for Policy Studies told IPS.

Both Russia and Ukraine are already partner states to the alliance, and have conducted military drills with NATO member states as well. Ukraine was even engaged in NATO operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Balkans.

Contrary to speculation in much of the media, the analyst refuses to directly link the latest Russian-Ukrainian gas row to disagreements over Kiev’s NATO bid.

“Gas issues have a very economic nature. Gazprom holders want to earn more and there is no secret that the price will be increasing constantly whether Ukraine joins the MAP or not.”

To quell Moscow’s fears, Yushchenko promised to take legal steps that will ensure no foreign military base can ever be built on Ukrainian soil.

But it remains unclear if this will suffice in persuading NATO members who maintain good relations with Moscow to accept Ukraine into the family. Only some Eastern European members and the United States have clearly voiced support for Kiev’s membership bid.

Yushchenko and his allies hope NATO will help modernise the obsolete Ukrainian armed forces and bring the country’s legislation closer to EU (European Union) standards – Kiev’s ultimate and consensual foreign policy goal being EU membership.

Proponents of NATO membership also expect economic benefits in the form of increased foreign direct investment and a growth in Ukraine’s arms exports.

Pro-presidential forces argue that the MAP only guarantees enhanced cooperation but not accession, for which they are willing to hold a referendum.

Angry opposition MPs – led by the Party of the Regions (PR) of former prime minister Viktor Yanukovich – have blocked the parliament rostrum in protest, arguing the MAP will divide society.

The PR, which is believed to be covertly supporting NATO membership, has always been cautious not to anger either its electorate or Russia.

The previous Yanukovich cabinet, which had to consider the stances of socialist and communist coalition partners and the public, had not attempted to join the MAP, seemingly postponing the issue.

“The issue of NATO in Ukraine is not treated as a policy option for Ukraine’s security and defence but only as a tool for political campaigning,” Shapovalova told IPS.

“The PR is putting this issue on the table so expressively only when it is in opposition, in order to weaken the coalition and get more scores in the eyes of their voters,” the analyst notes.

Former defence minister and Yushchenko appointee Anatoliy Hrytsenko last year even praised Yanukovich’s efforts as a prime minister in the field of Euro-Atlantic integration, and said more was done than under their ‘Orange’ predecessors, leaving many observers baffled.

Incidentally, Timoshenko has also favoured what she calls a “step-by-step” approach, for once drawing her position closer to that of her arch-enemies from the opposition.

But Shapovalova is also sceptical of the prime minister’s stance: “Timoshenko doesn’t want to show off her support of NATO because the majority of the population is against it and she needs their votes to win the presidential elections in 2009.”

The public’s changing mood on NATO has been carefully followed by Ukrainian media and think tanks, with the latest research showing that both ambivalence and curiosity regarding the organisation are on the rise.

However, half of Ukrainians still oppose membership whereas, depending on the survey, only up to 30 percent would approve of it.

Supporters of NATO membership, concentrated mostly in the country’s west, tend to say it will guarantee Ukraine’s independence and unity and bring democratic development and European values.

Opponents, hailing predominantly from the east and south, see NATO as an aggressive organisation, and fear that Ukrainians will face loss of lives in foreign missions.

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