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Ukraine’s No to NATO reexamined: Not seeing the forest for the trees

Jakub Kulhánek Jakub Kulhánek / Ed. 15. 2. 2016

With the passage of the law on the fundamental principles of domestic and foreign policy on June 3, the Ukrainian parliament put a poignant end to the country’s long odyssey of seeking NATO membership.

The decision has immediately become a subject of an immense controversy both at home and abroad. Interestingly enough, the slow and tedious process of integration into NATO is quite illustrative of Ukraine’s own sense of grave geopolitical predicament underlined by deeply-rooted ethnic and linguistic divisions.

The country’s halfhearted bid to join the Alliance has been driven by a number of disparate foreign and security policy considerations on the one hand and domestic political infightings on the other hand. When in 2002 then Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma formally applied for NATO membership, the move was widely seen as the president’s cynical attempt to sugarcoat his image of a corrupt leader in the eyes of the West who had grown increasingly fed up of the vagaries of the Ukrainian politics. In the aftermath of the Orange Revolution, the quest for NATO membership, however distant they might be, became a pet cause for the new government and its supports. No one seemed to be a more ardent supporter of Ukraine’s membership aspirations than Yanukovich’s predecessor Viktor Yushchenko who saw NATO as a potential bulwark against Russia and its sinister designs on country’s territorial integrity. In spite of meager public support, Yushchenko became heavily invested in promoting close ties with the Alliance, which some say in part helped unravel his presidency. In the run up to the 2010 presidential election, Victor Yanukovich promised to change course on NATO integration as part of his drive to improve Russo-Ukrainian relations battered by endless feuds ranging between Moscow and Kiev in the previous years.

What drove Yanukovich to foreswear NATO integration? First, stained by the Soviet Cold War propaganda NATO remains deeply unpopular in Ukraine, therefore Yanukovich could have hardly risked damaging his political fortunes by scraping the former government’s pro-NATO policy. Although the opposition has wasted no time to accuse Yanukovich of being a Russian stooge, the reversal of NATO policy is unlikely to mobilize the anti-Yanukovich camp in any significant way in the long term. The fact remains that even former prime minister and Yanukovich’s main rival Yulia Tymoshenko stayed clear of overtly throwing her weight behind her country’s NATO bid during the last presidential campaign, for instance. Second, Yanukovich’s decision has far more important foreign policy implications. At little cost to himself, Yanukovich removed one of the thorniest issues in Russo-Ukrainian relations, whereby currying favor with Moscow. This was of course part of a broader deal with Moscow, which also included the extension of the lease on naval facilities in Crimea allowing the Russian Black Sea fleet to cling on to its base beyond 2017. In return, Moscow agreed to lower gas prices, whereby cushioning the impact of the economic crises for the Ukrainians.

The June legislation can hardly be described as revolutionary. Nevertheless, outside of Ukraine and especially in the West, the recently passed bill has fallen prey to misinterpretations usually cast in terms of the epical struggle between the seemingly pro-Western camp led by Yulia Tymoshenko and the remnants of the Orange coalition pitted against pro-Moscow President Yanukovich and his Party of the Regions.

Assuming the worst, Kiev’s No to NATO has been seen as nothing short of the complete loss of Ukraine to Russia. Yet, the current debate in the Western policy circles and media obscures the fact how unrealistic it was to hope for a major breakthrough in Ukraine’s integration in the first place.

Yanukovich’s decision is in many respects a simple correction of the long-term aberration in Ukraine’s foreign policy — nothing less and nothing more. Similarly, it does not mean that Ukraine is turning its back at the West. In fact, this could not be further from the truth. While dismissing integration with NATO, Yanukovich keeps reiterating that his government will continue to pursue close integration with the European Union. Although one can hardly expect Ukraine joining the EU any time soon, the emphasis on European integration is an important reminder of Ukraine’s multi-vector foreign policy, whereby Kiev strives to balance the West and the East in order to preserve its independence and attain its particular national interests. President Yanukovich and his backers fully recognizes the EU’s role as a powerful economic magnet and a quintessential trading partner for Ukraine.

In light of recent changes in Ukrainian foreign policy, there is an inherent risk for the West to get bogged down in a tug-of-war with Russia over Ukraine. Or else the Western capitals consumed by their own internal political and economic woes might decide to cut their losses vis-à-vis Ukraine and turn their attention elsewhere. Neither of the two foreign policy options is desirable, however.

The West, be it NATO or the EU, has neither will nor resources to fully engage Ukraine and offer Kiev the realistic prospects of integration. A good case in point was the recent visit by US Secretary Hillary Clinton in Ukraine where she went to great lengths to make it clear that despite the vote in the Ukrainian parliament NATO’s door remained open for Kiev. But at the same time she left no doubt that the US was not ready to sacrifice the ongoing rapprochement with Russia for the sake of the mirage of Ukraine’s integration with the West.

Even Moscow should be under no illusion that the current government of President Yanukovich will go out of its way to please Russia only so far as it suits its interests. At least for the time being, therefore, Ukraine is neither going to commit itself openly to the West or the East. Ukraine is unlikely to relinquish its geostrategic ambiguity as it is understood as a way how to preserve country’s independence. The Ukrainian elites and the public are in the agreement on the need to country’s independence come what it may.

With Yanukovich’s Ukraine, the West tends to lose sight of the country’s precarious geopolitical realities while feeling tempted to succumb to zero-sum thinking. Russia is often being accused of pursuing a zero sum foreign policy in which Moscow sees any gain by its competitors as its loss and vice versa thereby diminishing room for cooperation. Yet the West may be tempted to succumb to similar tendencies in Ukraine. For the West, Ukraine’s importance cannot be overestimated as the country is an important transit country and a key actor in the Black Sea region.

It is high time to realize that for the West disengagement is not an option and Kiev cannot be expected to leave the comfort zone of its geopolitical ambiguity any time soon. Therefore, both the West and Russia would be far better off to think outside of the box and choose cooperation over costly competition.

One can find inspiration in a recent proposal by Kiev inviting Russia and the EU to invest in the Ukrainian pipeline network. Against the backdrop of the recent gas dispute between Moscow and Kiev, Ukrainian Prime Ministry Mykola Azarov suggested a plan to establish a joint venture between the EU, Russia and Ukraine to oversee the revitalization of country’s gas pipelines, which Brussels and Moscow see as the asset of a great strategic value. In whatever format the West wishes to engage Ukraine, it needs to pursue a smart engagement so as to target specific areas of cooperation while accepting Kiev’s long-term geopolitical choice.

Originally published: Ukraine’s No to NATO reexamined: Not seeing the forest for the trees

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Europe 550
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