Ukraine: Forging a New Path
By OLEG VARFOLOMEYEV (1)
Ukraine's international policy addresses three major concerns: bilateral
relations with Russia, Ukraine's posture within the CIS, and Ukraine's attitude
to NATO. Relations with Russia have focused mainly on the future of the
Black Sea Fleet, the status of Crimea and Sevastopol in particular, and
the supply of energy from Russia. Within the CIS, Ukraine has taken the
lead of an association of republics--that includes Kiev's allies Azerbaijan,
Georgia, and Moldova--which are worried by Russian hegemonial tendencies.
This analysis, however, will address primarily Ukraine-NATO relations.
Ukraine's attitude toward NATO so far has been rather controversial. On
the one hand, Europe's second largest country officially supports NATO's
eastward expansion and is one of the most active participants in the alliance's
Partnership for Peace (PfP) program; last year the Ukrainian military participated
in 157 PfP events, including joint military exercises. (2) On the other
hand, Ukraine does not officially seek membership in NATO, and public opinion
polls indicate that many Ukrainians are considerably less enthusiastic about
the alliance than are many of their Central European neighbors.
In the six years since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Ukraine has traveled
a difficult path in search of identity, groping for its place in the post-Cold
War global balance of power. In 1992, Ukraine was a nonaligned state with
nuclear weapons and a number of unresolved historical conflicts with its
neighbors; by 1998 it had evolved into a nuclear-free state which had reached
accord on several major territorial and historical issues with Russia (excepting
Sevastopol and Crimea--at least as far as Mayor Luzhkov and other Russian
nationalists are concerned), Romania, and Poland. Especially important were
the final decision on the Black Sea Fleet division with Russia and the border
settlement with Romania, both of which were reached last year. These and
other agreements paved the way to Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma's signing
the Charter on a Distinctive Partnership with NATO on 9 July 1997 in Madrid.
What is the distinctive partnership for Ukraine? An inevitable and natural
response to NATO enlargement, according to a seasoned diplomat (and, until
recently, Ukraine's Minister for Foreign Affairs), Hennadiy Udovenko.(3)
His junior, and usually more candid, colleague, Deputy Minister for Foreign
Affairs Anton Buteyko, called NATO "a target," and stated at a
press briefing two weeks before the document was signed that it would serve
as a basis for practical integration into the alliance.
The current Ukrainian government obviously would prefer to seek closer relations
with NATO, but public opinion in Ukraine currently is against joining the
alliance. Moreover, a special kind of relationship with Russia, which opposes
NATO enlargement and sees Ukraine as belonging to its sphere of interests,
makes such a possibility a matter for the rather distant future.
Ukraine inherited from the Soviet Union not only the world's third largest
nuclear arsenal. The Ukrainian armed forces numbered 780,000 troops back
in 1991. One hundred and fifty Ukrainian enterprises of the former Soviet
military-industrial complex, which had been designing and building twelve
of the USSR's 20 ICBMs, were employing 200,000 persons. (4) The nationalists
who came to power in the first independent Ukraine may have viewed this
huge military potential as a means of exerting pressure on Russia in the
disputes over the former USSR's currency assets, Crimea and Sevastopol,
and a matter of principle for Russia: the future of the Black Sea Fleet.
The nationalist elites also believed that, by possessing nuclear weapons
and refusing to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, Ukraine could
safely remain a neutral state, balanced between NATO in the West and the
weakened Russia in the East. However, political and economic realities did
not allow those illusions to last for long.
Ukraine's expectation of western political and economic support was not
met: The West did not hurry either with political support of Ukraine's integration
into European structures, or with economic investments. The US was polite
but firm in its refusal to support Ukraine as long as the latter continued
to retain its unwieldy nuclear arsenal, commonly seen as a factor of instability
in Europe. In its turn, Russia was adding insult to injury by insisting
that Ukraine had neither scientific nor financial resources to maintain
properly its nuclear weapons and the means of their delivery. A new member
was unwanted in the "nuclear club."
Having broken most of its economic ties with the former Soviet Union, and
with Russia in particular, hesitating with the transition to a market economy
and receiving virtually no external help, Ukraine quickly found itself bogged
down in economic crisis. Real GDP per capita fell to one-half, from $5,010
in 1992 to $2,620 in 1995.(5) Living standards were quickly deteriorating.
The newly independent state was painfully reaching the realization that
it simply could not afford to maintain Europe's second largest army. Military
personnel strength was reduced in 1992-97 by almost 50 percent, to 400,000
troops, with a planned further reduction to 320,000 by late 1998. Defense
spending was cut 33 percent in 1992-1998, and now amounts to just 1.4 percent
of the state budget expenditures.
The break in ties with the former USSR also created an energy crisis with
long-lasting effects. Russia, though politically weakened, could afford
to indulge in playing the gas trump card. Outdated heavy industry makes
Ukraine the world's third leading consumer of natural gas, and the country
imports one-half of its energy. Ukraine is almost completely dependent on
Russia for gas supplies; a televised picture of Boris Yel'tsin turning off
an imaginary gas faucet each time Black Sea Fleet negotiations approached
a deadlock served as a painful reminder to Ukraine of its economic dependence
on its northern neighbor.
Ukraine was forced to cede to Russia (as the main legal heir of the deceased
superpower) the nuclear arsenal which had remained on its territory after
the USSR's collapse. Eventually, Ukraine had to exchange its nuclear weapons
for security guarantees given early in 1994 by Russia, the US, Great Britain,
and France. By the middle of 1997, all the nuclear warheads remaining on
Ukrainian territory had been dismantled. Ukraine adhered to the Nuclear
Non-Proliferation Treaty as a non-nuclear state. By the end of the year,
Ukraine had finally signed accords on the Black Sea Fleet division, 82/18
in favor of Russia, as well as a treaty on friendship and cooperation with
Russia, which was perceived both in the two capitals and in the West as
a sign of radically improving relations between the two largest countries
of the former Soviet Union.
Deprived of its nuclear umbrella, or rather of the illusion of having one,
Ukraine as a large non-aligned state was doomed to become an area of uncertainty
in the center of Europe. When NATO enlargement eastward became imminent,
the danger grew of Ukraine becoming a "gray zone," a buffer state
between an expanded NATO and a still strong and unpredictable Russia. This
danger and a strong desire to become a part of Europe politically were behind
Ukraine's decision to join the Partnership for Peace program in February
1994 as the first member of the Commonwealth of Independent States. The
fear of Russia's unpredictability increased in Ukraine after the success
of Communists and Vladimir Zhirinovsky's radical right-wing party in the
Russian parliamentary elections of 1995. Russian so-called "national
patriots" never concealed their unfriendly attitudes towards Ukraine
as an independent state, in particular where Crimea and the Black Sea Fleet
At a 26 March 1998 session of the NATO-Ukraine Commission, the Ukrainian
delegation listed three conditions for joining NATO (which coincide to a
major extent with NATO's own conditions): They included decisive public
opinion in favor of accession, military compatibility with NATO standards,
and the guarantee that joining the alliance would not hurt relations with
neighboring countries. (6) Fulfilling any of the three conditions, let alone
all of them, would require considerable time and effort.
Ukraine remains economically dependent on Moscow; its debt for Russian natural
gas supplies, which stood at $1.2 billion as of the beginning March 1998,
comprises a heavy burden on the economy in crisis. In theory at least, Moscow
can punish Kyiv for any "misbehavior" instantly by cutting gas
supplies, with devastating consequences for Ukraine's high-energy-consuming
heavy industries. Every step Ukraine takes regarding NATO is closely watched
in Moscow, where both right- and left-wing radicals never stop calling for
a return of Sevastopol and Crimea, given to Ukraine in 1954 as a gift by
CPSU General Secretary Nikita Khrushchev. Especially worrying for Ukraine
is the fact that Moscow's mayor, Yuri Luzhkov, widely regarded as a very
strong candidate in the upcoming Russian presidential elections, shares
the national patriots' attitudes toward Ukraine and toward Sevastopol, the
city which, according to them, belongs to Russia.
There is also considerable opposition within Ukraine against joining NATO.
Public opinion is not in favor of belonging to the alliance. According to
different polls conducted last year, around the time the Madrid Charter
was signed, over one-half of Ukrainians opposed NATO's enlargement. Only
four percent of participants in a public opinion poll conducted by SOCIS-Gallup
in late 1997 said they would vote in the March 1998 parliamentary elections
for candidates who supported Ukraine's earliest possible accession to NATO.
The results of the elections to a certain extent confirmed this attitude.
The Communists who called for suspending all relations with NATO in their
electoral platform, and whose leader, Petro Symonenko, called the Madrid
Charter "an act of treachery," celebrated a convincing victory,
reaping over 25 percent of the vote.
The negative attitude of those voters towards NATO is based on a traditional
perception, cultivated for decades in the Soviet Union, of the alliance
as an aggressive military bloc, as well as on close cultural ties between
many Ukrainians and Russia, especially in the densely populated and predominantly
Russian-speaking population in eastern and northern Ukraine regions. NATO
enlargement is widely perceived as threatening Russian national interests,
and not quite corresponding to the interests of Ukraine. Under present conditions,
therefore, Ukrainian leaders see the need to be very careful about the question
of NATO enlargement.
President Kuchma has said more than once that Ukraine was not planning to
join the alliance, referring to the country's proclaimed nonaligned status.
Moreover, speaking at a meeting of the Black Sea Economic Cooperation Organization
in April 1997, Kuchma went so far as to say that "the final decision
on this issue [on joining NATO] depends on Russia's position." (7)
Kuchma's closest aide, National Security and Defense Council Secretary Volodymyr
Horbulin, usually has been less coy about the question of Ukraine joining
NATO. In January 1997 Horbulin declared that his country could join the
alliance by the year 2010. This was, however, indirectly refuted by Udovenko,
who reiterated in Geneva that Ukraine had no plans to join NATO. (8) However,
after it became clear that Russia's reservations concerning NATO enlargement
would be ignored, then Ukrainian Ambassador to the Benelux countries Borys
Tarasyuk said in a letter to parliament that Ukraine was re-thinking its
official policy of neutrality, and that this status can be viewed "only
conditionally." (9) In the same month NATO Secretary-General Javier
Solana presented to Kuchma a draft agreement on distinctive partnership
between Ukraine and the alliance. The agreement was signed in Madrid more
than one month after NATO signed a similar agreement with Russia.
The Charter on a Distinctive Partnership between NATO and Ukraine envisages
a wide range of cooperation with NATO, as well as political consultations
on security-related issues, and a further development of military cooperation
in the framework of the Partnership for Peace program. The charter also
provides for establishment of a military liaison as part of the Ukrainian
mission to NATO in Brussels. On the whole, Ukraine received the opportunity
to develop a close partnership with the alliance in most areas of NATO activities,
with the exception of those directly associated with obligations of collective
defense, specified in Article 5 of the Washington Treaty.
Ukraine sees the charter as more than just another step in the direction
of integration into European and Euro-Atlantic structures. "We were
acknowledged as a European nation, which is very important for Ukraine's
further development," said Kuchma in Madrid, sounding rather pathetic
at the moment when Ukraine's western neighbors--Poland, Hungary, and the
Czech Republic--were announced as NATO's newest members.
Ukraine regards the charter as a guarantee against becoming a "gray
zone" between Russia and NATO, and hopes that NATO will not deploy
nuclear weapons on the territories of new member states. This is psychologically
very important for a country which lived through the Chornobyl nuclear disaster.
Ukrainian officials also say that now their country will not be considered
part of another's "sphere of influence." (10) They remain overcautious,
especially in relations with Russia. Still, the Black Sea Fleet is finally
divided, and Russian gas continues to flow in the pipes. Ukraine now feels
better insured than before against unpredictabilities of the "sworn
friend" in the north.
1 Mr. Varfolomeyev works for BBC Monitoring in Kyiv.
2 Holos Ukrainy, 8 April 1998.
3 Udovenko's address to the Ukrainian Supreme Council's plenary session,
12 June 1997.
4 Eastern Economist, 23 February 1998.
5 Ukraine, UNDP's Human Development Report, October 1997.
6 RFE/RL Central and Eastern Europe Report, 27 March 1998.
7 Eastern Economist, 5 May 1997.
8 ITAR-TASS, 24 January 1997.
9 Ukraine-Canada Monitor, Vol. 5, No. 2, Summer 1997.
10 See, for example, the statement by Ukrainian First Deputy Foreign Minister
Anton Buteyko at Sinta, Portugal, 30 May 1997, and the statement by then
Foreign Minister Udovenko at the meeting of the North Atlantic Cooperation
Council, NATO Headquarters, Brussels, 11 December 1996.
Copyright ISCIP 1998
Unless otherwise indicated, all articles appearing in this journal have
been commissioned especially for Perspective.