NATO Aspirations

Economic News

22 Jul 2010
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Eastward expansion of the transatlantic military alliance, NATO, is once again stirring passions in Ukraine - and in its neighbour, Russia.

It was in Riga - capital of the latest alliance member, Latvia - that Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko reaffirmed his ambition to accelerate the accession process. He told the press that he would have the NATO membership plan for Ukraine ready before the alliance members convene in the Latvian capital later in November.

In contrast to Ukraine's EU membership bid, most foreign heads of the NATO alliance, including the staunchly supportive Baltic countries, have signalled that the door for Ukraine's entry remains open.

Yet, after a NATO-Ukraine mission held in Sofia last week, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Borys Tarasiuk told the press that while the alliance was supportive of Ukrainian membership, the country itself needed to show that it truly wanted to join.

"Nobody in NATO is busy trying to drag Ukraine into NATO," Tarasiuk explained. On the contrary, he said, "The ball is now in Ukraine's court. To join the alliance, Ukraine will need to demonstrate the strength of its democracy, the health of its economy and the capacity of its institutions."

While Ukraine scored high marks for conducting truly free and democratic
parliamentary elections in April, the jury is out on its capacity to meet NATO's security standards, given the lack of political consensus in the country and slowing economic growth.

Indeed, as many analysts point out, the health of the economy is not just a minor pre-requisite for joining NATO. Without a sound economic base, the security and defence sectors can become "entrepreneurial" with the skills they have at their disposal.

The biggest challenge, however, for Ukraine's NATO membership, according to most observers, will be to enlist the full support of the people for membership, when many oppose the path taken by the pro-Western President Yushchenko.

Large sections of Ukrainian society were brought up during the Cold War years to be deeply suspicious of NATO - which was for many years the "enemy" - and would prefer to stay in the Russian orbit of military influence and not to jeopardise the "special relationship".

Furthermore, many Ukrainians did not approve of NATO's actions in Kosovo, back in 1999, seeing these as directed against fellow Slavs. This helped entrench the negative image of the transatlantic alliance. It does not help, of course, analysts point out, that politicians use the alliance as political currency against their pro-Western opponents.

The anti-NATO sentiment was once again invoked during the recent parliamentary elections, with several fringe parties trying to appeal to voters mainly in the Russian-speaking east of the country with a strong anti-NATO line.

Among the most prominent of them was the first president of post-Soviet Ukraine, Leonid Kravchuk, who headed the Ne-Tak! (Not Thus!) opposition bloc list and who scored just over 1% in recent parliamentary elections.

Speaking to OBG before the parliamentary elections, Kravchuk explained the source of his opposition to NATO.

"Ukraine has lived with Russia in the same house for over 350 years," he said. "There are many Russians who still live in Ukraine. We cannot have the rift between those two countries."

Meanwhile, in a message to NATO critics, Yushchenko said in Riga that each sovereign nation should be able to select its own model of security, independently. The president criticised his political opponents at home for trying to make political capital out of anti-NATO sentiment during the election campaign period.

Most analysts agree that Ukraine's membership of the alliance presents one of the toughest geopolitical challenges for both NATO and for Ukraine. Even tentative moves towards membership are likely to strain Ukraine's and the West's relationship with an ever more assertive Russia. The period of "cold peace", as pundits describe the current Western relationship with Russia, could easily be frozen if Ukraine is allowed to join NATO.

Despite several high level diplomatic attempts to placate Russian President Vladimir Putin over the non-threatening nature of NATO expansion towards the east, the Kremlin remains deeply suspicious of the military alliance lurking in its backyard.

But it seems that for the time being, it is the price both Ukraine and NATO are prepared to pay to tip the geopolitical balance in the region.

For Ukraine, NATO may be the best chance to guarantee the country's security and to add its voice to European security policy. Many pro-European politicians regard joining NATO as thus part of Ukraine's return to Europe.

Reformists regard it too as one of the few ways in which Ukraine could gain an external commitment that could help to make democratic and market reforms irreversible.

With EU membership proving to be such an elusive political target, NATO membership, analysts argue, may be a good guarantee of the country sticking to its pro-Western path of development.

For NATO, Ukraine would complete its symbolic expansion towards the former Cold War territories, giving it access to perhaps one of the best located geo-strategic sites in eastern Europe.

But no one values Ukraine's strategic location more than Russia. Ukraine not only provides an important buffer zone and a transport corridor, but the two countries share a long history of co-operation in military industrial projects, with many important Soviet missile, aircraft and tank factories located in Ukraine. Russia's Black Sea fleet is still stationed in the Crimea.

Further NATO expansion towards the east may thus prove to be too bitter a pill for the Kremlin to swallow. Nonetheless, the Ukrainian president seems to be determined to march on. The next hurdle in his path will be convincing his own people that a fall out with Russia is the price worth paying.

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