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Ukraine’s Game of Risk

January 23, 2012 - Paweł Wołowski - Bez kategorii



Twenty years has passed since the onset of cooperation between independent Ukraine and NATO. Ukraine’s policy of neutrality aims for symmetrical relations, cooperating closely with NATO, while at the same time maintaining friendly ties with Russia.

Ukraine is a country of paradoxes. Despite its declared neutrality, Ukraine has been the most involved out of all other partnership countries in cooperating with NATO in recent years. Most people believe that the high point of relations between Ukraine and NATO was during Viktor Yushchenko’s presidency when Ukraine seemed to be extremely determined to join the Alliance. The truth is, however, quite the opposite. The declarations of Ukraine’s membership in NATO did not bring much progress in cooperation, and hastiness in making such promises revealed divisions in Ukrainian society, which was not completely ready for such a sharp political shift. On top of all this, dissatisfied with the course of events taking place between NATO and Ukraine, Russia took punitive action to further damage Ukraine’s economy.

The current government, although openly distancing itself from full membership, has been concentrating on continuing training, as well as political and technical cooperation with NATO. This has been confirmed in a statement published by the Alliance which affirms that Ukraine’s resignation from seeking full membership in NATO has had no influence on the level of mutual cooperation.

It has been twenty years since talks between the Atlantic Alliance and an independent Ukraine began, and this provides an opportune moment to examine the relationship between the two entities. Questions to be answered include: What are the expectations of Ukraine’s leaders towards NATO? How do Ukraine’s relations with NATO fit in the broader context of external relations, especially with Russia? What is the reality of cooperation between Kyiv and Brussels? What are its strengths and limitations?

Ukraine’s expectations

After coming to power, President Viktor Yanukovych abandoned the pursuit of NATO membership as a strategic goal of Ukraine’s foreign policy. On July 1st 2010, Ukraine’s parliament passed a law which adopted an internal and foreign policy of neutrality. This has been understood as the protection of national interests without being a member of any military alliance, but still allows Ukraine to cooperate in partnerships and have mutually beneficial relations with other countries and international organisations.

Ukraine’s policy of neutrality is clearly a deliberate choice dictated by a vision to weaken the divisions in Ukrainian society. The policy also reflects a desire to improve relations with Russia. In the short-term, these goals are unachievable. However, Russia’s nervous reaction to the Sea Breeze 2011 exercise in July hosted by Ukraine in Odessa, has illustrated that Kyiv may still have problems getting Moscow’s approval for its policy of active cooperation with NATO. What, in practice, is this policy of neutrality? And where does NATO cooperation fit into it?

As a neutral state, Ukraine has forgone the promise of security that accompanies membership of a military alliance, be it NATO, or the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) which is dominated by Russia. It has chosen a third way: active cooperation with NATO and Russia maintaining an equal distance in relations with both. It seems that Ukraine’s government expects to get its security guarantee through participating in different NATO initiatives and multilateral activities.

There are some signs that President Yanukovych and his team do not see Ukraine’s relations with Russia as being free of complications. On the contrary, Moscow appears to be a potential threat to Ukraine’s security. The National Security Strategy of Ukraine, drafted in April 2011 by the National Institute for Strategic Studies at the request of the president, lists issues directly related to Russia’s regional position and policy as being among threats to the country’s security. These include: the unregulated conflict in Transnistria; the unsolved border problems of the Black Sea, the Sea of Azov, and the Kerch Strait; the lack of a line of demarcation of the state border with Russia (and also with Belarus and Moldova); and unregulated aspects of stationing Russia’s Black Sea Fleet in Crimea. The fact that President Yanukovych hasn’t yet signed this strategy document, despite its approval by parliament, clearly illustrates the challenging discussions taking place in Ukraine.

In having a seemingly symmetrical cooperation with both NATO and Russia, Ukraine aspires to convey the image of being an effective partner, involved in dialogue on important international security matters. This is the framework in which Kyiv’s engagement in talks with NATO on missile defence should be considered. Ukraine’s government is playing a very risky game. On the one hand, it has declared its support for creating a European missile defence system. On the other, it has stressed that Ukraine wants a system in which the United States and NATO will cooperate with Russia. Members of the Party of Regions stress that Ukraine, based on current legal regulations, cannot host foreign military installations on its territory, with the only exception being Russia’s Black Sea Fleet. It seems that Kyiv is interested in engaging in a debate on transatlantic security. However this could endanger relations with Russia.

An important sphere in which Kyiv’s interests are clearly marked in the cooperation with NATO, is the modernisation and reform of Ukraine’s armed forces, which has been undertaken in Ukraine and supported by NATO for over a decade. As a result, parts of the Ukrainian army has adopted NATO standards of command and achieved interoperability with other members of the Alliance. Elite divisions in Ukraine’s army are now able to train together with other armies of NATO members, enhancing their military capability and skills.

Modernisation and cooperation

NATO officials candidly admit that no other country in partnership with the Alliance has done so much in reforming its military sector as Ukraine has done. The process of modernising Ukraine’s armed forces, based on NATO standards, started to intensify in 2003. And the current programme of reforms is based on the NATO Strategic Defence Review which, with the aid of NATO experts, analysed the state of Ukraine’s armed forces and established goals for reform. In the framework of structural change, Ukraine’s armed forces have been divided into the Joint Rapid Reaction Force (JRRF) and the Main Defence Force. A three-level command system was also introduced. In 2007 Ukraine’s Joint Operations Command took responsibility for different kinds of military operations. Additional changes in adjusting Ukraine’s armed forces to NATO standards have included the creation of an Air Defence Operations Centre and a Marine Operations Centre.

Another result of cooperation between Ukraine and the Atlantic Alliance has been the progress in reducing Ukraine’s armed forces. In the early 1990s, the combined armed forces employed around 700,000 people in Ukraine. A reduction in military personnel, organised together with NATO experts and consequently implemented by subsequent administrations, has reduced that number to 192,000. However, Ukraine’s poor financial condition has certainly played a role in downsizing the military. 

Throughout the 1990s, Ukraine also pursued the professionalisation of its armed forces. The number of professional military personnel continues to increase and NATO-supported training programmes for military personnel are attended by several hundred Ukrainian soldiers a year. This professional training, as well as language instruction, is financed by the NATO Partnership for Peace (PfP) Trust Fund.

Ukraine’s engagement in peace operations under the auspices of NATO is quite significant in regards to the country’s economic and military potential. The current government is continuing the policy set by Leonid Kuchma and further developed by Viktor Yushchenko. Ukraine’s contingencies in peace missions in Iraq, Afghanistan, Kosovo and the Mediterranean have included a several thousand military and civilian personnel: the Polish-Ukrainian battalion, PolUkrBat, deployed in Kosovo as part of the Kosovo Force (KFOR), a NATO-led peacekeeping force formed in 1999, includes 179 Ukrainian soldiers; Ukrainian medical personnel have been serving in the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan since 2007; Ukrainian ships have patrolled the Mediterranean Sea as part of Operation Active Endeavour, designed to prevent the movement of terrorists and weapons of mass destruction; in 2010 Ukraine became the first country from outside NATO to participate in the NATO Response Force (NRF); and military aircraft also transport personnel and equipment on NATO missions in Afghanistan as part of an agreement signed under the Yushchenko administration.

Twelve military exercises were organised in 2010 (five took place in Ukraine, with the other seven in various NATO countries) and 1,250 Ukrainian military personnel took part. Over the past decade or so, these exercises have become the best opportunity for introducing and testing NATO command standards with Ukraine's military. However, given the difficult financial situation of Ukraine’s Ministry of Defence, these joint exercises, which are largely financed by the Alliance, are – to put it bluntly – an opportunity to increase the value of Ukraine’s army at somebody else’s expense.

What’s next?

Relations with NATO have not only been limited to military cooperation. Since the early 1990s, NATO has also aimed at introducing democracy and the rule of law in Ukraine. The 2011 Annual National Programme, introduced by presidential decree, foresees cooperation with NATO on political, economic and legal, and natural resource protection matters. This is why recent events in Ukraine, which have been directed against the political opposition, have had a negative influence on Ukraine-NATO relations. The conviction of Yulia Tymoshenko (see Piotr Pogorzelski’s article) is most likely to have a negative effect on Ukraine-EU relations. The verdict given to Tymoshenko on October 11th 2011 might also lead to the deterioration of relations between Ukraine and the Alliance in the short-term. However, it is very unlikely that in the long run NATO will limit its cooperation with Kyiv. Long-term strategic interests related to natural resources puts pressure on the United States to maintain, or even strengthen, its involvement in the Black Sea region. For Washington, Ukraine is still an important partner. The only explanation for the worsening of relations in the long-term would be Kyiv’s resignation from the multi-directional approach of its foreign policy and the neutrality principle in security affairs towards its political and military alliance with Russia. As of today, such an option seems highly unlikely.

Paweł Wołowski is an analyst specialising in Eastern Europe. Between 2001 and 2010 he managed the Department of Ukraine, Belarus and the Baltic States at the Centre for Eastern Studies in Warsaw.

Piotr Żochowski from the Centre for Eastern Studies also contributed to this report.

Translated by Iwona Reichardt

This article article originally appeared in New Eastern Europe 1(II) / 2012

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