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The Case for Ukraine’s Membership of NATO

NATO has accepted countries with problems concerning territorial integrity in the past. However none of the size and strategic importance such as Ukraine. What are some of the arguments in favour of Kyiv entering the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation?

May 18, 2018 - Taras Kuzio - Articles and Commentary

Jens Stoltenberg and Petro Poroshenko in 2017 Photo: Mykola Lazarenko (cc) wikimedia.org Presidential administration of Ukraine

It is often said that countries with parts of their territory under foreign control cannot join NATO or the EU. This is often used as a rebuttal against Ukraine’s drive to join NATO and the EU, as Russia occupies the Crimea and parts of the Donbas. At the same time, Germany, which was divided by the USSR (i.e. GDR – East Germany) for five decades, was a founding member of NATO and EU. Cyprus, which has a northern enclave occupied by Turkey since the mid 1970s, was also allowed to join the EU.

The record of NATO-Ukrainian relations under five Ukrainian presidents is mixed. In fact, NATO-Ukrainian relations have only progressed under Presidents Leonid Kuchma (1994-2004) and Petro Poroshenko (2014-).

In both cases two factors were behind these progressions. The first was Russian unwillingness to respect Ukrainian sovereignty under Kuchma and military aggression against Ukraine under Poroshenko. The second was due to the political will of Kuchma and Poroshenko.

Kuchma’s national security adviser, Volodymyr Horbulin, promoted a shift from the president’s moderate pro-Russian orientation in the 1994 election to Ukraine becoming the most active CIS member of NATO’s Partnership for Peace (PfP). Kuchma and Horbulin created a strategic partnership with the United States, then led by President Bill Clinton, and with NATO. Russia missed the boat, only sending President Borys Yeltsin four years after Kuchma was elected to sign the inter-state treaty recognising their border.

Under Poroshenko, Ukraine’s strategic partnership with President Donald Trump’s administration is stronger than with Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama. NATO-Ukrainian relations today are at a higher level than during the second half of the 1990s.

Under President Leonid Kravchuk (1991-1994), NATO had not yet developed a policy towards the former communist countries. After the Orange Revolution, President Viktor Yushchenko (2005-2010) and Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko prioritised their private petty quarrels and greed for power above that of Ukraine’s national interests. In 2006, the Bush administration’s plan to visit Ukraine in June and bring Ukraine within a Membership Action Plan (MAP) in November in Riga was destroyed by three months of Yushchenko-Tymoshenko in-fighting. When Viktor Yanukovych was prime minister in 2006-2007 and president (2010-2014) he ruled out seeking membership in NATO. Ukraine’s security forces came under Russian control and, under Yanukovych, Ukraine changed its foreign policy towards seeking an ephemeral non-bloc status.

Requirements to join NATO are not standardised and they have been tougher on Ukraine than, for example, towards the three Baltic states, Macedonia and Montenegro. It is doubtful Estonia and Latvia would have won referendums on NATO membership if their Russian speakers all had citizenship and could have voted.

A passing grade

Today, Ukraine fulfills four commonly stated requirements to join NATO. These include (1) having a long-term and existing relationship with NATO; (2) providing a major contribution to NATO; (3) a majority of citizens supporting NATO membership in a referendum; and (4) Russian influence and soft power has fallen to low levels.

Firstly, Ukraine has intensively cooperated with PfP since 1994, signed a Charter on Distinctive Partnership with NATO in 1997, and opened a NATO Information and Documentation Centre in 1998. Ukraine has participated in every NATO peacekeeping operation. In 2003, Ukraine provided the largest non-NATO military contingent to the US-led coalition forces in Iraq. NATO forces train Ukrainian soldiers while NATO and Ukraine have held regular annual military exercises for nearly two decades.

Since 2014, NATO-Ukraine cooperation has intensified even further in seven main areas: (1) military reform of the security forces; (2) crisis management; (3) Ukrainian experience of hybrid war; (4) Russian information warfare and fake news; (5) cyber warfare; (6) energy security; and (7) chemical-biological warfare.

Secondly, Ukraine today has the best army it has ever had, according to the Warsaw-based Centre for Eastern Studies. This is one of President Poroshenko’s major achievements that cannot be denied. Under his predecessors the army was either ignored (Kuchma), stripped of its assets (Yushchenko through Minister of Defence Anatoliy Grytsenko) or deliberately sabotaged and placed under Russian influence (Yanukovych).

Ukraine has half a million security forces which dwarves the 2,000 that Montenegro brought into NATO in 2017. Ukraine’s military is ranked the 29th strongest in the world according to Global Firepower, a U.S.-based independent defense think tank, with only 10 out of 29 NATO members possessing stronger armies. Of these 10 NATO members, 3 armies are similarly ranked as Ukraine: Greece (28), Canada (25) and Poland (22). Importantly, Ukraine’s army is stronger than those of 19 NATO members.

Within Europe, Ukraine has the eighth strongest army and 22 of NATO’s members are ranked below Ukraine. Montenegro (32), Macedonia (31), the three Baltic states (27-29), and Slovenia (26) bring little added military value to NATO and are therefore consumers of security. Ukraine as a member of NATO would be a supplier of security.

Ukraine has a revived Military-Industrial Complex that supplies Ukrainian troops and is the world’s ninth largest arms exporter. Most other NATO members can make no such claims. Ukraine spends 5 per cent of its GDP on defence which is higher than all NATO members except the US. Only 6 NATO members spend the required 2 per cent of GDP on defence, of which three are east European (Estonia, Poland, and Romania) countries. Lithuania and Latvia plan to increase their spending to 2 per cent.

Thirdly, NATO did not ask every NATO member in eastern Europe to hold a referendum before joining. President Poroshenko has suggested holding a referendum on NATO membership on the same day as the 2019 presidential elections.

Russian military aggression has made many Ukrainians feel that Ukraine cannot guarantee its own security and therefore it needs to be part of a security organisation. Opinion polls show that today some 60-70 per cent of Ukrainians participating in a referendum would support NATO membership. This is higher than those who supported NATO membership in the Hungarian and Slovenian referendums.  

Ukrainians who support NATO membership are actively lobbying for this goal while those who are opposed have decreased in number since 2014 and are far more passive than the supporters. Many former opponents of NATO membership are today supporting a “non-bloc” status for Ukraine. The biggest change has been in eastern Ukraine where support has grown from 12 to 32 per cent and in the south where it has increased from 7 to 33 per cent. Even in the Donbas, support stands at 12 per cent where it was practically zero prior to 2014.

Pro-Russian political parties have either disintegrated (Party of Regions), or become illegal (Communist Party). There is little homegrown anti-Americanism in Ukraine. The majority of nationalists and populists throughout Europe are anti-NATO, anti-American and pro-Putin. Ukrainian nationalists are anti-Putin, pro-NATO and not anti-American.

Fourthly, Russian interference was high in the three Baltic states and Montenegro as was its objections against their membership, but this did not dissuade NATO from inviting them to join. Russia attempted to organise a coup in Montenegro and assassinate the Prime Minister.

A different situation since 2014

In 2014, Russia was defeated in its attempt at detaching so-called “New Russia” (eastern and southern Ukraine) from Ukraine. Russia’s goals of capturing the “crown jewels” of Kharkiv and Odessa were thwarted. Russian proxies nearly lost the Donbas and Russia had to invade in August 2014 to rescue them from defeat.

Ukraine defeated Putin’s plans because the majority of Ukraine’s Russian speakers showed themselves to be Ukrainian patriots. Today, Russia would have greater difficulty in launching such an operation because patriotism has grown throughout Ukraine, and the Soviet myth of “Brotherly peoples” is dead in eastern Ukraine. Additionally, the Ukrainian army is far stronger than it was in 2014.

Russia no longer has the means to exert soft power inside Ukraine as Russian ties in the spheres of the traditional media, social media, energy and economy have been dramatically curtailed. Pro-Russian political parties, think tanks and NGO’s no longer exist or have become marginalised. Russia’s biggest export to Ukraine and Europe was corruption (not gas) and corruption in the energy sector which tied both countries has been reduced and Ukraine has become energy independent.

President Poroshenko will hold a referendum on NATO membership on the same day as the first round of the 2019 presidential election because he will be confident it will receive a massive endorsement from Ukrainian citizens. With Ukrainians overwhelming backing NATO membership and Ukraine possessing a large military that is experienced in fighting Russian hybrid warfare, NATO leaders will be left with little choice except to announce the date as to when to invite Ukraine into a Membership Action Plan.

A shorter version of this article was presented at the Kyiv Security Forum in April 2018.

Taras Kuzio is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations, Johns Hopkins – SAIS and Professor at the Department of Political Science National University Kyiv Mohyla Academy. His book, Putin’s War Against Ukraine. Revolution, Nationalism and Crime was published in March 2017.

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