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Regional security from Ukraine’s perspective. A focus on NATO

In co-operation with NATO, Ukraine needs to set realistic goals and terms that would not cause unnecessary frustration and misunderstanding. Surely, it would be the right step for NATO leaders to send a strong signal to Ukraine that the prospect of membership is still valid. But even if we do not get a membership action plan this year, the best response would be not frustration, but the redoubling of our efforts to meet the membership criteria.

June 22, 2021 - Maksym Khylko - All Quiet on the Eastern Flank?Issue 4 2021Magazine

Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal (left) in a joint press conference with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg during Shmyhal’s visit to NATO in February 2021. In March 2018, NATO officially acknowledged Ukraine's aspiration to gain full-fledged membership, and in June 2020 it recognised Ukraine as an Enhanced Opportunities Partner. Photo courtesy of NATO

Entering the eighth year of the ongoing Russian military aggression, Ukraine knows for sure who threatens regional security. Despite Moscow’s claim that tensions and conflicts have been provoked by NATO’s expansion to the East, the truth is that no country in the region has been attacked by a NATO member and not a single piece of territory has been occupied by any NATO ally. Instead, in the early 1990s, long before NATO’s eastward expansion, Russia backed separatists in Moldova’s region of Transnistria, as well as in Georgia’s Tskhinvali Region (so-called South Ossetia) and Abkhazia, and eventually occupied those territories under the guise of deploying the “peacekeepers”.

Russian officials and politicians have repeatedly declared territorial claims to neighbouring countries. In June 2020, Vladimir Putin told the state Russia-1 TV channel that the former Soviet republics “received a huge number of Russian lands” and should have returned them when leaving the USSR. Already in 1992-1993, the Russian parliament passed decisions questioning the Ukrainian status of the Crimea and the city of Sevastopol. Moscow has always supported and fuelled separatist movements in Crimea and other regions of Ukraine, and neither Russia’s commitments under the 1994 Budapest Memorandum or Ukraine’s proclamation of non-aligned status in 2010 deterred the Kremlin from armed aggression against Ukraine in 2014 and the occupation of Crimea and certain areas of Donetsk and Luhansk regions.

Restraining Russian aggression for more than seven years, Ukraine does not lack a reason to consider itself the frontline in a battle for security and democracy in Europe. Kyiv continues to warn the West that if Ukraine fails, subsequent victims will be NATO’s eastern flank member states. This was evidenced by the Russian troops’ working out of invading the Baltic states during the Zapad-2017 military exercises.

Ukrainians’ perception of security options

In spring 2012, when the majority of Ukrainians did not experience the threat of war, the Democratic Initiatives Foundation found that 42 per cent of Ukrainians believed that a non-aligned status was Ukraine’s best security guarantee, while 26 per cent preferred a military alliance with Russia; and only 13 per cent supported joining NATO. These views changed dramatically after Russian military aggression. By the fall of 2014, the popularity of non-aligned status, which failed to protect Ukraine, fell to 22 per cent, and the idea of ​​a military alliance with Russia fell to 15 per cent. Support for ​​joining NATO raised sharply to 44 per cent in 2014 and 49 per cent in 2015. NATO has remained the most popular security option among Ukrainians, reaching 53 per cent support by the end of 2019.

 It is also important to note that 85.6 per cent of Ukrainians who support NATO membership believe it would provide the country with security guarantees, 33.1 per cent think that joining the Alliance would help strengthen and modernise the Ukrainian armed forced, 25.1 per cent believe it would contribute to Ukraine’s credibility in the international arena, and 20.6 per cent consider that it would help Ukraine to develop as a democratic state (respondents could choose up to three options at once).

Results of the expert survey titled: “Threats to security of Ukraine and other countries of the Eastern Partnership region and possible responses” – conducted by the East European Security Research Initiative Foundation think tank in December 2017, and still relevant in terms of results – indicate that the majority of Ukrainian foreign and security policy experts (83.8 per cent) agree with the general public that NATO membership is the country’s best security option. Given the chance to choose up to three options, 54.1 per cent of experts identified EU membership as a security option and 37.8 per cent declared the option of US Major non-NATO Ally (MNNA) status. It is also worth noting that 27 per cent of Ukrainian experts favourably considered the option of establishing a new regional security format for Central and Eastern European countries, and 18.9 per cent selected the option of establishing a Black Sea regional security format (both formats without participation of Russia).

Speaking about the measures NATO could take to strengthen security in the region, the surveyed experts mostly favoured the options of assistance in reforming the security and defence sector (75.7 per cent); the expansion of military-technical co-operation (51.4 per cent); engaging with other countries of the region in order to strengthen NATO’s eastern flank (43.2 per cent); granting NATO aspirant status (40.5 per cent); and the Enhanced Opportunities Partnership to those countries that strive for such options (29.7 per cent).

NATO’s assistance to Ukraine

It is worth mentioning that Ukraine has already achieved many of these courses of action. In March 2018, NATO officially acknowledged Ukraine’s aspiration to gain full-fledged membership, and in June 2020 it recognised Ukraine as an Enhanced Opportunities Partner. As for the regional security formats, the regular joint trainings of the Lithuanian–Polish–Ukrainian Brigade with its headquarters in Lublin opened in 2016. Ukraine strengthened military-industrial co-operation with its Black Sea neighbour Turkey; it included the signing of agreements on purchasing of the unmanned combat aerial vehicle, Bayraktar TB2. In April this year, Ukraine and Georgia for the first time joined the Poland−Romania−Turkey triangle format – the five foreign ministers discussed the security situation in the Black Sea region and the Euro-Atlantic prospects of Ukraine and Georgia.

Since the beginning of Russian aggression against Ukraine, NATO has set up a number of trust funds and programmes to help Ukraine reform its security and defence sector and build its own capabilities. At the 2014 Wales Summit, NATO member states decided to launch five new trust funds to assist Ukraine in critical areas: Command, Control, Communications and Computers (C4); Logistics and Standardisation; Cyber Defence; Military Career Transition; and Medical Rehabilitation. At the 2016 Warsaw Summit, the Comprehensive Assistance Package was endorsed, including 40 tailored support measures to strengthen Ukraine’s security and defence capabilities as well as its resilience to hybrid warfare. At the 2019 Washington meeting, NATO foreign ministers agreed on measures to strengthen support for Ukraine and Georgia in the Black Sea, including naval co-operation, situational awareness, port visits, exercises and sharing of information. By 2020, Ukraine benefited from seven NATO trust funds and 13 NATO programmes, and other activities funded by 34 NATO members and partner countries.

Ukraine’s thorny path to NATO membership goal

In 2002, almost 20 years ago, the then Ukrainian president, Leonid Kuchma, by his decree, enacted the National Security and Defence Council’s decision setting NATO membership as the country’s goal. This decree was supported by the Ukrainian parliament resolution of November 21st 2002. Just three years later, after the Orange Revolution, an intensified dialogue on NATO membership aspirations began, and at the 2008 Bucharest Summit, the Allies agreed that Ukraine and Georgia would become NATO members in the future, but they did not grant Kyiv and Tbilisi with a Membership Action Plan (MAP).

In 2010, the newly elected pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovych, abandoned the NATO membership goal by pushing through a law that envisaged a non-alignment status for Ukraine. This status was renounced by the Ukrainian parliament in December 2014 after Russia had occupied Crimea and certain areas of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. But it was only in June 2017 when parliament again set NATO membership as a goal, with amendments to the law on the principles of domestic and foreign policy. In February 2019 EU and NATO membership goals were set in the Constitution of Ukraine.

Of course, all this back-and-forth negatively affected the dynamics of Ukraine-NATO relations. A lot of time has been wasted, so when the president declares that Ukraine cannot remain in the EU’s and NATO’s waiting rooms forever, one should acknowledge that Kyiv’s own inconsistency was among the main reasons for this situation.

In co-operation with NATO, it is necessary to set realistic goals and terms that would not cause unnecessary frustration and the misunderstanding of western partners. Surely it would be the right step for NATO leaders to send a strong signal to Ukraine that the membership prospects are still valid. But even if Ukraine does not get the MAP this year, the best response would not be frustration, but a redoubling of efforts to meet the membership criteria − not only in terms of military interoperability, but in building democratic institutions, the rule of law, liberal economy and social justice. At the same time, we should continue strengthening co-operation with NATO member states and partners – in terms of multilateral and bilateral formats, in particular on improving security in the region.

We should also intensify our efforts to inform Ukrainian citizens about the benefits of NATO membership, especially those in the eastern and southern regions that are still influenced by Russian propaganda. And we need an effective information campaign for NATO member states that are still reluctant to let Ukraine join. No one can say for sure when the window of opportunity will be open, but it will definitely happen and we must be fully prepared for it. For the foreseeable future there will be no other reliable security guarantee – both for Ukraine and the region as a whole.

Maksym Khylko is the Chairman of the Board at the East European Security Research Initiative Foundation, a Kyiv-based think tank. He is also the Russian and Belarusian Studies Programme Director at the Foreign Policy Council “Ukrainian Prism”.

This article is part of a wider project called “All Quiet on the Eastern Flank?” which is conducted by New Eastern Europe and supported by a grant from NATO Public Diplomacy.

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