Dispatch September 2008

The Next Flashpoint: Ukraine

Facing a resurgent Moscow, Ukraine is clamoring for NATO membership. The alliance should say no

The once-handsome face of Ukraine’s Westward-looking president, Viktor Yushchenko, bears the scars of his country’s tortured politics—a disfiguring mass of pockmarks serving as permanent reminder of his still-mysterious dioxin poisoning during the run-up to the 2004 Orange Revolution. His ravaged face may also gravely prefigure ravages in the future of Ukraine, the largest formerly Soviet republic, population-wise, apart from Russia, and the one whose loss Russian revivalists have most bitterly regretted since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Also see:

At Putin's Mercy (August 2008)
"The pitiable David-and-Goliath asymmetry of Georgia's dustup with Russia has obscured both the United States' culpability in bringing about the conflict, and the nature of the separatism that caused it in the first place." By Jeffrey Tayler

News reports have been circulating recently that Russia, fresh from slapping down Georgia in the Caucasus, is now taking steps toward reclaiming other former territories. Last week, Ukraine began looking into reports that Russian officials were distributing passports in the port city of Sevastopol. If true, the news would be real cause for alarm: Russia used a similar tactic in Georgia five years ago when it granted citizenship to South Ossetians. When Moscow recently invaded the South Ossetian capital, it did so in the name of defending its own people against the attacks of Georgian president Mikheil Saakishvili.

Whether or not the reports are true, the Russian leadership’s sentiments about the Crimean peninsula—and Ukraine as a whole—are no secret. In February, Putin indicated that Russia might point nuclear missiles toward Ukraine if it were accepted as a NATO member. As member states debated the issue at NATO’s April 2008 summit in Bucharest, with Germany, France, and Belgium pushing to postpone Ukrainian membership, Putin reportedly declared to President Bush, “Ukraine isn't even a state. What is Ukraine? Part of its territory is Eastern Europe, and part of it, a significant part, was given by us!” (The Crimean peninsula had been part of Russia until 1954, when Premier Nikita Khrushchev gave it to Ukraine—a largely symbolic gesture, since both Russia and Ukraine belonged to the U.S.S.R.)

Meanwhile, Moscow’s mayor, Yuri Luzhkov, a politician of national standing, has found himself banned from entering the Crimea because of the revanchist views he expressed at a public concert in Sevastopol last May. More ominous still for Ukraine, many ethnic Russians (who account for 17 percent of Ukraine’s population of 46 million) feel disenfranchised by Ukraine’s independence and might welcome a return to Kremlin rule. In fact, when Yushchenko came to power, parts of eastern Ukraine (where the majority of ethnic Russians live) threatened to secede and join Russia. By dint of history or demographic metrics, the eastern third—or even half—of Ukraine could, in irredentist Russian eyes at least, be considered “Russian” enough to warrant annexation.

With the ashes still smoldering from the Russia-Georgia war, it should surprise no one that President Yushchenko is seeking NATO membership—and the protections it confers—with renewed fervor; the North Atlantic Treaty’s pledge of mutual defense declares that “an armed attack against one [member] ... shall be considered an attack against . . . all.” Yushchenko, who flew to Tbilisi to stand at Saakashvili’s side during the war, has offered the United States the use of early-warning missile detection systems in Sevastopol and Mukachevo. On August 24, Yushchenko presided over the first Ukrainian Soviet-style military parade through downtown Kiev in seven years, telling thousands of assembled supporters that “entry into the Euro-Atlantic security system is the only way to protect the lives and ensure the well-being of our families, children and grandchildren.” He also asserted to the London Times that joining NATO is “the only way for our country to protect our national security and sovereignty.” Facing a resurgent Moscow, Yushchenko has decided that when it comes to NATO membership, it’s now or never.

Many decision-makers in the West seem to agree. Apparently flush with the satisfaction of spouting the rhetoric of liberty and defiance, the Bush administration—along with both presidential candidates, Senators Obama and McCain—continues to support Ukraine’s (and Georgia’s) membership in NATO. The alliance is scheduled to reconvene in December, and, if France and Germany come around (as it appears they might), it may offer both Ukraine and Georgia Membership Action Plans, the first formal step toward NATO accession. Such a move would lead to a new cold war—or worse. If Ukraine joined NATO, the alliance would find itself treaty-bound to protect territories that are as sacrosanct to Russian national identity as they are riddled with potential conflicts—territories that are located within a country predominantly dependent on Moscow for energy supplies, and that are populated with large numbers of citizens who rely on remittances from relatives in Russia (and who may in fact be ethnically Russian). Before traveling further down that path, Western policy makers should sober up, sit down, and contemplate the consequences.

So how, exactly, did this Ukraine-NATO membership crisis come into being? The West bears a good share of the blame. Yushchenko is in effect only demanding Ukraine’s long-owed due, and acting within a policy framework established during the first Clinton administration. Ukraine has been an affiliate of NATO since the early 1990s and, in 2002, accepted NATO’s Action Plan “to support Ukraine’s reform efforts on the road towards full integration in Euro-Atlantic structures.” Like Georgia, Ukraine has contributed troops to the Bush administration’s occupation forces in Iraq and to NATO peacekeeping missions elsewhere. The United States has successfully pushed NATO through two rounds of controversial eastward expansion in the past decade (in 1999 and 2004) and could possibly do so again, whether or not Ukraine qualifies.

But no one has yet claimed that Ukraine has met all, or even any, of the economic, military, and political targets required for NATO membership, and Ukraine’s readiness to contribute to the collective security of the NATO bloc is, to put it charitably, a matter of debate. Ukraine is one of the world’s top weapons exporters, but its own critically underfunded armed forces have only a battered array of Soviet-era matériel at their disposal, much of it barely functioning. (Ukraine spends 1.1 percent of GDP on defense—roughly half the NATO standard.) Its 800 tanks, few of which still run, were designed in 1964, and its aircraft date from the mid-to-late Brezhnev era. Its mostly conscripted soldiers train in marksmanship only occasionally; they often find themselves assigned to such “missions” as hoeing the country’s potato fields or constructing dachas for the military elite. Officers live in poverty, earning the hryvna equivalent of $422 a month, a salary that prompts the best among them to abandon the forces for other jobs. Captain Volodymyr Kravchenko, deputy head of the Ukrainian Officers Union, told the Kyiv Post on August 24 that “a single drunk enemy soldier would be able to drive all of Ukraine’s armed forces into the Dnipro River with a whip.” Former Ukrainian President Leonid Kravchuk has stated less colorfully that, with such a military, the country’s “welfare, sovereignty and independence are impossible to defend at this moment.”

All of which means, of course, that the task of protecting Ukraine against a nuclear-armed Moscow would be left to NATO—or, more precisely, the United States.

Moscow has made it clear how it would view Ukraine’s accession to the alliance. In 2007, as the April NATO summit drew near, Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov emphasized that eastward NATO expansion could draw the United States back into a game of international tug-of-war. He spoke of “a relapse into the Cold War” and warned that “the acceptance into NATO of Ukraine and Georgia will mean a colossal geopolitical shift and we assess such steps from the point of view of our interests.” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told me in September of last year that, although decisions on whom to invite are “NATO’s sovereign right,” Russia “will not permit anything to threaten its security.” After Russia’s incursion into Georgia, only a foolhardy statesman would take these words at less than face value.

Politically, Ukraine and Russia have been at odds since the Orange Revolution, which Moscow correctly perceives to have been orchestrated in part by American NGOs and the State Department for the purpose of “spreading democracy”—i.e., U.S. influence—at autocratic Russia’s expense. (The White House’s National Security Strategy of 2006 put the Kremlin on notice, stating that, “It is the policy of the United States to seek and support democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.”) But Moscow’s opposition aside, there are other compelling reasons to refuse Ukraine ingress into NATO. Ukraine shares a thousand-mile border with Russia, including a disputed segment on the Kerch Strait, and an only partly demarcated, still-unratified frontier of 550 miles with the dictatorial Kremlin client state of Belarus. For 250 miles Ukraine also abuts the smuggling enclave and semi-Russian satellite of Transnistria, which broke away from newly independent Moldova in 1991, and now hosts a contingent of Russian troops, despite OSCE requests that they withdraw. Recognized borders are a prerequisite for NATO membership, and Ukraine lacks them.

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Jeffrey Tayler is an Atlantic correspondent living in Moscow.

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