Dispatch September 2008

The Next Flashpoint: Ukraine

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

Furthermore, Ukraine cannot survive economically without Russia, its largest single trading partner. It depends on Russia, or on pipelines from Central Asia that are under Russian control, for 70 percent of its oil and natural gas, and has in the past run up huge arrears. Russia’s chief hydrocarbon pipelines to Europe, in fact, traverse Ukraine. (Given that energy exports account for a preponderant share of the Russian economy, Ukraine’s neutrality, for pipeline reasons alone, is a pressing matter of national security for Moscow.) Ukraine’s energy-related debts and price disputes have, at times, prompted Russia to turn off the tap, and power outages have reminded Ukrainians of their dependence on their northern neighbor for heat and light in a land of long, cold, dark winters. Millions of Ukrainians work illegally in Russia, remitting sums vital to the Ukrainian economy. Were Moscow to expel them, Ukraine’s poorest would be the hardest hit.

Yet it is the historical ties and shared roots binding Ukraine and Russia that would render Ukraine’s adherence to NATO unworkable, and even dangerously combustible. Ukraine’s capital, Kiev, is, as it were, the Mother of Russia. Ten centuries ago, on the banks of the Dnipro, Prince Vladimir of Kievan Rus’ adopted Christianity from the Byzantine Greeks and baptized his people in the Orthodox Christian faith that, in one form or another, most Russians and Ukrainians still profess. Kievan Rus’ was the first political entity created by the Eastern Slavs, who are the ancestors of Russians, Ukrainians, and Belarusians alike.

In the 1220s, Tatar-Mongolian armies began flooding across the southeastern steppes of Kievan Rus’. In 1240 they sacked Kiev, and incorporated much of Rus’ into the domains of the Tatar Golden Horde. A century later the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and the Kingdom of Poland controlled the north and west. The western portion of Rus’ was then annexed, in the sixteenth century, by the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth. It was during this time, with the eastern Slavs living under the rule of different foreign rulers in separate areas within the region, that the Russian, Ukrainian, and Belorusian languages began developing from Old Russian.

Then, after a spell of troubled independence as a Cossack Hetmanate, most of Ukraine became a Russian province when Russia and Hapsburg Austria partitioned Poland at the end of the eighteenth century, and Empress Catherine the Great annexed Crimea (which was to remain in Russian hands until Khrushchev’s days). A bloody, chaotic interregnum following the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II in 1917 ended with Ukraine’s incorporation into the Soviet Union as a founding republic in 1922.

Ukraine was to suffer horrifically under Soviet rule. In the early 1930s Joseph Stalin, through grain requisitions, starved to death five to seven million Ukrainian peasants in the Holodomor, the killer famine that occupies a place in the Ukrainian psyche akin to that of the Holocaust for the Jews. Purges following the Holodomor exterminated 80 percent of Ukraine’s intellectual elite, and hundreds of Ukrainian cathedrals, churches, and national monuments were destroyed. Moscow plundered the republic’s mineral resources and agricultural produce to support development elsewhere in the Soviet Union, and based much of the country’s military industry in the east, to which large numbers of ethnic Russians moved. Not surprisingly, in 1991, as the Soviet Union was collapsing, nine out of ten Ukrainians voted for independence in a countrywide referendum.

The probable flashpoint for future hostilities between Kiev and Moscow is Khrushchev’s 1954 “gift” to Ukraine of Crimea, which is the only region where ethnic Russians outnumber Ukrainians. At a closed session during the April 2008 summit, Putin reportedly vowed that if NATO admitted Ukraine, Russia would reclaim Crimea, designating the 10,100-square-mile peninsula a future casus belli.

Crimea is the most strategically precious terrain Kiev commands. In 1997, after grueling, lengthy negotiations, Russia managed to lease the military port of Sevastopol for a twenty-year term and signed a bilateral Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation with Kiev (under which Ukraine abjured joining any military blocks for the duration—a matter Yushchenko now seems willing to ignore). Anti-NATO sentiments are especially volatile in the Crimea, which has long been a favored abode for retiring Russian military officers. (When the Soviet Union collapsed, Crimean Russians declared themselves a republic and adopted a constitution, which the Ukrainian parliament annulled.) In 2006, proposed joint NATO-Ukraine military exercises sparked mass demonstrations across the peninsula that led to their cancellation.

However enthusiastically Yushchenko has advocated joining NATO, he has failed to persuade a majority of his people to back him. Polls conducted as recently as June 2008 found that 55 percent of Ukrainians oppose membership, with only 22 percent in favor—numbers making clear that hostility to the West’s preeminent military bloc remains strong among far more than just ethnic Russians. Cognizant of the issue’s divisiveness, Yushchenko pledged in the past to submit NATO membership to a referendum, but whether he would do so now, after the Russia-Georgia war, is unclear. Heads of state in formerly Soviet lands generally wield tsarlike powers that would turn their American and European counterparts green with envy, and rarely show compunction about using it. Faced with what he perceives as an imminent threat from Russia, Yushchenko may, citing raisons d’état, try to sign Ukraine up for NATO on executive authority alone.

NATO planners and Western leaders urgently need to ask themselves some hard questions and engage in rounds of creative hypothesizing before continuing membership negotiations with Ukraine. If each member is supposed to add to the security of the alliance, what strategic benefits, if any, would Ukraine bring to NATO? Is NATO prepared to embroil itself in Kiev’s troublesome relations with its giant, and increasingly nationalistic, northern neighbor? Would the West be willing to jettison Russian cooperation, necessary in so many fields (anti-terrorism, nuclear containment, and energy security, to name a few), and fatally antagonize Moscow (along with masses of Russians in both Russia and Ukraine) by squaring off with it on the very steppes and in the very forests that birthed the Russian nation?

More specifically, among newly minted Ukrainian NATO troops of both Ukrainian and Russian ethnicity, who could be trusted? Who would fight for whom, and for what? If Russia cut off Ukraine’s energy supplies (again), what would the West, itself thirsting for Russian oil and gas, really be willing—or able—to do? If Russia expelled its Ukrainian guest workers, would the West provide them with financial aid? If ethnic Russians in the east opted for union with Moscow, would NATO deploy troops to assist Ukraine in suppressing secessionists? With the United States straining to sustain its troop deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan, who would provide the men, women, and weapons to combat Moscow? And, most important, would the West really, in the end, risk a nuclear holocaust to maintain control over lands that, until the fall of the Soviet Union, it could never have hoped to embrace?

Since the crisis began, the Bush administration has done little but issue hollow warnings that serve only to strengthen Russian resolve and inflame Russian public opinion. NATO’s own legalistic, milquetoast statement of August 19 about the Russia-Georgia war betrays fear and division, and indicates that at least some alliance members recognize that the Russia of today is not the anarchic, ultimately submissive Western satrapy it was during the Yeltsin years.

NATO should refuse membership to Ukraine, and urge it to work out its problems with Russia in a manner consistent with the inescapable strategic, economic, and geographic realities that no external military bloc can counter or negate. NATO should also find a way to return to the principles of strategic partnership with Russia that it espoused for so long after the end of the Cold War. The institutional framework (the NATO-Russia Permanent Joint Council) should be revived and preserved. Russia, it must be remembered, has not so far embarked on a military buildup to counter the West. But with its petrodollars, it could afford to do so—and with backing from its population. The West would then face a new cold war, with all its grievous, costly, unpredictable consequences.

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Jeffrey Tayler is an Atlantic correspondent living in Moscow.

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