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.

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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.

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.