Eastern Europe’s Third Wheel

NATO and Russia are getting closer -- and leaving Ukraine out.


Ukraine has sought membership in North Atlantic Treaty Organization for more than a decade, turning its back on Moscow to seek closer security ties with the West. But after years of being rebuffed, Ukraine now looks like the unwanted third wheel in the Moscow-NATO relationship. Two weeks ago, NATO told Ukraine that its difficult road to membership was going to get even tougher next year. A day later, at a summit in Brussels, Russia agreed to do more for NATO in Afghanistan.

Left out in the cold, Ukraine might have to turn to Moscow rather than Brussels for military protection, becoming part of the Russia-dominated Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) rather than NATO. Indeed, Ukraine’s presidential elections next month might well put a decisive end to the country’s NATO hopes if a more Russian-oriented leader wins, as now seems likely. It is an amazing shift. Less than two years ago, Russia was threatening to point missiles at Ukraine if it went ahead with NATO membership. But now, the U.S.-led alliance has prioritized ties with the Kremlin, while stringing Ukraine along with promises it might never fulfill. The ultimate result might be an increasingly Russia-dominated Eastern Europe, with the CSTO resembling a modern version of the Soviet-era Warsaw Pact.

"In 1996, when we agreed to give up all our nukes, [NATO] agreed to guarantee our security. But they haven’t done that," explains retired Major Gen. Vadim Grechaninov, president of the Atlantic Council of Ukraine, which advises the government on NATO relations. (Before it disarmed, Ukraine had the world’s third-largest nuclear arsenal behind Russia and the United States.) "The demands are increasing, but membership isn’t getting any closer."

Staying neutral and detached is not really an option for Ukraine. Aside from the permanent defense dilemma of being stuck between two superpowers, Ukraine’s economy is in shambles and its military is desperately poor. "Our servicemen now can’t actually serve," says Grechaninov, who has been a leading voice in support of NATO membership since the 1990s. "They do a year on guard duty somewhere and then get discharged, because the government has no money to train them for anything else."

Hopes of being taken under NATO’s wing have fallen flat, he says, and the meeting in Brussels gave no signs of encouragement. According to a draft of the document discussed at the meeting, NATO will ask Ukraine to carry out ever-tougher reforms in 2010 on the way to membership, even though in 2009, Ukraine was unable to meet some of the most basic targets. "Most high-cost combat training has been canceled or rescheduled for next year," says the document, obtained last month by Foreign Policy. This includes essential military exercises, such as practice jumps for paratroopers.

"We just don’t have the internal resources to carry out the reforms [for joining NATO]," says Grigory Perepelitsa, the head of the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry’s Institute of Foreign Policy. "Instead we are getting stuck in what was called the Warsaw Pact before, and has now just changed its name to the Tashkent pact," he said, using the unofficial name for the CSTO.

Founded in 2002 in the Uzbek capital, Tashkent, the CSTO is Russia’s attempt to guard military influence in the former Soviet space, which it still sees as its geopolitical birthright. So far the CSTO includes Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan — a motley crew, and not much of a threat to NATO’s 28 members, including most of the major military powers in the world. But that hasn’t stopped the CSTO from barking, even if it can’t yet bite. At its annual summit in Moscow last year, it said it would not stand for NATO’s eastward expansion — a clear reference to Ukraine. "Serious conflict potential is developing close to the CSTO’s zone of responsibility," it said in a formal declaration. "The members of the CSTO call on NATO countries to weigh all possible consequences of the alliance’s expansion to the east."

Now, the CSTO’s expansion to the west seems far more likely, and at the same time, Russia’s relations with NATO are flourishing. Coincidence? Probably not. At NATO’s Bucharest summit in April of last year, Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed to let NATO ship supplies to troops in Afghanistan across Russian territory. It was a pathway the United States desperately needed, as the southern supply corridor through Pakistan was coming under heavy attack. It was also widely seen as a thank-you gift. The day before, NATO had refused to put Ukraine and Georgia on the accelerated Membership Action Plan (MAP), which would have greatly eased their accessions. This allowed Russia to breathe easy about the alliance’s eastward growth. 

"At the Bucharest summit, even if Ukraine had had Britain’s democracy, Germany’s economy, and America’s army, they would still not let us in, because for [Russia] it was too early," says Anatoliy Grytsenko, head of the Ukrainian parliament’s defense committee and a former defense minister. "Russia’s voice today is not exactly a veto on NATO decisions, but it is a deciding factor for some of the key members of the alliance."

Officially, of course, Ukraine is still on the path to membership, as NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen pointed out on Friday when he opened the NATO-Ukraine meeting in Brussels. But what he chose to emphasize was the difficulty of the road ahead. "Much work is needed of course for Ukraine to reach the ambitious goals it strives to attain. Allies do expect very high standards from Ukraine in all domains of public life," Rasmussen said. He has consistently declined to comment when asked for any deadline on Ukrainian accession.

Robert Pszczel, a NATO spokesman in Brussels, insists Russia cannot stand in the way of Ukraine’s NATO ambitions. "We have a NATO-Russia Council and we have a NATO-Ukraine commission. One thing certainly does not impede the other," Pszczel says. But, he adds: "There is a huge amount of homework that still needs to be done primarily by Ukraine."

The standards to the east are not nearly so high; in fact, if Ukraine decided it wanted to join the CSTO tomorrow, the deal might be done within a month. Vitaly Strugovets, chief spokesman for the CSTO at its Moscow headquarters, says rather than making demands, his organization would help pay for Ukraine to develop its cash-strapped military, all while building on the Soviet hardware it already shares with Russia. "With us, Ukraine would not have to carry out the kind of overhaul of its entire defense and security system that NATO demands," he says, noting that NATO wants Ukraine to uproot the Soviet groundwork of its military, from Kalashnikovs on up, and replace it with a Western model. "If you look at it from an overall security standpoint, Ukraine is fundamentally a lot closer to the CSTO’s way of doing things. I’m talking about everything from military hardware to the basic mentality of the officer corps."

Ukrainian voters going into the presidential elections next month seem to agree. A survey released on Nov. 26 by polling firm Ukrainian Project Systems showed that only 12 percent of Ukrainians support NATO accession, 36 percent support staying out of military alliances altogether, while the largest proportion — 40 percent — said they support joining the CSTO.

In June, the Ukrainian parliament created a committee to look into cooperation with the Russian-led bloc. The committee paid a visit to Moscow in September to meet with the head of the alliance, Nikolai Bordyuzha, who showcased the free military training and cheap weapons Ukraine could get as a CSTO member. Ukraine’s starved security forces are in urgent need of both.

And next month, Ukraine’s presidential elections are set to push NATO entry off the government’s agenda, possibly for good. The most powerful force for joining the alliance has so far been Ukraine’s president, Viktor Yushchenko. But he will need a political miracle to be re-elected. His approval ratings are in the single digits, and neither of the frontrunners in the presidential race are fans of NATO membership.

Yulia Tymoshenko, the current prime minister, supported joining the EU and NATO during the U.S.-backed Orange Revolution, which swept her and Yushchenko to power on the back of huge street protests in 2004. But the two have since become enemies, and Tymoshenko’s presidential campaign has turned its focus toward fixing ties with Russia. To this end, she has built up a strong rapport with Putin in the past year, especially thanks to the natural gas crises that have afflicted their relations and cut off gas supplies to Europe in January. The two prime ministers always seem to resolve or forestall these gas disputes after Tymoshenko comes to meet Putin in Russia, most recently in Yalta on Nov. 19.

Ironically, the frontrunner in the race is the same politician whom Putin openly supported during the rigged election of 2004, Viktor Yanukovich, the man who was shouted down by Yushchenko and Tymoshenko’s Orange Revolution. Now he has a firm lead in the polls, and although he has not come out in favor of CSTO membership, he gave a strong hint of his preference in televised comments last month. "We are surrounded by strong governments," he said. "Naturally, this means above all Russia, as well as other Eurasian countries, for whom Ukraine is desirable as a stable country, a reliable link in a system of collective security."

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