Surprise! Ukraine Loves NATO

Once hostile, then skeptical, Ukrainians are now ready to embrace the western military alliance.

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For the first time in its post-Soviet history, a majority of Ukrainians approve of their country joining NATO. The drastic change of attitude marks a sea change in Ukrainians’ attitudes toward the security alliance even as it poses a palpable challenge for the country’s infantile political class.

A recent poll by the Democratic Initiatives Foundation made headlines in Ukraine: 64 percent of respondents said they would vote for NATO accession in a hypothetical referendum. (Only 28 percent would oppose.) This result marks a landslide — and rapid — shift in Ukrainians’ perception of the European security architecture. In 2009, only 21 percent of Ukrainians said they supported NATO accession, while almost 60 percent were against. As recently as the fall of 2013, before the Euromaidan revolution, two-thirds of Ukrainians couldn’t envision Ukraine being part of NATO.

Public attitudes toward NATO in Ukraine have long been shaped by emotional divisions between Westernizers and “pro-Russians,” leaving little space for informed debate. Ukraine’s third president, Viktor Yushchenko, used to pontificate about joining NATO without delivering on the reforms needed to achieve that goal. This resulted in growing apathy towards NATO membership and, in the international realm, in a resounding rejection of Ukraine’s accession plans at the notorious 2008 Bucharest summit. Seeing that Ukraine’s leadership was unable to reform the long-neglected army, even the most ardently pro-Western Ukrainians lost faith that the country would ever join the Western security bloc.

Yushchenko’s pro-Russian successor, Viktor Yanukovych, effectively scrapped the previous defense doctrine, which had at least symbolically proclaimed a path to “Euro-Atlantic integration,” greatly pleasing his friends in the Kremlin. But four years of Yanukovych’s reckless authoritarian rule, brought to an end by the Euromaidan revolution and followed by a year of war with Russia, have turned the tables on the issue of NATO membership. The moment may have arrived for this question to become a matter of serious political debate.

The first elements of a growing political consensus on NATO accession seem to be in place. Five out of six parliamentary parties call for closer cooperation with NATO in their programs. In December 2014, the parliament voted to drop Ukraine’s “non-bloc status” (a central policy of the Yanukovych government). High-ranking legislators in the ruling coalition have explicitly called this a first step on the way to applying for NATO membership.

This time, the officials’ words are finally backed up with action: Ukrainian political commentators point out that the country now spends a much larger share of its GDP (about 5 percent) on defense than the NATO-wide 2 percent standard, which few existing members meet. And just this summer, Ukraine has held three major military exercises — Rapid Trident, Fearless Guardian, and Sea Breeze — with NATO troops. The non-lethal support and training that Kiev has received from the United States and Canada in the course of the war against Russian-backed separatists further boosted NATO’s image as a credible international partner. Never before has a prospective alliance with Western nations had such a prominent presence on Ukraine’s political agenda and in the media.

Notably, the drastic change in the public opinion has accelerated in the past several months — particularly since the failure of the Minsk-2 ceasefire agreement, which was intended to stop the conflict in the east. In March of this year, immediately after the agreement was signed, just 43 percent of Ukrainians said they would support NATO accession, while 32 percent expressed opposition. At that time, the newly signed ceasefire gave many hope that diplomacy could put the war on hold. Four months later, Ukrainians are growing increasingly disillusioned with diplomatic attempts to placate Russia. Instead, two-thirds of Ukrainians now see their country’s membership in the Western mutual defense bloc as a means to ensure its security against future Russian aggression.

Granted, there are still regional differences in attitudes toward NATO. The Democratic Initiatives poll covered only territory controlled by the government: the occupied parts of the Donbas and Crimea were not included in the survey. But the results in the Ukraine-controlled parts of Luhansk and Donetsk regions mirror the general trend. Although a majority there still oppose NATO membership, the share of supporters increased from a meager 4 percent in 2009 to some 20 percent now. This drastic increase outpaces even the Ukrainian average. Russia’s aggression in eastern Ukraine has actually persuaded many previously skeptical Ukrainians there that their country can’t go it alone on defense.

As it usually happens in Ukraine, politicians appear ill-prepared to adapt to the dramatic change in the public’s mood. President Petro Poroshenko’s late June response to a journalist’s question about NATO membership — “it’s not time yet” — already appears woefully outdated, as the results of the referendum he advocates now appear rather obvious. Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk has shown little, if any, credibility on defense-policy issues: his claim that not all NATO members supported Ukraine’s membership smells of defeatism. None of the parties in the ruling coalition goes beyond cheap platitudes when discussing Ukraine’s strategic priorities on defense policy.

The change in attitudes is particularly stark given Russia’s continued push for Ukraine to provide guarantees of “non-accession” to NATO amid the ongoing war. But Ukrainians do not appear to be intimidated by Russian troops and weapons. A recent survey showed that 41 percent of Ukrainians would reject a “guarantee” of non-membership even in exchange for “peace” in eastern Ukraine, more than those who would accept such a surrender. Even if the Ukrainian political leadership were ready to make a behind-the-curtain “anti-NATO” deal with Russia, it would attract little support from the citizenry and would certainly backfire politically.

Five years ago, some European leaders and Ukrainian politicians could credibly claim that Ukraine lacked the public support necessary to even start a conversation on potential NATO membership. But now that argument is ringing increasingly hollow, as Ukrainians are rapidly turning into staunch supporters of the alliance. As Ukraine’s army gains more resources and public support, pro-NATO voices in the country are bound to shape the nation’s foreign policy in the coming years.

In the photo, Ukrainian and U.S. soldiers prepare to watch a demonstration on the third day of the ‘Rapid Trident’ bilateral military exercises between the United States and Ukraine that include troops from a variety of NATO and non-NATO countries on September 17, 2014.

Photo credit: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

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