Global Insights: Ukraine Crisis Shows Strength of NATO Partnership Policies

Global Insights: Ukraine Crisis Shows Strength of NATO Partnership Policies
Photo: U.S. and Ukrainian soldiers participating in Exercise Rapid Trident 2011, Ukraine, July 29, 2011 (U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Brendan Stephens).
Although the geopolitical tug-of-war between the European Union and Russia was recognized as a principal factor driving recent events in Ukraine, NATO’s full role in the crisis is not widely understood. Like the EU, the alliance’s pull on Ukraine has long aroused anxieties in Moscow as well as among pro-Russian Ukrainians, exacerbating tensions related to the East-West standoff. But while NATO took no military action in the crisis, its partnership policies toward Ukraine have helped keep the Ukrainian armed forces out of the recent street fighting and could help the country emerge from its recent security crisis. Ukraine is not a NATO member and, under its recently deposed government, was not seeking to join, but NATO and Ukraine have engaged in many cooperative projects in recent years. In particular, the alliance has encouraged crucial security sector reforms that may, as in Spain and Turkey, have helped depoliticize the Ukrainian military, contributing to its decision to refrain from joining the recent armed clashes or seize power itself. While NATO should be cautious about renewing efforts to bring Ukraine into the alliance until the volatile political situation there stabilizes and decreases the risks of NATO’s role in Ukraine again becoming a polarized issue, new partnership projects can profit all parties. Official NATO-Ukraine ties began in 1991, when the newly independent country joined the North Atlantic Cooperation Council. Three years later, Ukraine became the first of the Commonwealth of Independent States to join the Partnership for Peace. The NATO-Ukraine Commission was established in 1997 to provide a forum where Ukraine and NATO’s members can discuss security concerns and cooperation. In language regularly repeated by NATO officials since then, the commission’s charter recognized that, “an independent, sovereign and stable Ukraine, firmly committed to democracy and the rule of law, is key to Euro-Atlantic security.” Among the various working groups created under the commission are the NATO-Ukraine Joint Working Group on Defense Reform, created in 1998, which promotes security and defense reforms; and the Annual National Program, developed in 2008 and 2009, which establishes yearly political, economic and other reform objectives for Ukraine. More concretely, Ukraine has been supporting NATO’s peace and stability operations in Kosovo, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Afghanistan, where Ukrainian medical personnel have been supporting a Polish and a Lithuanian Provincial Reconstruction Team. Ukrainian soldiers have also helped train the Afghan National Security Forces. Ukraine was the first partner country to support the NATO Response Force, contributing personnel skilled in countering nuclear, biological and chemical threats in 2010 and strategic aviation assets the following year. In October 2013, the Ukrainian navy joined Operation Ocean Shield to counter African piracy. The same Ukrainian ship now patrolling off the coast of Somalia had previously participated in the alliance’s counterterrorism mission in the Mediterranean, Operation Active Endeavor. Despite this continued concrete cooperation, Ukraine’s ties with NATO have proved controversial within the country as well as internationally, in Russia but also among European alliance members. Russia had reluctantly accepted NATO’s earlier rounds of membership enlargement involving Eastern and Central Europe’s former Soviet-bloc countries. But after the 2004 Orange Revolution brought to power a Ukrainian government, led by former President Viktor Yushchenko, that explicitly sought to join the alliance, Moscow pursued a vigorous and belligerent campaign to keep Ukraine out of NATO. Meanwhile, although the alliance launched an “Intensified Dialogue” with Ukraine in 2005, many European governments considered membership premature given the lack of popular backing among Ukrainians for such a move. Popular opposition to membership was especially strong among the Russian-leaning populations of eastern Ukraine and the Crimea, the site of periodic protests against NATO’s Sea Breeze partnership exercises in the Black Sea. The Bush administration launched a strong but last-minute campaign to induce NATO to offer Ukraine and Georgia formal Membership Action Plans at the April 2008 Bucharest summit, but several West European governments prevented this step. Some interpreted the August 2008 Russia-Georgia War as a Moscow-orchestrated maneuver to prevent Georgia and Ukraine from joining NATO. Deposed President Viktor Yanukovich had made keeping Ukraine out of NATO a key plank of his successful 2010 presidential campaign. After taking office, his government officially renounced earlier ambitions of joining NATO and secured parliamentary passage of a bill that prohibited Ukraine from become a member “in any military bloc.” While practical cooperation with the alliance continued, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen acknowledged last year that Ukrainian membership was not even under consideration as a possible outcome at the September 2014 NATO summit in Wales. During the most recent crisis, NATO launched a sustained campaign to keep the Ukrainian military out of the fray. Rasmussen warned the government of its “special responsibility not to use excessive force, and to maintain the neutrality of the armed forces.” And he appealed to the military “not to turn on the people of Ukraine,” later adding that “if the military intervenes against the opposition, Ukraine's ties with NATO will be seriously damaged.” Nevertheless, at the height of the crisis, there was a real danger that the military might split along ethnic or ideological lines. Fortunately, while the Ukrainian police did begin to divide into pro- and anti-regime groups, the army leadership pledged to stay out of Maidan Square and other contested areas. Rasmussen commended the declaration but cautioned that, “It is important that this continues to be the case.” NATO had worked for many years to depoliticize Ukraine’s Soviet-origin military, applying some of the same tools that helped depoliticize the armed forces of earlier NATO members. The Soviet-era armed forces were explicitly political, with special officers working to prevent any deviation from the oath of allegiance soldiers took to support the Communist Party. In working with Ukraine’s future government, NATO needs to build on its recent success. NATO membership for Ukraine remains an improbable option in the short term, but close cooperation can encourage political and defense reforms in order to keep the military apolitical and professional. Of NATO’s more than two dozen members, the former communist states in Eastern and Central Europe seem best fit to lead future engagement efforts, as their entry into the alliance was preceded by successful political-military reforms that they can share with Ukraine. NATO should also continue its dialogue with Moscow to avoid dangerous misperceptions. Whereas Russian and Western political leaders warned each other against outside interference in Ukraine, the senior commanders of NATO and Russia helpfully agreed the following day to exchange information on Ukraine through joint monitoring of the crisis. Although NATO’s mission in Afghanistan is winding down, the outcome of Ukraine’s crisis highlights that the alliance still has important roles to play in promoting security in Europe and beyond. Richard Weitz is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and a World Politics Review senior editor. His weekly WPR column, Global Insights, appears every Tuesday.

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