Ukraine: the Acid Test for NATO Expansion

As part of Russia's 'near abroad,' its growing courtship with the Western alliance sends shudders through Moscow

The recent Yeltsin-Clinton summit in Helsinki seems to have finally sealed the NATO issue - in July the alliance will go eastward to include Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic. Many US analysts breathed a sigh of relief at the apparent Russian readiness to accept that move, albeit grudgingly.

But from my vantage point in the center of Europe, on Russia's borders, it is clear that nothing is really settled. Russia will have to swallow this first expansion because it simply doesn't have a choice. Besides, Russian policy-makers have somehow managed to reconcile themselves to the fact that Moscow's "outer empire" has gone for good.

Russia's 'inner empire'

But the "inner empire" of the former Soviet Union is a different matter. Russia wants to retain control over that at all costs. Nowhere is this Russian attitude more strongly felt than here in Ukraine. And nowhere is there a clearer test of not only Russian intentions, but the willingness of the West to fill the post-Soviet security vacuum.

Officially, Ukraine remains committed to its post-independence policy of neutrality. When Leonid Kuchma became president of Ukraine in 1994, Ukrainian officials reiterated this nation's non-bloc status like a sacred incantation. No mainstream Ukrainian politician dared to speak in laudatory tones of NATO, to say nothing of joining it. This week, however, Mr. Kuchma is in Washington, and NATO will doubtless be on the agenda.

It is no secret that many Ukrainian leaders are eager to get out from under their Russian big brothers. In their view, Ukraine has no future except as a member of Western political, economic, and security structures. And as Russo-Ukrainian relations have worsened, the Ukrainian leadership has become bolder in shaping its strategic choices.

Ukraine was quick to sign up for the NATO-sponsored Partnership for Peace program. Then high-ranking officials, including the president, began saying that they didn't see anything wrong with NATO expansion, adding that no country should have a veto over this process.

At one point Ukraine's foreign minister, Gennadi Udovenko, uttered something about the expediency of his country's association status with NATO. Although this was promptly disavowed by the secretary of national security and the defense council, Volodymyr Horbulyn, observers viewed Mr. Udovenko's words as a trial balloon. Soon it was Mr. Horbulyn himself hinting that Ukraine's non-bloc status might be temporary.

Now Ukrainian officials are openly flirting with NATO, barely concealing their desire to become first in the next tier of expansion. While Presidents Yeltsin and Clinton met in Helsinki, Ukraine's Udovenko held fruitful negotiations in Brussels with NATO Secretary-General Javier Solana. According to Russian sources, Udovenko told NATO officials behind closed doors that Ukraine would like to become a member of the alliance.

Contacts between NATO military officials and Ukraine have markedly increased. Almost the same day NATO's Mediterranean operational unit dropped anchor in the sea port of Odessa, the US representative to NATO, Robert Hunter, and the commander-in-chief of joint armed forces, NATO Europe, Gen. George Joulwan, arrived in Kiev. The latter discussed with Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksandr Kuzmuk the unification of NATO's and Ukraine's military terminology. To cap it off, a NATO information office - subsequently to become a formal mission - is scheduled to open in Kiev in May.

Ukrainian officials openly hint that the strategic decision to join NATO has already been made and that what is now at issue is timing and political circumstance. The time does not seem to be ripe yet. Ukraine still depends on Russia for energy supplies. It has yet to achieve the economic progress that would make it more immune to Russian political pressures.

Moscow aghast

Moscow, meanwhile, does not conceal its horror over the possibility of Ukrainian membership in NATO. Russian commentators argue that Ukraine is a crucial element supporting the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), the 12-nation association of former Soviet republics. If Ukraine walks out, let alone joins NATO, the CIS will simply collapse - and with it all the dreams of reintegrating the post-Soviet space, according to historian Aleksei Podberezkin, the geopolitical guru of Russian Communist leader Gennadi Zyuganov.

New tone from Yeltsin

Russian concerns about the impact of NATO expansion on its "near abroad," as the former Soviet republics are sometimes called, were manifest at the CIS gathering in Moscow that followed the Helsinki summit. In contrast to past arrogance, Russian leaders appeared to have adopted a more conciliatory posture. Speaking at a news conference in Kiev upon his return from Moscow, President Kuchma said he had seen "a different Yeltsin."

It is hard to tell, however, whether Russia has indeed initiated a "new deal" policy. Ultimately the fate of Ukraine will in many ways depend on which concept will get the upper hand in Russia: the traditional spheres-of-influence approach or the idea of an open Europe. Ukrainians, for their part, hope that Mr. Clinton meant it when he said: "The first new [NATO] members will not be the last."

* Igor Torbakov is a historian specializing in Ukrainian-Russian relations and a researcher at the National Library of Ukraine.

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