The 2009 Strasbourg-Kehl Summit

April 8, 2009
NATO Silent on Ukraine -- Ukraine Should Say “No” to NATO
James George Jatras

James George Jatras
Deputy Director, American Institute in Ukraine

Kiev, April 8, 2009 -- Contrary to some expectations, the possible candidacy of Ukraine and Georgia barely made it onto the agenda of the Strasbourg-Kehl summit. Unlike last year in Bucharest, where the outgoing George W. Bush administration made a last-ditch effort to overcome German and French resistance to inviting the two former Soviet republics, it appears President Obama didn’t even try in the face of hardened opposition from the twin pillars of “Old Europe.” NATO ended up with the dubious compensation prizes of Croatia and Albania. Obama did push for Turkish accession to the EU -- and was decisively shot down by French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

True, NATO didn’t rescind last year’s assertion regarding Ukraine and Georgia that “these countries will become members of NATO,” with the specifics of how and when tactfully left out. At the same time, there was no mention of Ukraine at all in the allies’ final declaration at the just-concluded summit. It is hard to disagree that Ukraine’s NATO prospects have dwindled since last year.

Issues related to Ukraine and the NATO summit were previewed at an international conference in Kiev on April 2, 2009: “The 2009 NATO Summit: What Will It Mean for Ukraine?” Sponsored by the American Institute in Ukraine (AIU) and the Washington-based International Strategic Studies Association (ISSA), the conference brought together experts and policymakers from the United States, Ukraine, and other countries to examine the implications of Ukraine’s possible NATO accession for the U.S., Ukraine, Europe, Russia, and NATO itself. This AIU U.S. Perspective on Ukraine is a look back at what actually happened at the summit, what didn’t, and what are the possible future impacts.

A “Hollow Alliance” in Search of a Mission and Unity

It would be difficult to consider the question of Ukraine’s relationship with NATO without a look at what kind of an organization the alliance has turned into. The fact that NATO is becoming fatally dysfunctional is increasingly apparent. Recently characterized by the CATO Institute in Washington as a “hollow alliance,” NATO at the dawn of the Obama era seems to be in search of operational coherence no less than a clear vision of purpose.

Obama’s main mission at the summit seemed to have been trying to convince America’s European allies to contribute more to the NATO operation in Afghanistan. He received commitments of $600 million and, depending on the reports, either 3,000 or 5,000 more European troops, most if not all non-combat. Even assuming the promised additional troops actually are deployed they are hardly likely to lessen the U.S. burden in the Hindu Kush, where Obama plans to ramp up the American force presence.

In short, despite any enhanced European role, the proportional U.S. load will actually increase. “That's a significant problem for the alliance, going forward,” said Nicholas Burns, a former American ambassador to NATO who is now a professor of diplomacy and international politics at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. “We all agreed to go into Afghanistan. The essence of the alliance is that we share responsibility and we share commitments,” Burns said. “And for some of the countries to essentially refuse to send their troops to combat areas, I still think, is an important issue that cannot be forgotten.”

Pro-NATO Forces Are Not Giving Up on Ukraine Yet

On the eve of the summit, in what may be seen as an end run effort to get onto a NATO track, Kiev’s Cabinet of Ministers approved an agreement to permit transit of Afghanistan-bound materiel through Ukraine. Perhaps seen as a partial compensation for loss of the U.S. base at Manas in Kyrgyzstan, Kiev’s offer is mainly an empty gesture, since no matter how much NATO piles into Ukraine, it can’t get from there to Afghanistan without transit through Russian territory.

Likewise, it is too early to conclude Washington has abandoned its efforts to bring Ukraine into NATO. On March 5, at the Foreign Ministerial meeting in preparation for the summit, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reiterated “the United States’ firm commitment to each of those nations moving toward NATO membership.” Later in the month, President Obama, while not mentioning Ukraine by name, affirmed his belief in the “need to send a clear signal throughout Europe that we are going to continue to abide by the central belief that countries who seek and aspire to join NATO are able to join NATO.”

Overcoming NATO’s Biggest Obstacle: Ukraine’s Citizens

Of course the biggest obstacle to Ukraine’s NATO accession is not the opposition of Germany and France but that of Ukraine’s citizens, the large majority of whom are against NATO membership. According to one authoritative poll in 2008, less than a quarter of Ukraine’s citizen would vote for NATO membership in a national referendum. One would think that for an alliance that is supposed to be a champion of democratic values that would be dispositive of the matter. Instead, it seems that Ukrainian proponents of NATO view negative opinions as simply an obstacle to be overcome and have committed to measures to remedy that problem.

For example, the 7th Annual Target Plan for 2009 – signed by both the NATO-Ukraine Commission and President Viktor Yushchenko -- sets targets and activities in different areas. Among these is “public information,” under which heading Ukraine agrees to focus on:

“Ensuring the funding and implementation of the State Programme of Public Information on Euro-Atlantic Integration of Ukraine for 2008-2011, with a view to spreading unbiased information on the Alliance, increasing public awareness on NATO’s role and its activities, as well as enhancing public support for Ukraine’s Euro-Atlantic course in an effective and coordinated manner.”

It is difficult to see how “spreading unbiased information” can be compatible with “enhancing public support.” Nor is it likely that the “unbiased” information which Mr. Yushchenko agreed to disseminate will include criticism of NATO, such a factual analysis of the alliance’s illegal 1999 attack on Serbia and the devastating impact on the Orthodox people of the province of Kosovo and Metohija.

To take another example: In December last year, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and recently departed Foreign Minister Volodymyr Ogryzko signed the “United States-Ukraine Charter on Strategic Partnership.” Under “Defense and Military Cooperation” it is stated:

“We [i.e., the U.S. and Ukraine] plan to undertake a program of enhanced security cooperation intended to increase Ukrainian capabilities and to strengthen Ukraine’s candidacy for NATO membership[, g]uided by the April 3, 2008 Bucharest Summit Declaration of the NATO North Atlantic Council and the April 4, 2008 Joint Statement of the NATO-Ukraine Commission, which affirmed that Ukraine will become a member of NATO.

There is no way to read these commitments, solemnly entered into on behalf of Ukraine, without reaching two conclusions. First, that some of Ukraine’s executive officials have gone far beyond mere advocacy of entry into NATO to acting as if that decision already has been taken and to binding Ukraine in a web of commitments to effectuate that result. Second, that they have also arrogated the right to change the Ukrainian public’s opinion to that end under the innocuous appearance of providing public information.

Common Wisdom of the People Based on Realism

Ukrainians’ reasons for opposing NATO are quite rational. Advocates of Ukraine’s accession to NATO have yet to confront the tough questions. First, nobody has yet explained where the funds will be found to bring Ukraine’s military up to NATO standards. Such a transition would involve scrapping almost all of Ukraine’s current Soviet hardware and replacing it with NATO-operable equipment. It’s a bill Ukraine’s beleaguered economy can’t support and U.S. taxpayers, hardly having an easy time of it either, shouldn’t support.

Second, any serious crisis over an attempt to drag Ukraine into NATO would rip apart the fragile unity of a country where a very large part of the population feels much closer to Russia than to the NATO countries. Also, unlike earlier expansions of NATO, Ukraine’s accession would be regarded a direct threat to Russia’s national security. Paris and Berlin clearly are focused on what might be possible countermeasures by Moscow. Kiev and Washington need to focus a bit as well. As Ambassador James Bissett, Canada’s last ambassador to a united Yugoslavia, observed at the April 2 AIU-ISSA conference, his country’s experience with living right next to a large and powerful neighbor is a relevant lesson for Ukraine as well.

Finally, more than anyone else, Ukrainians need to ask what real price might be demanded for their contribution to NATO. Sending Ukrainian soldiers back to Iraq? Maybe someday to Iran? Of course today Washington’s center of attention is Afghanistan. While Ukrainians’ last military involvement with that country was a few years ago, it's probably not an experience many would be eager to repeat.

James George Jatras is a principal in a public advocacy firm based in Washington, DC. Prior to entering the private sector he was senior foreign policy adviser to the Republican leadership of the United States Senate. He earlier was an American Foreign Service Officer, where among other assignments he served in the (then) Office of Soviet Union Affairs. In addition to his work with AIU he director of the American Council for Kosovo (