Ukraine Outside of NATO:
Is There a Better Alternative?

April 15, 2009
James George Jatras

James George Jatras
Deputy Director, American Institute in Ukraine

Kiev, April 15, 2009 – In the time since the NATO summit, the reasons that Ukraine should not become a member of the alliance have become even more self-evident. Among the key facts:

  • Few citizens of Ukraine support membership, a point now conceded by past advocates of NATO such as Prime Minister Yuliya Tymoshenko;
  • Even if Ukraine were to consider joining the alliance, it is far from qualified for membership, as now conceded even by ex-Speaker of the Verkhovna Rada Arseniy Yatseniuk;
  • Important NATO members, especially Germany and France, oppose membership;
  • Ukraine is not ready to lay out the costs in money and manpower NATO membership would require; and
  • Instead of the distraction of NATO, Ukraine should focus on a goal of potentially greater benefit to Ukraine and one that most Ukrainians support: membership in the European Union.

Still, the question may arise: if not NATO, then what? Can Ukraine consider a non-NATO security arrangement that protects its interests and promotes, not impedes, its economic prospects?

An All-Europe Security Structure

Key criteria for a security arrangement that would be in Ukraine’s national interest include:

  • Not overburdening Ukraine’s economy with costs of transition to NATO standards unrelated to Ukraine’s actual security needs and thereby damaging prospects for EU accession;
  • Not committing Ukrainian soldiers to security missions unconnected to Ukraine’s direct interests; and
  • Not pulling Ukraine into a geostrategic alignment that is rejected by a substantial portion of Ukraine’s citizens and would exacerbate regional, linguistic, and religious fault lines.

These criteria can be met with an arrangement that balances the needs of the NATO countries; of non-NATO western countries such as Finland, Ireland, Sweden, Austria, and others; of former communist countries that, like Ukraine, have little prospect or desire to joint NATO, such as Serbia, Belarus, and the former Soviet Central Asian Republics; and of Russia, which occupies a category of its own. Such an arrangement would not have to be seen as anti-NATO and would be compatible with genuine American interests in Europe. To the contrary, NATO – properly returned to its only legal mission as defender of its members’ territory – could constitute an important component of a broader security arrangement.

The Role of Europe

Apart from NATO, an important role should be played by a more robust, independent EU defense capability under the European Security and Defense Policy (ESDP). Successive administrations in Washington, both Republican and Democratic, have opposed any effort by Europe to pursue its own security arrangements. To date relegating ESDP to the status of an auxiliary to NATO – and in truth preferring it go the way of the moribund Western European Union – Washington has regarded any non-NATO European capability as a threat to the dominant role of NATO, in which the United States effectively is “more equal than others.” At the same time, Washington continually chides the same Europeans for insufficient “burden-sharing,” both in terms of percent of GDP allocated to military spending and, currently, willingness to deploy troops in Afghanistan. For American citizens (and taxpayers) it’s the worse of both worlds: we relieve the Europeans of any serious responsibility for their own defense and then complain when they won’t put up the money and manpower Washington asks of them.

Broadening European security arrangements from the current NATO monopole, directed implicitly or explicitly against Russia, would entail bringing into a security coordination all European countries, comparable to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). (As opposed to the Council of Europe, in which the U.S. has only observer status, it is certain the United States would be an important, though not dominant, element in any new pan-European security structure.) More importantly, an inclusive arrangement that subsumed existing organizations would help break down blocs and new lines of division that should have been permanently erased almost two decades ago.

Building a new structure would resolve two related issues that confronted NATO in the post-Cold War period. First, as advocated by some in the United States soon after the dissolution of the USSR, when the Russian Federation acceded to the Soviet Union’s seat as a Permanent Member of the United Nations Security Council: that Russia itself should become a member of NATO, presumably with Ukraine and most, if not all, other former Soviet Republics. This option was rejected in part because some were concerned that an all-Europe NATO would become a “talk shop” like OSCE unable to undertake so-called “out of area” military actions, i.e., missions not consistent with NATO’s collective defensive purpose under Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty. The slogan of the time was that NATO must go “out of area or out of business.”

Restoration of International Law

Second, not long after rejecting an inclusive policy toward the former USSR, which would have included Russia, NATO embarked upon an expansion aimed at isolating Russia and as far as possible marginalizing its weight in European security affairs. This pattern of expansion was made in direct violation of personal guarantees given to the Soviet Union’s then-President Mikhail Gorbachev upon the reunification of Germany but not codified in treaty. It should be kept in mind the relationship between how NATO grows and what NATO does. It has attracted little notice that when the U.S. Senate gave its advice and consent to the first wave of expansion in 1998 it also approved unspecified and unlimited “other missions” in addition to defense of member states’ territory. Not long afterwards, NATO, at Washington’s insistence, launched its illegal attack on Serbia.

Abandoning NATO’s Article 5 mission also meant abandonment of Article 51 of the UN Charter, referenced in the NATO treaty, affirming member states’ right of individual and collective self-defense. A broadened European security structure would require not only NATO members to abide by the Charter’s mandates that all states respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of other countries, and yield to the paramount responsibilities of the Security Council on security matters.

Facing the Real Threats to European Security – and Benefits for Ukraine

A pan-European security realignment, which would also include the United States, would allow a reallocation of forces from within Europe – where the NATO expansion has already prompted Russia to rethink the Conventional Forces in Europe agreement – to be directed externally against outside threats. Prominent among these would be cross-border terrorism and related problems in trafficking in weapons, drugs, and slaves; and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

Such a structure also would facilitate cooperation with non-European countries in addressing issues of common global security. The dramatic rescue this week of the American captain of a transport ship held hostage by Somali pirates highlights the need for greater coordination among countries to combat a criminal enterprise always regarded as the enemy of all civilized nations. It should be kept in mind that a number of Ukrainian seamen have been taken captive in past raids.

In rejecting NATO Ukraine can place itself as a unique catalyst helping to unite the continent in a security structure that will protect not only Ukraine’s needs but all of Europe’s. In doing so, Ukraine would not increase the already severe stresses on its economy but would help promote a cooperative approach that would smooth the progress of further economic development. An increased weight of ESDP in security affairs would reinforce Ukraine’s aspirations toward EU membership. Finally, rather than becoming an object of a new East-West divide Ukraine can be a bridge helping to create a more secure, prosperous, and unified Europe.

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 (