Ukraine, NATO, and Mr. Yushchenko’s Fading Star

August 26, 2009
James George Jatras
Deputy director, American Institute in Ukraine

Lame-duck politicians are sometimes prone to theatrical gestures that feed their vanity and satisfy their ideological preferences but do little to enhance their legacy. On December 31, 2000 – just weeks before he left office for good – President Bill Clinton thus signed the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC), although he knew that it would be rejected by the incoming Bush Administration and that it would not be ratified by the U.S. Senate.

Ukraine’s President Viktor Mr. Yushchenko’s remaining term of office is measured in months, rather than weeks, but with the approval rating firmly in the low single-digits he appears as lame as Mr. Clinton was on the last day of the last century. Yet on August 7, Mr. Yushchenko signed a decree approving a “national program” to prepare Ukraine for possible NATO accession – a document that seems destined to be as binding to that country’s future strategy as Clinton’s ICC gesture was to America’s policy under Bush.

There are two reasons Mr. Yushchenko’s decree is likely to remain a dead letter:

  • The shifting geopolitical balance has made NATO expansion along the Black Sea markedly less attractive to the key Western powers – including the United States – than it had been under Mr. Bush.
  • The people of Ukraine remain staunchly opposed to NATO membership and overwhelmingly continue to view Russia – the unnamed potential foe in Mr. Yushchenko’s vision – in the positive light.


The new mood in Washington is in contrast with the firm statement of support for Ukraine’s NATO bid made in April 2008 by then-President George W. Bush, which was strongly reiterated by then-Vice President Cheney last September.

The shift in emphasis first became apparent in May 2009, when Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg said that “the challenge is for Ukraine or any country that aspires to membership… to really show that it is qualified and ready to be a member.” The former senior State Department official handling Ukraine, David Kramer, summed up the new mood shortly before Vice President Biden’s visit to Kiev in July by saying that the United States can only help the country “to the extent that Ukraine helps itself.” Former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Steven Pifer described Washington’s new approach as “tough love.” In both of his public appearances in Kiev Biden warned of the dysfunctional aspects in Ukraine’s political and economic systems, and only made a passing reference Ukraine’s “deepening ties to NATO and to the European Union” rather than outright membership, adding that “they are your decisions, not ours.”

Marked changes in U.S. rhetoric in recent months reflect a new approach of the Administration to Moscow, as Russian commentators have noted approvingly. President Obama’s visit to President Medvedev in July, and muted American reaction to Mr. Medvedev’s verbal salvo against Mr. Yushchenko in August, suggest a trend.

That trend may be related to Russia’s rising strategic significance to the United States in view of Pakistan’s looming meltdown and the intensification of “Obama’s War” in Afghanistan, rather than to a sudden realization in Washington that alienating Russia simply makes no sense (as it does not). Nevertheless, policy adjustments based on short-term pragmatism have the habit of producing longer-term paradigm shifts. In this case such a shift would be beneficial to all parties.

The West Europeans understand, and approve. Their position was summed up on August 5 by NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, who stated that Georgia and Ukraine were far from NATO membership, adding that “NATO has no intention to drag anybody into the alliance against their will.” Rasmussen’s position differs from that of his predecessor Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, who has expressed support for Ukraine’s (and Georgia’s) membership in less ambivalent terms. Furthermore, Germany and France (supported by Italy and Benelux) opposed NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia last year, and their position has not softened since.

Steadily growing insistence on both sides of the Atlantic that it is up to Ukraine to demonstrate to the satisfaction of NATO’s members that it meets the criteria for entry is tantamount to admitting that there will be no entry in the foreseeable future. Ukraine will remain unable to meet those criteria for years: it is poor and getting poorer, politically disordered, and host to a non-NATO military base – the homeport to Russia’s Black Sea fleet – until 2017.

From the foregoing indications it is too soon to say for sure whether or not realism has finally taken hold in Washington. They can as easily be read as official Washington’s making a virtue out of weakness in seeing that pushing hard for Ukraine’s accession can only fail under current circumstances, so it’s better to wait until a perhaps more auspicious future moment. In that light, Mr. Yushchenko’s decree can be seen as a claim check for a policy option that, instead of being allowed to die a quiet, much-deserved, decent death, still presents a lingering danger to all concerned – Ukraine, the U.S., Europe, and Russia alike.


Even if the Western powers were eager to welcome Ukraine into NATO, and even if Russia was prepared to swallow that bitter pill, and even if there was no presidential election looming on the horizon, Mr. Yushchenko’s NATO plans would face an insurmountable challenge in his people’s refusal to share his strategic vision which is fundamentally antagonistic to Russia. Almost five years after what was claimed by some in the West as Ukraine’s definitive decision on a “Euro-Atlantic” vector he has not been able to reduce, let alone to eradicate, most Ukrainians’ sense of historical, cultural and political kinship with their powerful neighbor.

“If we were to fantasise, and pretend that Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin would run for the post of Ukrainian president, then, according to opinion poll results, he would win right off,” says Alexei Lyashenko, an analyst at Kiev’s Research &Branding polling institute. “His only serious competitor would be Russian President Dmitri Medvedev.” Another recent poll found that 25 percent of Ukrainians want full unification with Russia, and 68 percent want an EU-style border-free regime with Russia, with Russia and Ukraine being “independent but friendly states” without a visa regime or custom controls. Some 90 percent of Ukrainian citizens – nine tenths! – have a positive attitude toward Russia, and that score has increased over the past year. At the same time, two-thirds are opposed to NATO membership.

Evidently, Mr. Yushchenko’s problem is not – as former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright has put it – that Ukraine is “a country where nation-building needs a little help.” His problem was diagnosed more accurately by Nicolai Petro, a former State Department advisor on Soviet policy, as the misguided attempt to treat Ukraine's centuries old religious and cultural affinity with Russia as an obstacle to be overcome:

“The result has been a smouldering cultural civil war, in which large swathes of the population are engaged in destroying the very edifice that others are seeking to build, thereby condemning to ruin the structure that they both must live in.”


Permanent acceptance in Washington of this fundamental reality – if that happens – would contribute to peace and stability in Europe and it would enhance U.S. security by removing an unnecessary impediment to solid relations with Russia. However desirable in itself, such acceptance cannot yet be assumed and naturally will be resisted by ideologues seemingly guided by outdated perceptions of America’s strategic interests in the former USSR (for example, Zbigniew Brzezinski).

But since, as it now stands, Ukraine is increasingly unlikely to become a NATO member, this provisional fact begs an important question: what should be the positive strategic vision of a future leadership in Kiev in lieu of the one progressively discredited since 2004? The answer is clear: a realist strategy devised in accordance with the national and state interest of Ukraine as it is, reflecting all the diversity of Ukraine’s regions and historical perceptions. Based both on geopolitical and economic realities and on its historical and cultural legacy, Ukraine as it is has a clear interest in maintaining close and friendly relations with Russia no less than with the West. Ukraine as it is remains ideally placed to overcome the artificial division of Europe into the West and the rest, and serve as a bridge between the key parts of the Old Continent.

As AIU had consistently argued, Ukraine is uniquely situated, both geographically, and culturally, to serve as such a bridge. That possibility is mutually exclusive with the dead end path to NATO, toward which a virtual lame duck has now sought to commit Ukraine. During this presidential campaign it is imperative that other presidential contenders, those with a realistic prospect of taking the helm next year, come clean with the voters of Ukraine on this question.