Ukraine to start NATO talks: Russia angry, the West uncertain
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Ukraine will start talks on joining NATO, President Petro Poroshenko announced on Monday, a move likely to strain already tense relations between the West and Ukraine’s neighbour Russia.
When Ukraine’s parliament voted to enshrine in law the country’s priority of acceding to NATO membership last month, Russian government spokesman Dmitry Peskov responded by saying that the organisation’s spread eastwards “threatens our security and the balance of forces in the Eurasian region. Naturally, the Russian side will take all measures needed to rebalance the situation and ensure our own security”.
“Ukraine joining NATO would, undoubtedly, be upsetting for Russia, which has always considered Ukraine to be its nearly identical, yet somehow lesser Slavic brother, standing loyally at its side,” said Raisa Ostapenko, researcher of Eastern European history and politics at the Sorbonne University in Paris.
The increased tensions between Russia and the West – following Moscow’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and the rise of Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine – have recently reached a new zenith with lurid allegations of Kremlin attempts to influence the 2016 US presidential election.
Kiev’s announcement this week raises further questions about how the West responds to a newly aggressive Russia and how it can defend its interests.
Poroshenko underscored that his announcement “does not mean we will soon be applying for membership”. And while NATO leaders have agreed since 2008 that Ukraine would one day become a member, they are unlikely to rapidly usher Kiev into the club.
“There’s no appetite in NATO for immediate enlargement,” said Edward Lucas, author of "The New Cold War" and senior fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis in Washington, DC. “I don’t think there’s any appetite to give Ukraine an Article 5 security guarantee right now”, he added, referring to the NATO clause stating that an attack on one member is an attack on all.
However, Poroshenko’s office has emphasised that Ukraine is committed to conducting reforms in order to “have a clear schedule of what must be done by 2020 to meet the NATO membership criteria” regarding defence, anti-corruption measures, good governance and law enforcement.
“Now, with such widespread international support for Ukrainian membership and 69 percent of Ukrainians supporting the move, the country is more motivated than ever before to meet its political, economic and military targets,” said Ostapenko. “Ukraine has a lot to lose in not complying – its pride and legitimacy as a Western partner are at stake.”
With regard to Moscow’s chagrin at Kiev’s NATO membership talks, Lucas was firm: “Russia doesn’t have the right to decide what other countries do for their security arrangements.”
Russia ‘believed Western assurances’
Since at least the 1990s, there was a perception in the US especially that NATO’s extension into Russia’s former “sphere of influence” was causing understandable worry in Moscow.
In a recent New Yorker piece on US-Russian relations, Evan Osnos, David Remnick and Joshua Yaffa cited comments made by former US president Bill Clinton to an aide during a 1996 visit to Moscow to meet with then Russian leader Boris Yeltsin. Clinton acknowledged the Kremlin’s unease about NATO’s eastward expansion.
“We keep telling ol’ Boris, ‘OK, now, here’s what you’ve got to do next – here’s some more s*** for your face.’ And that makes it real hard for him,” Clinton said.
The Russians “firmly believe that they had clear assurances from the West that NATO would not be expanded” going back to the end of the Cold War, said Sir Tony Brenton, former British ambassador to Russia. “There was certainly a verbal statement by James Baker (then US secretary of state) back in 1989 at the time of the reunification of Germany – which obviously brought East Germany into NATO – which said that NATO jurisdiction would not extend further to the East. Other Western foreign ministers said the same thing at the time.”
“The West has got out of the habit of taking Russia’s concerns seriously,” Brenton continued. When Russia was “very weak” during the initial post-Soviet phase, “even when the West was doing things which irritated Russia, like the Kosovo War and the expansion of NATO, they listened politely to Russian protests but basically ignored them”.
“The problem that we’ve now got is that, while the West would like to continue to ignore Russian objections, the fact is that Russia is much stronger now, and is much more able to make its concerns felt, as we’ve seen in Ukraine and as we’re seeing in Syria.”
Moscow may ‘pull out all the stops’
“If it looks as if Ukraine is moving towards joining NATO, then we’re in a very dangerous situation, because I think [Russia] are prepared to pull out all the stops to prevent it from happening,” Brenton warned.
Other analysts think admitting Ukraine to NATO might not be so risky, for now at least.
“As far as the Kremlin and Russia’s state-sponsored media are concerned, the fraternal bonds between the two countries were severed as early as the 2014 Euromaidan protests,” said Ostapenko, referring to the pro-EU protests that toppled Ukraine’s pro-Kremlin president, Viktor Yanukovich, in 2014.
“Ukraine’s ascension to NATO is, therefore, unlikely to result in a cataclysm, because it will have been expected. Russia is not foolish, and is unlikely to exact revenge by attacking a NATO member country. Moscow is in this for the long term.”
Whether or not Ukraine’s revived NATO membership talks lead to its joining the alliance in the coming years, the issue will continue to be a point of contention as the US and Europe seek a cohesive response to an increasingly assertive Russia.