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Russia/Ukraine: Analysis From Washington--Russia, NATO, And Ukraine

Washington, 30 May 1997 (RFE/RL) - Russian President Boris Yeltsin's scheduled visit to Kyiv caps a week in which the post-Cold War security arrangements in an important part of Eastern Europe were simultaneously institutionalized and transformed.

The signing of the Russia-NATO founding act on Tuesday, the Russian-Ukrainian agreement on the Black Sea fleet on Wednesday, and the initialing of a Ukraine-NATO charter on Thursday deepen and formalize the most important trilateral relationship in the region.

But the strengthening of each of these three sets of bilateral ties as a result of these accords also has the effect of imposing some severe constraints on each of the actors involved in terms of how it relates to the other two.

That is because the leaders of Russia, Ukraine and NATO must now each carefully calculate how their pursuit of expanded ties with either or both of the others will affect how those actors will relate not only to it but to each other.

These calculations on the part of these three international actors were very much on public view in each of the accords reached this week.

The Russia-NATO founding act gave Moscow something it has long wanted, a voice at the table of Europe's most important security organization, even as it provided Ukraine with some important political leverage vis-a-vis Russia.

But the NATO countries carefully drafted this document so that Russia would have every incentive to develop good relations with Ukraine.

On the one hand, the act itself commits Moscow to a recognition of the right of all European countries to seek NATO membership if they want it, a statement Ukrainians and others have long wanted.

And on the other, it is written in such a way that NATO will undoubtedly make its decisions about the inclusion of new members and about the role Russia will play at Brussels contingent on Moscow's behaviour toward its neighbors and first and foremost towards Ukraine.

Similarly, the Ukraine-NATO charter initialed in Portugal provides Kyiv with a special relationship short of membership that allows it to enjoy a certain kind of security from the West without creating a condition that would threaten many in Moscow.

As in the case with the Russian agreement, NATO has used this accord to create a system of incentives both for Kyiv and for Moscow. Under its terms, both benefit from behaving as good neighbors, and both suffer if they do not.

As Ukraine demonstrates that it can get along with Russia, NATO is likely to provide it with ever more protections even as the Western alliance crafts these to avoid offending Moscow.

And as Russia demonstrates that it can get along with Ukraine, NATO is less likely to take seriously any demands by Ukrainians that the alliance must take them in to protect them against the Russians.

And finally, the accords between Moscow and Kyiv on the Black Sea fleet and the visit of Yeltsin to Kyiv reflect the calculations of leaders in both capitals of the benefits they stand to gain with NATO if they cooperate as well as the risks they run if they do not.

Some might be tempted to conclude that this new set of relationships and the balances contained within each promises a new era of cooperation and concord in this historically unsettled region. But there are three reasons why such an optimistic reading of the events this week could prove unrealistic.

First, the three players in this set of ties have very different political and other resources. Compared to Ukraine, the Western alliance and Russia each have far more assets.Consequently, either of them might at some point conclude that it could either ignore Ukrainian concerns or act with impunity toward Kyiv.

Second, one of the three partners could miscalculate concerning the intentions or reactions of the other. Despite some efforts to promote transparency, many aspects of these three sets of links remain unclear to one or more of the parties involved.

Consequently, the chance exists that one of them might take steps leading to a negative or even explosive cycle without ever having intended to do so. In this region, such miscalculations have led to crises in the past and could do so in the future.

And third, precisely because these relationships are so finely balanced and require each partner to live with a certain amount of insecurity, some leaders within each may see moves that destabilize the situation as benefitting their own political position.

Some Russian leader might in the future be willing to sacrifice ties with NATO in order to gain the upper hand in Kyiv, and some Ukrainian official might want to undermine relations with Moscow in the hopes that the West might take Ukraine under its wing.

But despite these possibilities -- and they will remain open for some time -- the set of accords reached this week represent a major advance on the past in terms of the security of Russia, Ukraine and NATO and hence of Europe as a whole.