Ukraine last week announced it would like to explore membership in the NATO military alliance, marking a significant shift in foreign policy. The announcement was made by the chairman of the country's Defense and Security Council and apparently has the full backing of President Leonid Kuchma. The U.S. Embassy in Kyiv welcomed the announcement, but NATO cautioned that membership is a long and difficult process. In this first of a two-part series on NATO and Ukraine, RFE/RL correspondent Askold Krushelnycky examines the announcement and early reactions to it.
Prague, 29 May 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Since independence in 1991, Ukraine has trod a wary path in its foreign policy, seeking to establish closer relations with the West but careful not to offend neighboring Russia.
One of the most delicate areas where Ukraine has sought to maintain that balance is in defense and security.
Russia has been and continues to be critical of NATO's eastward expansion. It was angry when Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic joined NATO in 1999 and opposes the membership ambitions of former-Soviet Lithuania, Estonia, and Latvia.
Ukraine is a member of NATO's Partnership for Peace program, participates in NATO peacekeeping operations in the Balkans, and has signed a cooperation agreement with NATO's highest decision-making body, the North Atlantic Council. But -- in deference to Russia's concerns -- it has previously said it did not want full membership in the alliance.
On 23 May, the chairman of Ukraine's Defense and Security Council, Yevhen Marchuk, broke new ground by announcing Ukraine would like to explore possible membership in NATO. He says the decision came from Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma, who attended a Security Council meeting where the policy shift was agreed.
"Our discussions concerned the need to formulate and adopt such a strategy, the final aim of which would be the future entry of Ukraine into the collective security system in Europe, which today is based on NATO."
Marchuk says the decision was spurred by the realization that Ukraine's 10-year-long policy of sitting on the fence was no longer tenable.
"Continuing to adhere to the policy of not belonging to any bloc, or what we called 'neutrality,' seems to hold no [advantage]. Furthermore, in certain circumstances, it could even prove harmful."
NATO's representative in Kyiv, Michel Duray, says the Ukrainian government has not communicated anything officially about its intentions. But he believes the Ukrainians will say more when NATO Secretary-General George Robertson visits on 9 July.
"In July, indeed, we have a meeting of the North Atlantic Council in Ukraine to mark the fifth anniversary of the signature of the charter between NATO and Ukraine, and of course there will be a high-level visit during this anniversary. And I suppose the Ukrainian side will make some declaration."
NATO has long said Ukraine's geographic position, between NATO and Russia, is important in constructing a stable security system for Europe.
Duray said earlier this month at a meeting in Iceland the alliance agreed to study ways to "improve or deepen" its relations with Ukraine. Ukraine is to attend a major NATO summit in the Czech capital, Prague, in November.
Duray would not say what NATO's formal response to Ukraine would be, but he says the two are working on "deepening" their relations:
"I think we are heading toward a deepening of a relationship and the enhancement of the good relationship which already exists between Ukraine and NATO."
He points out, however, that the process for NATO membership is complex. Candidates must meet strict standards, not only concerning military competence and compatibility, but also of democracy and the economy.
Marchuk admits that gaining entry to NATO will be a long process. He says the decision to apply for membership will have to be approved by the Ukrainian parliament and society in general.
"Insofar as this process can only be bilateral -- by that I mean that Ukraine cannot on its own lay down conditions [for membership] -- then this requires an intensified dialogue with NATO. On July 9 we will have the opportunity to talk about this and demonstrate Ukraine's willingness to embark on this process so that in November in Prague -- and as you know the president of Ukraine is invited to this summit -- that Ukraine will come to Prague with agreed proposals."
The U.S. ambassador in Kyiv, Carlos Pascal, welcomed Ukraine's announcement, hailing it as a "landmark."
Ukraine's former foreign minister, Borys Tarasiuk, who was criticized in office as being too friendly to the West, also praised the decision. He said "NATO and those who expected a definite foreign stance from Ukraine waited for this a long time."
The Russian response has been measured. Russian President Vladimir Putin was in Rome yesterday for the first session of a new NATO-Russia Council. He says the council signifies a new era in relations between the alliance and Russia. This goodwill would also presumably extend to Ukraine and its own NATO ambitions.
However, some Russian politicians have criticized Ukraine's intentions. The head of the Russian parliament's defense committee, General Andrei Nikolaev, condemned the Ukrainian decision.
The Ukrainian government has voiced concern that Ukraine is being marginalized as other formerly communist Eastern European countries line up to join NATO and the European Union.
At yesterday's NATO-Russia summit in Rome it fell to Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski, in his speech, to urge the assembly not to exclude Ukraine from its plans. His remarks served to underline Ukraine's worries about its failure to make an impact on the international arena.
(In the next part of this report we examine more closely Ukraine's motives for wanting to join NATO.)