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Ukraine: A Look At Kyiv's Motives For Seeking NATO Membership

Ukraine last week announced it would seek membership in the NATO military alliance, marking a policy shift away from neutrality on the membership issue. The head of the defense and security council who made the announcement says neutrality no longer makes sense for Ukraine. But analysts say President Leonid Kuchma's recent international isolation and the new NATO-Russia Council were also factors in the decision. In this second part of a two-part series on NATO and Ukraine, RFE/RL correspondent Askold Krushelnycky examines the reasons behind the policy shift.

Prague, 30 May 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Ukraine, wedged between Western Europe and Russia, has a long and tragic history as a battleground. Its vast plains have for centuries provided excellent ground for cavalry sweeping in from the West and East. In the last century, they showed themselves equally inviting for tanks.

Since Ukrainian independence in 1991, NATO and the West have made it clear they see Ukraine as a key element of new security structures in Europe.

Although Ukraine has cooperated closely with NATO, its government has mostly avoided the issue of NATO membership because it did not want to offend Russia. Moscow strongly criticized NATO's first round of expansion in 1999 when Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic joined. Russian officials have also said they see no reason for NATO to expand further.

In January, Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma signed a raft of agreements with Russian leader Vladimir Putin. Among those was a 52-point military accord that included formation of joint naval units and arms production. At the time, observers said the agreement signaled a shift for Ukraine toward Russia and away from NATO.

But last week, the country's defense and security council chief, Yevhen Marchuk, announced that Ukraine, with Kuchma's backing, had changed policy and now wanted to join NATO. Explaining the decision, Marchuk said Ukraine's former policy of straddling Russia and the West no longer made sense:

"Continuing with adhering to the policy of not belonging to a bloc, or what we called neutrality, seems to hold no [advantages]. Furthermore, in certain circumstances, it could even be harmful."

Analysts say the reasons behind the shift may be more complex, and due in part to Ukraine's isolation by the West and the recent formation of a NATO-Russia Council that brings Russia itself closer to the alliance.

Serhiy Komisarenko is the former head of Ukraine's UN delegation and was ambassador to Britain. He now leads the Ukrainian International Institute for Peace and Democracy.

He says international criticism of Kuchma over allegations of corruption and possible involvement in the murder of a journalist led the president, initially, to tilt toward Moscow. He says this tilt, combined with Ukraine's lack of progress in its ambition to join the European Union, left the country with no clearly defined strategic course:

"It's constantly being said of the president that he has no clear-cut foreign policy, either toward Europe or Eurasia. His meeting with Putin [in January] was fairly controversial because people couldn't understand which way Ukraine was heading. So possibly after the [March Ukrainian parliamentary] elections, [Kuchma] felt it was necessary to demonstrate that he did have a foreign policy."

This sense of isolation increased, says Komisarenko, as Russia itself was courted by NATO. The courtship culminated this week in a ceremony marking the creation of a NATO-Russia Council that will give Russia more direct involvement in NATO decision-making. The council has been hailed by U.S. President George W. Bush, who has forged a close relationship with Putin.

Komisarenko says the timing of Ukraine's announcement about its desire to join NATO tells much about Kuchma's motives: "Just prior to this [announcement], Bush agreed with Putin about Russia's special status in NATO and Ukraine was seemingly left nowhere."

Oleh Soskin, the director of the Institute of Society Transformation, another Kyiv-based think-tank, agrees that Ukraine's decision was prompted by Russia's actions. He says Ukraine's previous position of indefinite neutrality meant Kyiv had to wait for rapprochement between Russia and NATO.

Komisarenko believes Ukraine consulted with Russia before declaring its desire to join the alliance. He does not think Kuchma would have risked taking a step so potentially damaging to Ukrainian-Russian relations without first seeking approval of the Russian president: "Putin agreed with Kuchma that he should make this announcement. Well, not actually Kuchma, but the Defense and Security Council. But [Kuchma] is its head."

Putin's response to Ukraine's decision has been muted. However, some senior Russian politicians have criticized Ukraine. The head of the Russian parliament's Defense Committee, Andrei Nikolaev, said Ukrainian officials were naive for not seeing what he called the potential threat from NATO.

Komisarenko expects there will be more objections from Russia if Ukraine really moves toward NATO membership:

"Russia is not homogenous, there is not a convergence of ideas within the parliament or society. There are different views, which are advocated by various powerful groups. Russia still regards Ukraine as a necessary satellite and, therefore, I think there are certain forces in Russia that are against Ukraine joining NATO."

The NATO representative in Ukraine, Michel Duray, said there is no contradiction between the mutual desire of Ukraine and Russia to move closer to NATO:

"There is no opposition between a good relationship between NATO and Russia and NATO and Ukraine. To the contrary, this reinforces the need for a more stable Europe and I understand that the relationship between NATO and Russia and NATO and Ukraine is itself a good paradigm for better relations between Ukraine and Russia."

Ukraine has not officially communicated to NATO its desire to join the organization, but the deputy secretary of the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry, Ihor Kharchenko, says it will do so soon.

Duray says deepening ties with Ukraine was already on the NATO agenda. Ukrainian officials expect to discuss the terms of Ukraine's entry at the NATO summit in Prague later this year:

"When we talk about deepening the relationship, it is, of course, a way to deepen security within the Euro-Atlantic zone as a whole. As you must understand, NATO -- now preparing for the Prague summit -- is preparing some decisions for its own future, and of course the future security in Europe encompasses Ukraine's security as well."

Komisarenko agrees with the Ukrainian government view that actually joining NATO will be a long process involving not only a big military overhaul but reforms to match NATO standards for democracy and the economy.

He said the government may even have to hold a referendum on the issue. Previously the issue of membership has been divisive, but Komisarenko believes the attitude of ordinary people in Ukraine toward NATO has changed for the positive.