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Ukraine: Experts Say Kyiv Has Unclear Strategy For Joining NATO

Ukrainian officials recently suggested the country, as a potential NATO member, may have to rethink the presence of Russian military bases in the Black Sea port of Sevastopol. The statement caused an uproar in the Russian press, and Ukraine immediately said the remarks were informal and that the presence of Russian naval bases is not under discussion. Some analysts say Ukrainian steps toward possible membership in NATO are too hasty and that the country has no strategy for joining the alliance.

Prague, 1 July 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Two weeks ago, the first deputy secretary of the Ukrainian National Security and Defense Council, Serhiy Pyrozhkov, made a suggestion that Ukraine should rethink its position on the presence of Russian naval bases in the Ukrainian Black Sea port of Sevastopol. He cited Kyiv's possible future membership in NATO as the reason.

The suggestion caused an uproar in the Russian press. On 29 June, Pyrozhkov said he was speaking informally and that the presence of Russian bases in Ukraine is not under discussion. Some political analysts say the suggestion was simply a feeler for Kyiv to gauge Moscow's reaction. Others say Ukraine does not have a clear-cut strategy toward both Russia and NATO.

Five years ago, Ukraine, as well as Russia, developed special partnership relations with NATO. However, in the middle of May, Ukraine announced that it wanted to explore actual membership in the NATO alliance itself.

Such a move would cause tense relations with Russia, especially if Ukraine decided to reconsider the status of Russian bases on its territory. Russia agreed to rent part of the Black Sea port of Sevastopol from Ukraine for 20 years beginning in 1997. Russia says it would cost several billion dollars to build a new base in the Black Sea.

Andrei Ryabov, an analyst from the Moscow Carnegie Center, a think-tank based in Moscow, tells RFE/RL that statements about reconsidering the future of Russian naval basis in Ukraine are nothing more than probes to see how Russia reacts.

Ryabov says that in practical terms, it is nearly impossible for Ukraine to be serious in asking the Russians to leave the bases.

"The treaty on the bases of the Russian fleet in the Black Sea is linked with other very important topics. Primarily, it is linked with the writing down of Ukrainian debt for Russian gas. The two treaties are in one packet. Maybe that's why the official reaction of Russia [to the suggestion made by Pyrozhkov] was so mild. Russia knows that Ukraine would hardly decide to rethink the problem of the debt."

Ukrainian debts for Russian gas amount to about $3 billion.

Ryabov says Ukraine is seeking to make the policy of joining NATO legitimate in the eyes of the Russian authorities and politicians. Ryabov says on the whole, Ukraine's NATO bid will not aggravate relations with Russia.

"It may sound strange and paradoxical, but it can be used by [Russian President Vladimir] Putin to illustrate that Russia also must move in the direction of integration with Atlantic structures."

Ryabov says there is no doubt that Ukraine is serious in seeking NATO membership. Besides its recent declaration, Ukraine also plans to take more concrete steps toward cementing its relationship with the alliance. It says it plans to amend its Special Partnership Charter with NATO during a meeting of the Ukraine-NATO Commission on 9 July.

Pyrozhkov, spoke about this Ukrainian plan last week: "It will be a political document. If we sign it with NATO, it will mean that we officially will join the Action Plan and take some responsibilities. The Action Plan is not a declaration. We must have financial calculations and must ensure that we will fulfill the obligations put into the plan."

Ukraine hopes to sign a Membership Action Plan (MAP) during the NATO summit this autumn in Prague. The MAP is a list of standard requirements for entering NATO. The standards concern the political, economic, military, legal, and national security fields.

Serhiy Zgurec is an expert at the Center for Peace, Conversion, and Foreign Politics, based in Kyiv. Zgurec does not approve of the way Ukraine is acting in its ambitious plans to join the alliance. He says the authorities do not have a clear-cut strategy of integration.

Zgurec says Ukraine is testing the reaction not only of Russia but also of NATO countries. He says Ukrainian plans to join the MAP will be premature and have negative consequences if the country fails to fulfill its commitments in the spheres of human rights, freedom of the press, and economic reform.

"This wish [to join NATO] can be discredited. If Ukraine fails to fulfill the obligations it wants to take, [Ukraine] will not dare to try once more to join NATO for some time in the future. It will be very useful to Russia. It is not clear how long warm relations between Russia and America, [and] Russia and NATO, will last."

Zgurec says that such chaotic steps could leave Ukraine in the Russian sphere of influence and its declarations about joining NATO forgotten.

A press officer for NATO, Robert Pizszel, told RFE/RL that NATO is keen to develop closer relations with Ukraine.

"We would like to have a very close look and, in fact, we would like to come up with new ideas about how to deepen and intensify our relationship, and that package of proposals would be prepared during the summit in Prague [before] which, of course, there will be the summit of the Ukrainian-NATO Commission."

It sounds optimistic. However, a NATO official -- who spoke to RFE/RL on condition of anonymity -- says NATO will pay considerable attention to the state of human rights, freedom of the press, and market reforms in Ukraine. The official said these problems are causing some concern at NATO headquarters in Brussels.