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Commentary: To Steady EU And Ukrainian Courses, Rock The Boat

(NATO) Pro-Western Ukrainians have long expressed the fear that their country's place on the map could doom it to a fate as a buffer between Russia and Europe.

Such a role, they argue, would forever prevent Ukraine from assuming its rightful place in the West. Recent events suggest that their concerns are warranted.

Kyiv's bid at the recent NATO summit for a Membership Action Plan (MAP), a key step toward eventual membership, was always more symbolic than realistic.

After all, notwithstanding the desperation exhibited by Ukrainian officials ahead of the meeting in Bucharest, most Ukrainians remain staunchly opposed to NATO membership.

The European economic giants within NATO -- Germany, France, Italy, and the United Kingdom -- have also been vocal in their opposition to Ukraine getting a MAP.

Ahead of the April 2-4 summit, those countries stressed the need for Ukraine to strengthen democratic institutions, improve the rule of law, ensure stability, and combat corruption -- the same mantras that "old Europe" has invoked to counter talk of Ukraine someday joining the European Union.

The underlying rationale for NATO's rejection of a MAP for Ukraine at this stage, however, is the European powers' reliance on Russian energy and the fear that Moscow would punish them if they agreed to allow Ukraine in.

NATO softened the blow by promising eventual membership and saying the MAP issue will be addressed again later this year.

Will anything change when NATO foreign ministers reopen the debate in December? Not unless Russia runs out of gas in eight months -- which, of course, is not going to happen.

The fact remains that the European powers collectively have invested tens of billions of euros into energy projects with Russia, and they do not want to risk losing those investments by upsetting the Kremlin.

With 80 percent of its Russian gas imports transiting Ukraine, the European Union's greatest nightmare is waking up one morning to find its gas artery severed due to internal conflict in Ukraine instigated by its powerful eastern neighbor.

Playing off those fears, Russian leaders are keen to see Ukraine play a role akin to that of Finland during the Cold War -- independent, yet toeing the Kremlin line on foreign policy and security.

Such a "Finlandization" of Ukraine would appear to have the benefit of satisfying "old Europe" while also allaying its fears of alienating Russia.

The realization of such a concept is something that Berlin, Paris, London, and Rome are likely to support in order to keep the gas taps open. It would also make two things clear: a) Ukraine's fate as a geopolitical buffer between the EU and Russia would be sealed; and b) Kyiv would, as a result, have no place within NATO's ranks.

But while not rocking the boat might serve Europe's short-term interests, it would be wise to take a hard look at the long-term advantages it stands to gain from ensuring a measure of control over the gas supplies that will largely shape its future.

Integrating Ukraine into Western structures like NATO and the European Union could go a long way toward achieving such control, while sparing Ukraine a fate as a Russian lackey.

Roman Kupchinsky is a former director of RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service and a partner in the U.S.-based consultancy AZEast Group

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LOTS TO TALK ABOUT: The agenda of this week's NATO summit in the Romanian capital has included key questions about relations with the Balkans, the Caucasus, Afghanistan, Ukraine, and Russia. Entering the event, there was risk of gridlock, as Georgia and Ukraine sought "Membership Action Plans" over strident objections from Russia. Meanwhile, Balkan aspirants Albania, Croatia, and Macedonia already had their MAPs but faced varying degrees of resistance to their membership from inside the alliance. Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer (pictured above) and NATO leaders were also grappling with the alliance's biggest current challenge and putative "top priority," its Afghan mission. Relations with Russia provided further drama as Washington pressed ahead with its effort to build a missile-defense system in Europe.

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