New NATO Report on Ukraine: Is Yanukovich Tilting Away from Russia?

June 28, 2011
Anthony T. Salvia
Director, American Institute in Ukraine

As was widely reported by the Ukrainian media, NATO believes Viktor Yanukovich has proved less pro-Russian than it had feared when, shortly after his election, he moved swiftly to extend Russia’s lease on its Black Sea naval base.

That is the gist of a draft report on Ukrainian foreign policy prepared recently by NATO's parliamentary assembly. The report cites a number of recent instances of Kiev contradicting Russian interests on key policy questions, a development its authors make little secret of welcoming. The report clearly reveals that NATO continues to think of Ukraine as a pawn to be deployed in a protracted zero-sum game with Russia, and pines for the day when it will once again willingly embrace this role.

This would appear to represent wishful thinking on NATO's part. After all, Yanukovich recently said Ukraine will not participate in American plans for a missile defense system that is clearly aimed at negating Russia's nuclear deterrent. In addition, he told the French daily Le Monde that while "we maintain partnership relations with NATO and participate in peacekeeping operations," nevertheless, we are "neutral and non-aligned." He said Ukraine's policy of good relations with Moscow and the West has eased tensions and paved the way for a "stronger European security system.”

Yanukovich is certainly right about that. In effectively thwarting Western efforts to drive a wedge between Kiev and Moscow—at least so far—he has done as much to solidify pan-European peace and geo-strategic stability as any other contemporary European leader, if not more.

And yet, the authors of the NATO draft report are not wrong in detecting a westward drift in Ukrainian foreign policy. They cite these developments: "[Yanukovich] has not recognized Georgia’s breakaway territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states, has not joined the Russia-Belarus-Kazakhstan Customs Union...In Brussels, he spoke out against the Russian-led South Stream pipeline project...and has rejected a takeover of Ukrainian energy giant Naftogaz by Gazprom."

Indeed, Energy Minister Yuriy Boyko’s recent statement that South Stream constitutes a threat to Ukraine’s national security calls to mind the rhetoric (and the mind-set) of the Yushchenko years.

It is not clear what motivates Kiev’s thinking in these matters. A Ukrainian foreign policy rooted in the national interest would think twice before surrendering Ukraine’s hard-won sovereignty to an alien and deeply troubled political bloc (the EU) whose prestige has never been lower, rather than join a Customs Union that would give Ukrainian industry unimpeded access to a market of some 200 million people in Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia. Membership of the Customs Union would lead to increased “direct foreign investment” in Ukraine, which would give a powerful boost to employment, growth and industrial modernization.

Ukrainian political consultant Vladimir Granovski, writing in the Kiev Post, suggests the administration is backing away from the pro-Moscow orientation promised by Yanukovich in the 2010 presidential campaign in order to curry favor in parts of the country that did not vote for the Party of Regions:

“…the ruling party [i.e., the POR] says it is firmly set on European integration and unwilling to enter the Customs Union with Russia and its allies. Other pro-Russian policies, such as making Russian an official state language, have also not been implemented.”

According to Granovski, Mr. Yanukovich feels he must be the president of all Ukrainians, not just those who voted for him. He cautions that this strategy “could lead [Yanukovich] to lose his constituency” while not gaining him “the voters in Kiev and in the western regions” he hopes to attract.

The point is well taken. Elected officials frequently seek to win over opposition voters by accommodating their views—thereby alienating their original supporters who often retaliate by staying at home rather than vote in the next election. President George H. W. Bush famously won election by promising his supporters he would not raise taxes, then, once in office, succumbed to the demands of his opponents to raise them, thus paving the way for his own ignominious defeat at the polls.

If Granovski’s analysis is correct, one could extrapolate a tendency on the administration’s part to side with Russia on security matters and with Europe on economic ones. The approach would seem to be—again, if Granvoski is right—let’s please Eastern Ukraine by accommodating Russia on NATO and national missile defense, and let’s please Western Ukraine by opting for the EU’s free trade zone and backing away from Russian language rights.

If so, the approach is too simplistic by half. The West aims to dragoon Ukraine into an anti-Russian configuration and will use the EU to do it if it cannot play the NATO card. This might please some political forces in Ukraine, but they will not support the POR. Meanwhile, many POR voters will be increasingly inclined to stay home.

Rather than play such a risky, high-stakes game—one commonly associated with presidential adviser Anna German—President Yanukovich would be better advised to stick to the foreign policy that helped get him elected in the first place.

This policy is succinctly formulated in the referenced NATO draft report: “Yanukovich…will not pull his country into a West that does not include Russia” – as indeed he should not. It is fundamental to the peace, prosperity and sovereignty of Ukraine (and Russia) that Kiev (and Moscow) resist efforts to bifurcate Europe by ramming a wedge between the Slavic nations (just as two mutually antagonistic blocs once confronted each other over Germanic lands).

Judging by the thrust and tenor of the draft report, this is clearly an objective many at NATO continue to pine for. But NATO, styled the most powerful military alliance in history, would be better advised to ponder the implications of its impending defeat in Afghanistan and its failure to bomb six million militarily out-classed Libyans into submission (and they’ve been at it since March 19th).

Meanwhile, the US public is growing increasingly intolerant of the cost of empire in a time of great economic uncertainty. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates recently made headlines around the world when he criticized Europeans for spending too little on military procurement, and for being less than gung-ho in their support of Washington’s geo-strategic aims (Germany and Poland, for example, have abstained from the Libyan campaign.)

What Gates did not address is the underlying cause of NATO’s distress—namely, America’s ill-starred, ill-advised and wholly unachievable quest for global strategic dominance. That’s probably because he hasn’t got a clue as to what US policy should be instead. He does not understand that America needs and yearns for a non-interventionist foreign policy that does not seek to encircle or obliterate anyone and does not aim to re-make the world in the progressive, agnostic (really atheist) image our infinitely remote, self-perpetuating, bipartisan elite have fashioned for us.

If NATO’s wars have gone badly awry leaving it with no compelling strategic justification, the EU finds itself in straits hardly less dire. Both pillars of the Euro-Atlantic system are increasingly non-viable, train wrecks in the making. President Yanukovich should rein in the westward drift in Kiev’s foreign policy, and reject the notion that he can assure the POR’s political success by adopting the policies of his opponents.