For the past seven years I have followed Ukrainian politics with great interest and enthusiasm. I advocated in favour of ousting former president Viktor Yanukovych, I advocated in favour of Euromaidan and its demands and in favour of releasing opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko from prison. In writing for United Politics I have previously shed light on Ukraine’s humanitarian crisis in the east as well as endorse plans to crackdown on corruption. However, I stand firm in saying I am in no way in favour of Ukraine joining NATO in the foreseeable future.
In an idealistic world nothing would please me more than to welcome Ukraine under the protection of the trans-Atlantic alliance, but I am a realist and I am not convinced, nor can I envision a future, in which Ukraine’s membership of NATO, given its geographical location and geopolitical importance, having a more secure and peaceful future.
NATO General Secretary, Jens Stoltenberg, visited Kyiv late last week where he met with President Poroshenko to discuss Ukraine’s path to membership. At a press conference NATO chief reaffirmed ‘the alliance would continue supporting Ukraine on this path’. It comes as the Rada, Ukraine’s parliament, voted to amend a law placing NATO membership at the heart of the nation’s foreign policy strategy, ending Ukraine’s previously held non-aligned status. In response to the passing of the amendment one Ukrainian lawmaker suggested that it will ‘strengthen national security, sovereignty and territorial integrity and stop Russian aggression’, but I beg to differ and here’s why;
Firstly, Russia currently has 55,000 military personnel and 700 fighter jets stationed at its land border with Ukraine, a further 5,000-6,000 are based in the Donbass region and 23,000 in Crimea, in which 9,000 regular army soldiers patrol Crimea’s imposed border with Ukraine. In addition, according to Reuters, Russia has ‘fortified the peninsula with troops, numerous ships and subs, as well as its lethal S400 air-to-ground missiles’, capable of shooting down targets 250miles away. If these are the acts of a defender, as Russia views itself, then I dare not envision the acts of an aggressor!
Secondly, Ukraine cannot do right from wrong. If the government in Kyiv fail to resolve the conflict then Russia will continue to support and arm the separatists in the east. On the other hand, if by some miracle the conflict is resolved in the east and on the Crimean peninsula, which NATO still views as part of Ukraine, then Ukraine would be in line for possible NATO membership, given that NATO requires applicants to find peaceful ends to any ongoing territorial dispute. In which case Russia would undoubtedly view as an act of aggression, as stated by Russian Deputy Defence Minister, Anatoly Antonov, NATO is turning ‘Ukraine into a front line of confrontation with Russia’, he added ‘If this decision in the future takes on a military character (accession to NATO), then we will respond appropriately. Then there will be a complete severing of ties with NATO, which will be practically impossible to repair’. NATO membership is simply too big of a gamble, one which could jeopardize the collective security and diplomatic relations NATO member states have with Russia.
Thirdly, With Russian elections next year, Putin is likely to run for a third, and by no means final term; therefore NATO can expect Putin’s foreign policy doctrine of divide and conquer to outlast any democratically elected government in the West. NATO members, especially those in Eastern Europe, cannot afford to endure a prolonged period of sour relations with Russia, given their socio-economic ties.
Fourthly, I fear Ukraine’s membership of NATO would further strain the alliances already limited resources, in terms of both troops and equipment. NATO would be in the position of having to defend five corridors (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland via Kaliningrad and Ukraine) in which Russia could launch an assault. Given NATO’s established military presence in the Baltic States, Ukraine could end up being worse off if it was to join. That being said, if NATO forces were to mobilize and establish a presence in Ukraine, then the Baltic States would then be exposed. Such a scenario displays NATO’s vulnerability as a military alliance. A recent report published by RAND Corporation, a US think tank, revealed that upon a Russian assault it would take ‘between 36 and 60 hours’ for Russian forces to capture the cities of Riga and Tallinn and NATO would need ‘one week’s notice to defend Eastern Europe’. In terms of numbers, Russia has 22 active battalions, whilst NATO has 12, 7 of which are Estonian and Latvian, which are ‘extremely light, lack tactical mobility, and are poorly equipped. In contrast, ‘all Russia’s forces are motorized, mechanized, or tank units. Even their 8 airborne battalions are equipped with armoured vehicles’. A Russian invasion is highly unlikely, but the report illustrates that NATO is grotesquely unequipped and insufficiently and unevenly funded.
And finally, I am a firm believer that all member states of NATO should pay their fair share and contribute to the up keep of NATO, in light of my previous point. I am of course referring to the commitment of spending 2% GDP on defence; a target only 6 of the 29 member states have achieved. My concern is Ukraine’s long term ability to spend 2% on defence, whilst also maintaining adequate spending in other areas such as health, education and infrastructure, areas which will improve the socio-economic condition in Ukraine. Since the conflict started Ukraine has managed to build-up a standing army of 250,000, making it the second largest in Europe – impressive, but is it sustainable without receiving IMF bailouts, which need to be repaid, and NATO trust funds which will eventually stop? Not one single spending review has been published by the Ukrainian government to suggest so. I understand the necessity of increased military spending during times of war, in which Ukraine spends well in excess of the NATO target, but it comes at the expense of a crippling economy, unemployment of 9.4% in 2017 and reduced living standards. I do not want Ukraine joining NATO if it cannot provide for its people. Even Ukraine’s own experts believe that this is the case. Serhiy Zhurets, director of the Centre for Army, Conversion and Disarmament Studies in Kyiv believes that ‘maintaining this level of commitment – or going any further – means making a choice between education and defence, the economy and defence’.
In conclusion I refer back to my intro; I am not convinced nor can I envision a future in which Ukraine’s membership of NATO, given its geographical location and geopolitical importance, having a more secure and peaceful future. Instead, the road to peace is through neutrality.