International Herald Tribune
June 17, 2008 By Judy Dempsey
BERLIN--NATO's secretary general, accompanied by top envoys from all 26 countries in the alliance, is trying to get a sense of whether Ukraine, the largest former Soviet republic so far to seek membership in the organization, is making progress with preparations to join and in resolving its disputes with Russia.
The secretary general, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, and NATO ambassadors are holding talks in Kiev this week with the Ukrainian Defense Ministry and with top members of Ukraine's three main political factions to try to evaluate the extent of change in the Ukrainian military. They are also trying to measure the gravity of a fresh warning from Russia, which says that it will never allow Ukraine to join the Atlantic alliance.
To understand attitudes across Ukraine toward NATO, the alliance is sending the delegation to the pro-European city of Lviv, in west Ukraine, and to the more pro-Russian cities of Dnipropetrovsk and Kharkiv in the east.
Alliance members promised at a meeting in Bucharest in April to hold talks with Ukraine and the former Soviet republic of Georgia on a Membership Action Plan, the preparatory stage for full membership.
But Europeans, particularly in France and Germany, are highly skeptical about the suitability of Ukrainian membership. Meanwhile, Ukrainians are deeply split over whether membership is desirable and there are widespread misperceptions about what membership would even entail.
"Our biggest challenge in Ukraine is explaining to the public what NATO is about," said James Appathurai, spokesman for the alliance. "Many think that if Ukraine did join NATO, then NATO would deploy nuclear weapons on their territory."
Ukraine has been slow to introduce the major defense changes required by the Atlantic alliance, according to NATO officials. The requirements include providing funding for the restructuring and reduction of the armed forces, overhauling military intelligence and bringing more civilian control and transparency to the military.
The idea that Ukraine could one day join NATO has provoked a strong negative reaction from Russia. The Kremlin, seeking to influence a meeting in December of NATO foreign ministers, recently intensified its campaign to block Ukraine from integrating the alliance.
Dmitri Medvedev, the Russian president, made it clear during talks two weeks ago with Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany that he strongly objected to Ukraine and Georgia joining the alliance. Instead, he called for a new European security architecture that would include Russia but that would weaken the Atlantic organization.
According to polls conducted recently by the independent Democratic Initiatives Foundation in Kiev, 59 percent of Ukrainians would vote against joining NATO, up from 53 percent last December, while 22 percent would vote in favor, down from 32 percent.
Last month, the pro-Russian Communist Party of Ukraine announced that it had collected one million signatures from residents in the Crimea demanding that the Russian Black Sea Fleet be stationed there permanently.
Under an agreement between Ukraine and Russia, the fleet - a potent symbol of Russian presence in Crimea and the biggest employer there - is to withdraw by May 2017.
If the petition gains momentum, it could create a conflict between Russia and Ukraine and convince some NATO countries that even offering a Membership Action Plan to Ukraine would be risky. The Communist Party alleges, for example, that the Black Sea Fleet would be replaced by a NATO fleet, which NATO denies.
Russia is using its energy reserves as a political instrument, just as it did in 2006, one year after the electoral victory of the pro-Western president of Ukraine, Viktor Yushchenko. At that time, Gazprom cut off supplies to Ukraine, allegedly over a price dispute.
Medvedev told Yushchenko this month that gas prices would double in 2009.
Russia is also questioning the status of the Crimean Peninsula, where more than 60 percent of the population is ethnic Russian. Through the Moscow-Crimea Foundation that is funded in part by Yuri Luzhkov, the mayor of Moscow, a strong anti-NATO movement has emerged there.
The Russian bid to prevent Ukraine from being offered a Membership Action Plan has also benefited from disputes inside the Ukrainian government and Parliament.
Yushchenko and Yulia Tymoshenko, the leader of the coalition government, have been involved in bitter power struggles since Tymoshenko became prime minister last year.
This has helped the pro-Russian group led by former Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich to mobilize public opinion over the disadvantages in joining NATO. The group contends that membership would seriously damage relations with Russia.
Over 60 percent of Ukrainians want to maintain friendly relations with Russia, according to public opinion polls.