Russian Roulette


No Action, Talk Only. This is how the Ukrainian government could be tempted to redefine the NATO acronym after the Atlantic Alliance refused to extend a formal membership process to this former Soviet republic. Following the conflict in Georgia, President Viktor Yushchenko of Ukraine was hoping that the NATO summit in December last year would hear his alarmist plea to guarantee his country’s security:

‘We urge NATO to resist Russian pressure and make an historic offer of membership to my country. Since 1918, Ukraine has declared its independence six times and five times it failed. One of the fundamental reasons for that is that we had no external partner who would recognise our territorial integrity,’ Yushchenko declared at a press conference ahead of the summit.

The January/February 2009 issue of The Diplomat pointed out that ‘the next big Western-Russian crisis is likely to be over Ukraine’s NATO membership’. So far, however, Yushchenko’s pleas are proving fruitless, as internal political turbulence and the growing threat of Russian recrimination have strengthened the position of those Western European countries, including Germany, France, Spain and Italy, who consider that further eastward NATO expansion would cause international instability.
Their security nightmare is that a reckless anti-Russian leader, emboldened by the NATO umbrella, would trigger a war with Russia to settle old scores – as Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili had already done without NATO support. To date, this view has prevailed over the pro-enlargement group led by the US and its Eastern European allies, which basically advocates a new ‘containment’ policy against a resurgent Russia. However, while it remains to be seen what new US president Barack Obama’s position will be, the recent gas crisis suggests it will not take much to antagonise Russia into taking some form of punitive action.

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Although NATO framed its refusal in terms of waiting for certain standards to be met, the real reason is politically motivated – and the decision may well have closed the brief window of opportunity to bring Ukraine into the fold.

Complicating matters is the fact that NATO remains a highly divisive issue in Ukraine, with a September 2008 poll revealing that 63 per cent of the population oppose Yushchenko’s efforts to seek NATO membership.

Furthermore, Yushchenko’s abysmal personal popularity – running at a mere five per cent support according to another poll – means that his days in power are almost certainly numbered. Opposition leader Viktor Yanukovych didn’t even wait till the formal end of the NATO summit to bury Yushchenko’s efforts, saying: ‘The world leaders have understood and accepted the fact that Ukrainians speaking against NATO membership have expressed their rejection of more dividing lines between the two brotherly nations, Ukraine and Russia.’

Even Yushchenko’s former ally and current prime minister, Yulia Tymoshenko, is far from committed to NATO integration. She notably failed to add her voice to Yushchenko’s support for Georgia last August and later flew to Moscow to negotiate gas prices with Vladimir Putin. Her conciliatory tone regarding the Russian leader prompted one Ukrainian presidential aide to brand Tymoshenko a ‘traitor’, and by steering clear of the unpopular NATO issue, she is clearly trying to broaden her appeal ahead of the 2010 presidential election.

Orange Revolution gains unravelling

Regardless of who wins the ballot, it is clear that the Orange Revolution is rapidly unravelling and pro-Western forces are losing momentum. Voters are well aware that the Orange Revolution’s genuine democratic gains, in terms of elections and media freedom, have been squandered, with Yushchenko’s rule marked by prolonged governmental instability that has ultimately cast parliamentary democracy as the biggest loser.

Currently facing their third legislative ballot in less than three years, most Ukrainians are suffering from a severe case of election indigestion. Widespread voting on ethnic lines, backroom manoeuvring by political parties and the oligarchs’ unrelenting rise from mafiosi to respected ‘philanthropists’, have all conspired to discredit the institutional system of liberal democracy, making the country ripe for Putin-like authoritarianism.

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