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The Pseudo-Issue of Ukraine's NATO Membership

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Before leaving office, outgoing US President George W. Bush, Jr. intends to bequeath to his successor and the world yet another headache. As if the Iraq debacle, misconceived “War on Terror,” risky recognition of Kosovo, and other doubtful actions were not enough, the US wants to quickly bring Ukraine into NATO.

During his Kyiv visit on April 1, Bush told the Ukrainians, “Your nation has made a bold decision” to join NATO.

This was, as other things we have heard from his administration, wrong.

A plurality of Ukrainians continue to reject NATO membership. Moreover, Ukraine’s sizeable ethnic Russian minority tends to see NATO as an anti-­Russian organization, and receives propagandistic (and possibly other) support from Moscow.

The American administration’s current portrayal of the issue of Ukraine’s NATO membership as a conflict between the West and Russia is doubly misleading. Neither is the West unified in its support for Ukraine’s soon NATO membership, nor is Russia’s refusal to accept such a development the core of the problem.

The current debate about Ukraine’s NATO membership is surrealistic. All Ukrainian political forces, including Viktor Yushchenko as well as Yulia Tymoshenko and their political blocs, accept that Ukraine’s entry into NATO will have to be decided by an all-­Ukrainian referendum.

However, many Ukrainians, including supporters of Yushchenko and Tymoshenko, continue to tell pollsters they are, to one degree or another, against NATO membership. This means that Ukraine’s pro­-NATO political forces would probably lose such a referendum. This, in turn, implies that no such referendum will happen in the foreseeable future.

Thus within the next years, there will be no serious application by Ukraine for NATO membership, despite what Ukraine’s pro­-Western elite says. What then is all the fuss about?

As little as four years ago, Ukraine was a country with a dubious political system, one not much more democratic than Russia’s is today.

The 2004 Orange Revolution changed this. The popular uprising was successful not the least because the West was unified in its support of a rebellion that had the backing of the majority of Ukrainians. Neither of these conditions apply today.

France and Germany, among others, have their doubts about Ukraine’s NATO membership, and only a minority of the Ukrainian population is clearly in favor of it.

Like with earlier actions of the Bush administration, it is not realism, a concept one would think dear to conservatives, that guides US foreign policy.

Rather, the impression is that a misconceived messianic democratic vision drives the White House’s behavior on the international scene.

Indeed, the values that Bush purportedly wants to spread across the globe are in themselves those that make the West what it is. Yet the effects of his actions have done little to make our values appealing to non-­Western countries.

Whatever the recent advances in spreading democracy might be, the damage that Bush’s and his advisors’ arrogant behavior have done to international law, Western­-Muslim relations, and US-­Russian cooperation outweighs the gains.

Now the Bush administration is getting into another quagmire that might cause unrest in Ukraine and lead to a breakdown in US-­Russian relations. Knowing that the majority of Ukrainian citizens are against NATO membership, the Russians will not compromise on Ukraine’s rapprochement with the North Atlantic alliance. The roots of Russian statehood lie (at least in the Russians’ view) in Kyiv, and Crimea hosts a major Russian naval base.

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============================================================================== Andreas Umland, CertTransl (Leipzig), MA (Stanford), MPhil (Oxford), DipPolSci, DrPhil (FU Berlin), PhD (Cambridge). Visiting fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution (more...)
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