Last Monday, the Russian daily newspaper Kommersant published a document described as a Ukrainian government plan for developing relations with NATO. Ukraine has enjoyed a privileged “partnership” status with the alliance since the late 1990s. Despite this, the general public attitude among Ukrainians toward NATO is ambiguous at best, with only around 30 percent of the population supporting the prospect of Ukraine's membership in the alliance. The document published by Kommersant describes plans by the government in Kiev that go a long way towards rapprochement with NATO. Indeed, the plans might even be interpreted as a road map towards starting to acquire the NATO Membership Action Plan – a step in relations considered as a tacit admission that a country aspiring to join the alliance is on track to eventually doing so.
What shocked many Russians was that this agenda was written by the government of President Viktor Yanukovych, whose election last year was cast as a geopolitical triumph for Moscow. The Russian leadership had had a hard time with Yanukovych's predecessor – the Atlanticist Viktor Yushchenko – and was relieved to see the supposedly pro-Russian Yanukovych in the top chair in Kiev. At first it seemed that he was a real gift to Moscow. With the stroke of a pen he agreed to prolong the lease for Russia of the naval base in Sevastopol and emphatically declared that Ukraine is not interested in a NATO membership. He even dissolved a special body that Yushchenko had set up to promote the Euro-Atlantic integration of Ukraine. Because of this Yanukovych’s apparent volte face came as a very unpleasant surprise to the Kremlin.
I however am baffled less by the substance of this apparent shift than by its speed. About five years ago, during my BBC days, I was assigned to cover elections to the Ukrainian parliament, the Rada. One of those days I sat in the lobby of a Kiev hotel with advisers from Viktor Yanukovych's “Regions Party.” At the time, Moscow was counting heavily on Yanukovych as its main ally in the stormy atmosphere of Ukrainian politics. I remember my surprise when one of Yanukovych's political consultants told me: “Moscow is sorely mistaken if it considers Victor Fedorovich (Yanukovych) a pro-Russian politician. He and his businessmen friends from Donetsk and Kharkiv – they are ‘pro-themselves’.”
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Fast forward to a couple of weeks ago in Kiev, where I participated in a television political talk show generally seen as supportive of the Yanukovych administration. Representatives of various political forces there argued about the usual themes of the Russian-Ukrainian relations such as the status of the Russian language and of course, the all time favorite – Russian gas supplies. It was in the studio that I had a vivid recollection of my conversation five years earlier during the Rada elections. The fact is, the experts from Yanukovych's camp on television in Kiev today don’t lag too far behind supporters of Yulia Tymoshenko, the firebrand, pro-Western former prime minister and a leader of the 2004 Orange Revolution, in their biting critique of Russia's attitude to Ukraine.
The documents published by Kommersant seem to confirm it: Yanukovych's presidency may well turn out to be a transformational one for Ukraine. He seriously intends to conclude negotiations about a free trade zone and association with the European Union, and to do this as soon as possible. Russia is pushing for Yanukovych to refuse this deal and join a Moscow-led “Customs Union” of several ex-Soviet republics instead. But this pressure is being felt in Kiev with mounting irritation.
Alexey Miller, chief of Russian gas giant Gazprom, has predicted that the price of natural gas for Ukraine by the end of the year will grow to an astronomical figure of five hundred dollars per thousand cubic meters. The implication is that this will happen if Kiev doesn't put an end to its “EU games” and this is, needless to say, something that rankles the Ukrainian government. Ukraine however does not seem to be backing away from its negotiations with Brussels. And now it appears that the economic course towards the European Union could be complemented by a rejuvenated partnership with NATO. It is a rather a risky step – as I mentioned, no more than a third of Ukrainians supports membership. Nevertheless, Yanukovych seems to be going for it.
An obvious question arises: Why? Here is my version. Ukraine is neither strong enough economically nor united enough culturally to “go it alone” and lead an existence entirely separate from both the EU and Russia. And in this era of globalization, such a course would be impossible anyway. Compared to the Russian ruling class, Ukraine’s has far more limited resources at its disposal. And in contrast with the Russian elite, Ukraine’s does not harbor visions of world power status for their country. This is quite understandable: Unlike Russia, Ukraine has never been an empire.
All that is desired by Ukrainian elites is for the outcomes of post-Soviet property redistribution to be legitimized, for Ukraine and Ukrainians to become fully accepted in and by the West and for the country to remain stable, avoiding major socio-economic upheaval. In these aspirations it is completely selfish – and, paradoxically, nationalist. But for achieving such goals, closer integration with the institutions of Europe seems a far more suitable tool than an obviously and unavoidably unequal partnership with Russia. So Ukraine is knocking on the European Union's doors again and will probably soon reappear on NATO’s doorstep too. Ukraine is starting to move down the same path followed by countries of central and eastern Europe in the 1990s. The road will be twisted and difficult, but the final destination will be the same: Brussels.