Russian Roulette: Ukraine and NATO Membership

Article excerpt

In the summer of 1997, a Russian official warned that the West was playing a game of "Russian roulette" by considering the expansion of NATO into the Commonwealth of Independent States. He was especially concerned about the possibility that NATO would offer membership to Ukraine. While some observers in the West may consider this reaction irrational, Russian concern over the expansion of the North Atlantic alliance follows naturally from its close geographical proximity to Ukraine.

To understand the Russian anxiety more fully, three important elements must be taken into account: the changing role of NATO, the fledgling post-Cold War Russian-Ukrainian relationship, and the meaning of Ukraine's possible admittance into NATO for Russia.

NATO was originally set up to defend the "free" countries of the West from the communist countries of the East. The fall of communism rendered NATO's prime directive irrelevant. Desiring to maintain NATO as an organization, the United States has led the campaign to redefine the alliance's mission. This new role includes conflict resolution and confidence building within Europe, among other tasks. Part of this strategy includes extension of NATO membership to former communist states.

The redefinition of NATO has occurred as Russia and Ukraine have reevaluated their relations with one another. Three main issues have colored this post-Cold War construct. First, both Russia and Ukraine claim ownership of the strategically situated port at Sevastopol on the Crimean Peninsula in Ukraine, where Russia maintains its Black Sea Fleet. Second, Ukraine owes Russia an enormous energy debt, and it is not clear how this debt will be repaid. Third, and perhaps most crucial to the world at large, is the presence in Ukraine of nuclear missiles placed there by the Soviet Union.

Bilateral relations were initially quite tepid as government officials from both countries failed to bring concessions to the bargaining table. However, temporary agreements made over the summer have now made both countries better off, at least temporarily. Under the new Russo-Ukrainian Partnership Treaty, Russia will forgive almost the entire Ukrainian energy debt in exchange for control of most of Sevastopol's port for the next 20 years. Ukraine is also receiving economic aid from Russia and the United States in return for ceding control of its nuclear missiles to international agencies. …