Since independence, Ukrainians have been evenly split between those who desire to be part of the Euro-Atlantic (European Union and North Atlantic Treaty Organization) community and those who gravitate toward Eurasia (Russia and the Commonwealth of Independent States). During the 1990s, when the European Union and NATO were focused on Central Europe and Russia was politically down and economically weak, Ukraine was able to have it both ways.
Since the Orange Revolution, Ukraine has made significant progress developing a EuroAtlantic-style democratic political system, demonstrated a vibrant open media and civil society, and successfully advanced civilian oversight of its Euro-Atlantic-oriented military, which has built strong ties with NATO.
Despite this progress, Ukrainian opinion remains sharply divided on integration into Euro-Atlantic institutions. Attempts by Ukrainian leaders and some current members of NATO to promote a Membership Action Plan, in the hope that public opinion would follow, have backfired. Not only has Russia, now more autocratic, responded with missile threats, cutting gas supplies, and meddling in Ukraine's domestic politics, but the crosscutting internal and external pressures are aggravating profound political instability, actually making Ukraine a less appealing candidate for membership in either the European Union or NATO.
Under these circumstances, the challenge is to provide Ukraine sufficient time to consolidate successful democratic governance and develop domestic consensus on this critical strategic choice. Rather than pressing Ukraine toward early accession, the new U.S. administration should keep open the possibility of NATO membership, but for the time being encourage Ukraine to follow the model of Finland, another nonaligned Partner for Peace, as it attempts to reconcile the competing popular factions in the country and to navigate between its Euro-Atlantic and Eurasian neighbors. By nurturing its political stability, the United States will enhance Ukraine's value to the Alliance over the longer term.
Ever since Ukraine declared independence in August 1991, its main security preoccupation and challenge has been its search for identity. Nostalgic to maintain its long and close association with Russia, which has become increasingly competitive with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the European Union (EU), and at the same time eager to become a more cooperative and close partner with the Euro-Atlantic community, Ukraine has consistently tried to have it both ways. On the one hand, Ukrainian political leaders' aspirations for membership in EuroAtlantic institutions have been driven, in part, by the desire to solidify independence from Russia. This impulse has roots that go back to the earliest days of its independence, when the fate of ex-Soviet nuclear weapons deployed on Ukrainian territory was being decided and Kyiv appealed to the United States and its NATO Allies for security guarantees against the specter of Russian resurgence.
Yet at the same time, Ukraine's history, culture, and economy are closely entwined with Russia's. Ethnic Russians and others living in eastern Ukraine are more negative about NATO and the EU than those in the western part of the country because they see such integration with the West as jeopardizing a good relationship with Russia. Since about half of Ukraine's population is Russian-speaking, and about 17 percent are ethnic Russians, the country's prospective membership in NATO and the EU has been met with apprehension by roughly 60 percent and 45 percent of Ukraine's citizenry, respectively. In fact, roughly 45 percent of the population would rather participate in Russia's Common Economic Space than the Euro-Atlantic institutions. Hence, Ukraine's progress toward its government's stated goals of NATO and EU membership has been anything but easy, stumbling over these domestic obstacles, which even 4 years after the Orange Revolution remain the most important barrier to the country's Euro-Atlantic progress. …