Ukraine: The Security Fulcrum of Europe?

By Popadiuk, Roman | Strategic Forum, April 1996 | Go to article overview

Ukraine: The Security Fulcrum of Europe?

Popadiuk, Roman, Strategic Forum


* Ukraine's national security policy appears destined to be a balancing act between NATO and Russia, maintaining its own sovereignty while acting as a bridge and stabilizing force between East and West.

* Ukraine needs both political and economic development in order to be a credible and viable regional actor, able to carry out this pivotal role, and to avoid becoming drawn into the Eastern fold.

* NATO enlargement should be geared towards Ukraine's ability to play a bridging role. A precipitous enlargement would raise Russian concerns, thus threatening Ukraine's own security and Moscow's relations with the West to the detriment of overall European security.

Historical Legacy

Historically, Ukraine has been both the target of and the site of various conflicts among competing empires, most notably Czarist and Soviet Russia, seeking to expand their domains or to solidify borders. Caught in this vortex of conflict, Ukraine was able to gain freedom for approximately 10 years during the 700-odd year history in the wake of the decline of the Kievan-Rus Kingdom in the 13th century. Emerging as an independent state in 1991, Ukraine has not forgotten its past and has geared much of its security policy on this basis.

Ukraine faces three potential external security threats: First, a unilateral threat from Russia; second, a concern of being caught in the crosshairs of a NATO-Russian conflict, reminiscent of its past; and, third, the eruption of irredentist claims along its borders, which were artificially created by the Soviet regime, and which can have claimants such as Russia and Romania, neither of which have signed bilateral treaties respecting Ukraine's borders. This security triad is complicated by the zone of instability that confronts Ukraine, ranging from the Transdniester problem in neighboring Moldova, to the conflicts in the Caucuses to the East, as well as in Russia itself, that can overflow to engulf it.

The Russia Factor

For Ukrainian policymakers Russia poses both the most imminent as well as long-term threat to Ukraine's national security. Prior to independence, the greater part of Ukraine had been under Russian control for over 300 years. Ukrainian policymakers are well aware of the actual and potential pressures that Russia has at its disposal. Economically, Ukraine is dependent on Russia for oil and gas, as well as a major share of its trade. Culturally, the two peoples share many common points: religious orthodoxy, customs, similarities of languages, and a high degree of intermarriage--all of which can be positive factors in preventing open conflict, but which, on the negative side, can draw Ukraine towards Russia at the expense of Ukraine's own sovereignty. The Black Sea Fleet issue, even after a mutually acceptable division, will give Russia a presence in Crimea and thus added leverage on Ukraine, as does the large Russian minority in Ukraine which comprises 22% of the population. Russia's geographic expanse also will guarantee Moscow a role in all regional affairs, including the Black Sea littoral, thus possibly making Russian interests compete against those of Ukraine.

Kiev is aware that even in the optimal environment of membership in some form of Western alliance, its exposure to Russian influences will continue. The tentacles that link both states are numerous, many of which, such as customs and languages, will not diminish over time with the internal economic development of Ukraine or its integration into the world economy.

Kiev, therefore, has recognized the need for astute diplomacy, the main goal being not to irritate its bilateral relationship with Russia. As a result, Ukraine has maintained a delicate balance of seeking to integrate itself into western structures, distancing itself from Russia, while also alleviating Moscow's concerns that a strong, pro-Western Ukraine will arise on its borders. …

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