Ukraine Pokes Russia, Makes Move toward NATO. Was It Really Necessary?

By LaFranchi, Howard | The Christian Science Monitor, December 23, 2014 | Go to article overview

Ukraine Pokes Russia, Makes Move toward NATO. Was It Really Necessary?


LaFranchi, Howard, The Christian Science Monitor


The Ukraine parliament's vote Tuesday to nullify the country's non-aligned status is largely a symbolic gesture and does not mean Ukraine will seek NATO membership any time soon.

What the vote does promise is further ratcheting up of tensions between Ukraine and Russia, and between Western leaders and Russian President Vladimir Putin - who considers Ukraine an inseparable piece of Russia's backyard, and Ukrainian membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization a red line.

The vote represents one step toward fulfilling "all criteria of membership" in the North Atlantic Alliance. Perhaps the biggest impact of the vote will be to stir up waters that had begun to calm concerning embattled eastern Ukraine, some Russia analysts say. The vote came just hours after new talks were announced for this week aimed at ending Ukraine's conflict with pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine.

"The real question is, why did this vote happen now, when the situation in eastern Ukraine is relatively calm?" says Paul Saunders, director of the US-Russian relations program at the Center for the National Interest in Washington.

The Ukrainian government probably felt "a little emboldened" to act as a result of the dire signs from Moscow concerning the Russian economy, Mr. Saunders says. But he adds that economic considerations are not likely to moderate Russia's reaction to the parliamentary vote.

"From Moscow's perspective this is clearly a provocative and inflammatory step," he says. Indeed, on Tuesday Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the vote would have "extremely negative consequences," while Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev wrote on his Facebook page that the vote is tantamount to "an application to join NATO."

However, the parliamentary vote is highly symbolic and has little concrete impact. Ukraine President Petro Poroshenko has said a decision to seek NATO membership would come from the Ukrainian people in a referendum vote, and that such a referendum would not take place before the end of the decade.

But the parliamentary vote will add to keeping tensions alive because it feeds the perceptions that each side in the larger Ukraine-Russia conflict has about the other, Saunders says.

"If we're objective about it, how could the Kremlin annex Crimea and not expect a vote like this?" he says. "On the other hand, no one should be surprised by the Russian response. No leader," he adds, "would want to see a neighboring country move toward joining what people in his country perceive to be a hostile military alliance. …

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