KIEV, Ukraine -- So far, so good, if Ukraine is the measure of NATO enlargement.
One of the strongest arguments against admitting new members to NATO has been that such enlargement would draw new dividing lines in Europe. It might increase stability for Poland and other Central European states allowed into the privileged club, opponents argued, but it would increase instability for those on the other side of the line, most notably the Baltic states and Ukraine. Russia could be expected to retaliate by pressuring its vulnerable neighbors, and that would be a grave loss overall.
Not so, according to new evidence in pivotal Ukraine, the largest of the Soviet successor states after Russia, with a population of 52 million on a territory the size of France. NATO enlargement, it appears, will bring both greater security and a greater Western orientation for Ukraine, as well as for Poland.
When NATO reconfirmed its intent last month to start the process of accepting new members by this summer, Russian nationalists mounted a campaign to claim the Ukrainian port of Sevastopol for Russia. That campaign is led by Yuri Luzhkov, the mayor of Moscow and a political ally of Boris Yeltsin. Mr. Luzhkov claims Sevastopol -- 800 miles away on the Black Sea -- as a municipal district of Moscow, and this month he demonstratively visited his promulgated constituency.
Mr. Luzhkov's claim has the backing of resolutions by both houses of the Russian parliament. He has the support of 70 percent of adult Russians, according to opinion polls. For two months he had the silence of Mr. Yeltsin, until the president's spokesman finally dissociated him in a very general way last week from the mayor's crusade.
He still has the obvious approval of Mr. Yeltsin's security adviser, Dmitri Ryurikov, who recently called the very independence of Ukraine after three centuries as part of Russia a ''temporary phenomenon.'' And while the Russian government does not officially go so far as to claim Sevastopol, its tough position in bargaining with Ukraine about terms for splitting up the old Soviet Black Sea Fleet -- and especially its refusal to let Ukrainian warships anchor in the port after the split -- is regarded in Kiev as provocative.
Nearly to blows
So high is the tension that Ukraine's ex-prime minister, Yevhen Marchuk, compares the Russian-Ukrainian confrontation today with that three years ago, when a Russian ship was ordered to fire on Ukrainian vessels. (In the end, it didn't.)
Yet Russia's bullying is turning out to be strikingly counterproductive -- precisely because of NATO's intent to expand. Ukrainian officials, expecting to have NATO next door in Poland, already feel safer. They welcome the declared support of the U.S. and the European Union for Ukraine's territorial integrity. Russian pressure compels the anti-Western Ukrainian left of Communists and Socialists to demonstrate their patriotism by condoning rapprochement with the West.
''If we enter once again into a big public quarrel, this will only instigate strong [national] voices in our parliament. It's one of the very few issues in this country that can create a national consensus. It's not wise of the Russians to press it,'' warned a senior foreign-ministry official in Kiev.
Assessing the changing mood, he commented, ''Some Russians say, 'If we don't press now, then Sevastopol will become a NATO base.' But some Ukrainians are saying 'If we go on like this, then Sevastopol will become a NATO base' '' as a defense against Russian claims.
In this changing climate, Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma's foreign-policy adviser Volodymyr Horbulin recently said publicly for the first time that Ukraine, too, might conceivably join NATO in the future. Until now the official position has always been that Ukraine must be neutral.
If effect, the Russian nationalist campaign is thus prompting the Ukrainian leadership to say openly what it has actually been thinking for the past year and a half. Before, the tiny governing elite was already heading for a Western alignment, but didn't dare tell a population of eastern Slavs that felt much more at home with fellow Russians than the Western-oriented Slavs in Poland. Now the secret is out.
As Ukrainian officials see it, that is a gain in their security. And the faster NATO enlarges, the better.
Elizabeth Pond just completed two months as a Knight Fellow working with local journalists in Odessa, Ukraine.
Pub Date: 1/29/97