Helsinki: A quiet boost for Ukrainian security

March 27, 1997|By Elizabeth Pond

THE UNSUNG SUCCESS of the Helsinki summit was the quiet boost it gave to Ukrainian as well as Polish security. The peace of new Central European members of NATO, the summit made clear, will not be bought at the price of greater insecurity for neighboring non-members farther east.

This is the not-so-hidden message of the peaceboat diplomacy that followed the summit this week as ships from the U.S. and six other NATO countries visited the Ukrainian Black Sea port of Odessa.

Joint NATO-Ukrainian naval maneuvers next August not far from Sevastopol, the Ukrainian city and naval base that the Russian parliament claims belongs to Russia, will repeat the message. Both Russian and Ukrainian ships that originally belonged to the Soviet Black Sea Fleet are based there. Ukraine invited the Russians to participate in these "Sea Breeze" peacekeeping games under NATO's Partnership for Peace program, but Moscow declined.

Sevastopol's importance

The location of the summer maneuvers is telling. Sevastopol is the biggest bone of contention between Moscow and Kiev, outranking even formal recognition of the Russian-Ukrainian border and division of Black Sea Fleet ships between these two states. Bilateral negotiations about all of these issues broke down last fall as Moscow hardened its position, sought to exclude Ukrainian ships from the base altogether, and refused a Ukrainian offer to let Russian warships stay there for another 20 years if they pay rent.

The Russian parliament subsequently claimed Sevastopol as a Russian city; the Moscow city government had already "annexed" Sevastopol, 800 miles away, as a municipality of Russia's capital city.

NATO's interest in Ukrainian territorial integrity will further be signaled by the NATO-Ukrainian charter to be signed by July in conjunction with the forthcoming NATO-Russian charter. And NATO Secretary-General Javier Solana will emphasize the point by opening a NATO information center in Kiev in May.

To be sure, these gestures constitute no security guarantee of the kind Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic will get as they join the Western alliance. But Ukrainian officials believe they will help deter any Russian hotheads who might dream of asserting control over Sevastopol by force. They express satisfaction that their two-year campaign to get closer to NATO is getting results.

The westward reorientation they have engineered has been rapid -- and it is all the more remarkable coming from a nation that shares Russia's eastern Slav authoritarian and peasant traditions rather than the West Europeans' (and Poles' and other western Slavs') history of pluralism and individualism. In recent months the evolution has speeded up, as Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma just pointed out dryly, as "aggressive" Russian claims on Sevastopol became more strident.

What Mr. Kuchma was alluding to was that many Ukrainian leftists who normally sympathize with the Russians have felt obliged to prove their patriotism by opposing the Russian claims and acquiescing in Kiev's rapprochement with NATO. The controversy has also had an impact on the Ukrainian public; surveys suggest that up to a third of Ukrainian adults would support a Ukrainian effort to join NATO.

Acting like a real nation

Under these circumstances Foreign Minister Gennady Udovenko said openly last week that Kiev is seeking a promise from NATO not to let Europe be divided into "spheres of influence" that might consign Ukraine to the Russian sphere. He also urged NATO to declare that the alliance would be open in future to any European democracy, "including Ukraine."

By now the Russians are finally realizing that Ukraine really is acting like a sovereign nation and is drawing ever closer to NATO. In the runup to the Helsinki summit, Russian President Boris Yeltsin himself objected to next summer's Sea Breeze maneuvers in the Black Sea. And Pravda commentator Igor Lensky felt compelled to criticize not only Ukraine's drift west, but also Mr. Kuchma's use of the Ukrainian language nowadays to the exclusion of Russian.

Formally, Mr. Yeltsin and Pravda can probably rest assured that Kiev stands no chance of becoming a full member of NATO in this generation. Ukraine is still too "Soviet," both in its military hierarchy and its structurally unreformed economy, to qualify.

Informally, however, the Russians know that they are being put on notice that NATO has an increasing interest in maintaining Ukraine's territorial integrity. Ukraine, too, expects to benefit from Poland's forthcoming admission to NATO.

Elizabeth Pond is writing a book about Ukraine.

Pub Date: 3/27/97

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