When Ukraine’s president Viktor Yanukovich was campaigning for the presidency, he promised that the country would not join any military bloc, and that its neutrality would be enshrined by law. But Ukraine has no tradition of keeping electoral promises, so commentators did not take his words seriously. “He has no idea what military neutrality means, and how much it would cost the country,” military pundits said to comfort me during the election campaign. They cited neutral Switzerland as an example. It spends $6-7 billion a year on defense. Ukraine’s defence budget is only $1 billion.
Although the new Ukrainian president, who ran a car depot when he was young, has never dealt with defence matters before, it did not take him long to realize that Ukraine is not Switzerland. So Mr. Yanukovich came up with his own Ukrainian recipe for neutrality – a guaranteed Russian military base in the Crimea. By signing an agreement with Russia to extend until 2042 the lease allowing the Russian fleet to stay in Ukraine, Yanukovich established how long Ukraine will maintain military neutrality from NATO in exchange for military dependence on Russia.
Yanukovich made his first visit as head of state to Brussels on March 1. But for some reason, there was no meeting with NATO leadership on the program for this visit. None the less, Ukrainian politicians who have been working with NATO for many years and dreaming of the country joining the alliance saw Yanukovich’s visit to Brussels as a good sign: cooperation would continue.
However, the optimism of NATO supporters was soon dispelled: on 2 April Yanukovich signed a decree abolishing the Commission tasked with coordinating the activities of ministries and departments in preparation for joining NATO. This body was created by President Viktor Yushchenko, who was open about his plan that Ukraine should join NATO. Yanukovich explained his decision by saying that since the issue was not currently on the agenda, as Ukraine was not planning to join NATO, the Commission was not needed. Various state bodies were also scrapped, including institutions working on European integration.
NATO made no reaction at all to Yanukovich’s move. In the end, whether or not these bodies should exist is Ukraine’s business.
Then on 21 April came the decision on Russia’s Black Sea fleet. As mentioned above, as a result of agreements between Viktor Yanukovich and Dmitry Medvedev, the Russian military base will remain in Crimea until 2042, although it was supposed to leave the territory of Ukraine in 2017.
“This is a bilateral agreement, and it will not affect our relations with either Russia or Ukraine,” was NATO general secretary Anders Fogh Rasmussen’s neutral comment on the agreement. The Russian fleet would not stop Ukraine from becoming a member of NATO in future, he said. But in that case, what about the rule which stipulates that a country can only become a member of NATO if it has no foreign military bases on its territory? Some time later, when talking about relations with Russia, Rasmussen noted that on the issue of NATO’s expansion and cooperation with Russia’s close neighbours, the organization would not compromise with Moscow. He named only one country – Georgia. Just a year ago, Georgia was almost always mentioned together with Ukraine in NATO pronouncements.
“The statements by Rasmussen, Appathurai and Hilary Clinton that the presence of the fleet will be no bar to entry are all ridiculous. Of course it will! And they know this full well,” was the emotional comment to the West’s reaction by Yevgeny Marchuk, who was Ukrainian defence minister in 2003-2004. “Brussels and Washington have ‘handed us over’ to Russia,” was the even stronger comment by Yury Yekhanurov, another ex-defence minister, in 2007-2009, under President Yushchenko.
At a meeting which Kiev’s Institute of International Politics organized for ex-heads of the Ukrainian army, there were harsh words. Only the day before, accompanied by a volley of eggs and smoke cartridges, the Supreme Rada had just ratified the Yanukovich-Medvedev agreement on the fleet. The former army heads were furious: they went on about the advantages of joining NATO, recalled past meetings with foreign colleagues, and cursed the new regime. For several years, together with president Kravchuk, Kuchma and Yushchenko, they had been moving the country closer to NATO. Now they had been tossed aside. They are surplus to requirements, and the path to NATO has been closed for decades to come. It is unlikely any of them will live to see Ukraine become a NATO member.
The President’s new military team
So who is helping Viktor Yanukovich construct his Ukrainian version of neutrality? The new president has chosen rather strange people to head the army. They all have pretty dubious reputations. Take the Defence Minister, Mikhail Yezhel, for example. He began his service in the USSR Pacific Ocean fleet, and in the late 1990s was already the head of the Ukrainian navy. There is an unpleasant story connected with him which members of the military told me. Allegedly, in 2003 President Kuchma came to Sevastopol unexpectedly to see how the Ukrainian fleet was doing. On one boat he found a disco, drunk sailors and girls. Admiral Yezhel was subsequently dismissed. Seven years later, he is back in office.
Vladimir Sivkovich is the Deputy Prime Minister in charge of military issues. His official biography has a gap of a few decades – during which he served in the Soviet KGB. Now he is in charge of Ukrainian defence.
My contacts in the military told me a comical story about the present from one of the leaders of the Ukrainian Army: apparently, when Viktor Yushchenko was president, Ivan Svida, who is leadership of the General Staff, gave him a life-sized horseshoe made of pure gold for his birthday.
Corruption in the Ukrainian army is a topic for another day. I only mention these details to convey some idea of the kind of people who are now running Ukraine’s army, along with Viktor Yanukovich.
Meanwhile, the real professionals are out in the cold. The head of the Institute for Problems of National Security Vladimir Gorbulin, who advised both Kuchma and Yushchenko on state security, was dismissed by Yanukovich, and the institute itself will soon be liquidated.
Just fulfilling his mission
But it would be a mistake to cast Yanukovich as a villain, and Brussels and Washington as traitors and hypocrites.
The West reacted properly to Ukraine’s actions. Two years ago at a summit in Bucharest, Ukraine and Georgia could have received a “road map” from NATO. But the bitter conflict between Ukrainian politicians on this issue confused the West. Ukraine held talks with France and Germany, which were opposed to giving the country a “road map”, but failed to convince them. Later it was agreed that Ukraine would draw up an annual plan of action for rapprochement with NATO, so that the alliance could see what progress the country had made in this process.
I have read these plans that were drawn up by Ukraine. They consist mainly of intentions and declarations. But even the specific points that they do contain are not being implemented. For example, the plan for 2010 stipulates that Ukraine will create a group of experts and begin talks on the withdrawal of the Russian Black Sea fleet by 2017. Right now we are seeing the Ukrainian regime doing exactly the opposite.
As for “Yanukovich the villain”…He is actually doing exactly what he promised during the election. He is convinced that he is doing the right thing. What he will do next, to strengthen his position, is to deal with that law on neutrality – he has already told the Foreign Ministry to prepare this document.
I guess that just as Barack Obama sees it as his mission to free the world from nuclear weapons, Viktor Yanukovich believes that his is to free Ukraine from NATO. And if he ends up having to hand over part of Ukraine’s territory to another country in order to achieve this, that will not stop him.