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Analysts: Action Needed More Than 'Poetic Words' For Ukraine's NATO Membership

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg during a meeting in Kyiv, October 31, 2019
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg during a meeting in Kyiv, October 31, 2019

To outside observers, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s October 31 pledge “to accelerate preparation for NATO membership” may sound straightforward, but two Ukrainian analysts interviewed by Current Time see a need to keep the larger context in mind.

Zelenskiy's pledge came during a joint press conference with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg in Kyiv, in which Zelenskiy asserted commitment to “NATO standards” as well as a desire for deeper “cooperation” on defense and expanded “interaction” between the Ukrainian government and NATO.

In turn, during his October 30-31 visit to Ukraine, Stoltenberg called on Russia to return annexed Crimea to Ukraine’s control, withdraw its forces and end its support of separatist fighters in eastern Ukraine. He emphasized NATO’s ongoing training for Ukrainian armed forces and its increased work with the Ukrainian navy in the Black Sea, a strategic body of water for both Ukraine and Russia.

"As a sovereign nation, Ukraine has the right to choose its own security arrangements,” Stoltenberg told the Ukrainian parliament. “NATO’s door remains open."

If so, the question for some Ukrainians is whether Kyiv can walk through it.

As the alliance considers its ties with both Ukraine and fellow long-time aspiring member Georgia, “it’s very important that the Ukrainian leadership moves from some kind of poetic words to actions,” underlined political analyst Viktor Shlinchak, board chairman at the Institute of World Policy, a Kyiv think-tank.

President Zelenskiy’s June visit to NATO headquarters, his first stop during his debut foreign visit to Brussels, was a case in point, noted Sergei Dzherdzh, head of the Ukraine-NATO Civic League.

Without Kyiv’s “clear” emphasis on closer ties with NATO, Stoltenberg likely would not have visited Ukraine, he posited.

Under Ukraine’s previous president, Petro Poroshenko, constitutional changes were made that made membership in NATO and the European Union priorities. The country’s partnership agreement with the alliance posits that it will receive a Membership Action Plan, a set of final recommendations, if it continues to adapt the Ukrainian armed forces to NATO standards.

Popular support for NATO membership appears to stand at around 41 percent, according to one recent poll.

But Shlinchak noted that progress in relations with NATO does not depend on Ukraine’s executive branch alone. Or on the Ukrainian parliament passing necessary laws, such as the Stoltenberg-endorsed reform of the Security Service, to facilitate any eventual alliance membership.

Decisions by NATO members Denmark and Hungary indicate that Ukraine “right now is not in a very good geopolitical conjuncture,” he noted.

“We’re leaving the comfort zone,” he said.

Denmark on October 30 granted passage to Russia’s Nord Stream gas pipeline to Germany, a project that will cost Ukraine transit fees and increase Europe’s reliance on Russian gas. Meanwhile, Hungary, after a visit by Russian President Vladimir Putin, refused to sign a NATO declaration on Ukraine, accusing Kyiv of disrespecting the rights of Ukraine’s ethnic Hungarian minority.
Zelenskiy has condemned Denmark’s decision as a move that “strengthens Russia” and “weakens Europe.” With Stoltenberg, he emphasized that Ukraine has and would continue to fulfill NATO’s recommendations for respect of minority rights.

These two events only indicate, according to Shlinchak, that Kyiv needs “to strengthen the diplomatic corps” and that President Zelenskiy, who is new to foreign policy, needs to delegate responsibility to those “who really know what they’re doing in international relations [and] geopolitics.”

Without that, “it’ll be difficult for him to conduct negotiations” about Donbas, Shlinchak added.

Arguably, the attempts to start peace talks with Russia, France, and Germany over the territorial conflict with Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine are the most intricate geopolitical puzzle ahead. On October 29, Ukrainian and separatist troops began a withdrawal from three locations as part of the conditions for the negotiations.

The commander of Ukrainian troops in the area, General Volodymyr Kravchenko, told Current Time on October 31 that “all is going according to plan” for both sides’ pullout.

No date has yet been set for the start of talks.

Against this high-stakes backdrop, Stoltenberg’s declarations about Donbas and Crimea carry particular significance, commented Dzerdzh.

Though Ukrainians sometimes describe NATO remarks about its partnership with Ukraine as “Euro-Atlantic rhetoric,” Dzerdzh added that “it’s what we need now.”

Russia will keep in mind Stoltenberg’s commentary -- “even if it’s rhetoric” -- as it “plans” its own future actions, which he described as “provocations” and “aggression,” in Ukraine.

As yet, Moscow has given no such indication, however.

In October 31 comments to the state-run RIA Novosti news agency, Deputy Foreign Minister Andrei Rudenko and Duma Defense Committee First Deputy Chairman Aleksandr Sherin declared the topic of Crimea “closed once and forever” and advised NATO, essentially, to mind its own business.

The predictability of such a response did not discourage Dzerdzh.

“Together with NATO, Ukraine looks stronger than it would on its own and relying only on its own strength,” he concluded.

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