Sneaking up on the West
First, using the map of nuclear arsenals that Ukraine inherited from the Soviet Union, Leonid Kuchma managed to secure the signing of the Budapest memorandum. The trick was masterfully performed: by giving up onerous and unnecessary nuclear weapons, which Kiev would not have been able to maintain anyway, Ukraine resolved the painful Crimean issue.
Kiev not only received security guarantees from the United States, but also guarantees of territorial integrity from Russia. Moscow no longer claimed Crimea, and the movement for self-determination of the peninsula was soon administratively suppressed.
Then Kiev succeeded in attracting substantial financial investments: the country became the world’s third recipient of Western aid after Israel and Egypt. And then, playing the “Russian threat” card, Kiev announced that it was ready to join NATO in order to jump out of Moscow’s interests “grey zone”. Of course, this statement was an act of manipulation against Moscow, but it was made for a reason.
Among the hawks of the National Security Council this question has been discussed since 1993, albeit hypothetically. There was even a theoretical roadmap “Moving Toward NATO Expansion”, which matured in the minds of Daniel Fried, Alexander Vershbow, and Nicholas Burns. But it was not advanced further for several reasons.
First, it was clear to even the most ardent supporters of NATO expansion that the absorption of the Warsaw Pact countries and the three Baltic states was sufficient in terms of the Alliance’s capabilities and goals. “The West prefers a Finlandized Ukraine – politically and economically stable and pro-Western, but militarily neutral”, Ronald Asmus of the Clinton administration wrote in 1995.
At the time, the U.S. was focused on the crises in the Gulf, the Balkans, and Somalia; outsourcing the post-Soviet conflicts to Russia seemed a perfectly acceptable idea. “A lot of Western European states and even the United States accepted and sometimes welcomed Russian actions to end armed clashes and attempts to resolve conflicts on its periphery”, recalls William Hill, the American diplomat and the former head of the OSCE mission in Moldova.
Second, the Ukrainian political reality itself has cooled the ardor of Western officials. As known, the Washington strategic concept of NATO implies that expansion of the Alliance is impossible without market-type reforms and democratic values in the country that aspires to become a member of the Alliance. Neither of these, as the West quickly became convinced of, was anywhere near Ukraine.
What is true in Vilnius is also true in Kiev
However, in the mid-2000s, the configuration around post-Soviet Eurasia changed dramatically. On the one hand, 2004 was the year of NATO’s most significant expansion: seven Baltic and Balkan states joined the bloc at once. The same year saw the largest expansion of the EU, with eight nations, including the Baltic states and Poland, acceding to the bloc.
On the other hand, within 18 months, from 2003 to 2004, three revolutions burst out in post-Soviet Eurasia. In November 2003, the “Rose Revolution” in Georgia overthrew Shevardnadze and brought Saakashvili to power. In December 2004, the “Orange Revolution” in Ukraine brought Yushchenko to power instead of Kuchma’s successor, Viktor Yanukovich. In April 2005, Akayev, the President of Kyrgyzstan for many years, was overthrown.
The result of this revolutionary wave was not only the first noticeable cooling between Russia and the West, but also a reassessment of the entire region. Moscow was not unreasonably suspicious of these revolutions as a tool to strengthen Western influence. In the West, on the contrary, they spoke with undisguised enthusiasm about the fact that they had opened the way for the “democratic exploration” of the entire region, which sounded especially alarming against the background of powerful shifts within NATO and the EU.
“The system that has brought such great hope to the shores of the Baltic can bring the same hope to the far shores of the Black Sea, and beyond. What is true in Vilnius is also true in Tbilisi and Kiev, and true in Minsk, and true in Moscow”, Cheney said in Vilnius in May 2006.
The Ukrainian direction was suddenly accelerated anew. The period when post-Soviet Eurasia was considered as a space of undisputed Russian dominance came to an end. And in Kiev, where Yushchenko, who made no secret of his geopolitical orientation, was now seated, they did not mind such attention at all. The more so Ukraine obtained new promoters within the European Union. The integration of Eastern European countries, above all Poland, strongly influenced the EU policy towards Ukraine. Both Poland and Lithuania began to actively promote a more in-depth agenda toward their eastern neighbors at the bilateral level.
Vague promises and threats
Radek Sikorski, the head of the Polish Foreign Ministry, was one of the main advocates of Ukraine’s early accession to NATO membership. Although there was no consensus among Western countries about integrating Ukraine and Georgia to the Alliance, the White House could not resist this wave of euphoria and began preparations for another expansion.
The enforcers were the orthodox American hawks: Daniel Fried, Assistant Secretary of State, Victoria Nuland, Permanent Representative to NATO, and John Herbst, Ambassador to Ukraine. Having quickly secured the agreement of Kiev and Tbilisi, they convinced George W. Bush that further steps were necessary. It was not difficult: the President of the United States had little understanding of the specifics of the region, but was eager to respond to geo-ideological projects.
Realizing that without public support in Ukraine and Georgia the accession to NATO would not take place, the American leader called upon the Ukrainian authorities “to raise public awareness about NATO” (that phrase appeared in one of the reports leaked by WikiLeaks in 2006).
At the same time, the White House began to more actively support GUAM, a regional organization created in 1997, which included Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova and Azerbaijan. At that time it was seen as an important integration project, alternative to the Russian efforts. It was supposed to turn Ukraine into the second center of power in the post-Soviet space.
Nevertheless, the NATO Membership Action Plan (MAP) for Ukraine and Georgia, which was being prepared for the NATO summit in Bucharest (2008), stalled. Moscow reacted predictably harshly, describing this possible move as “a strategic challenge with serious strategic implications”. This provoked fierce disputes within the Alliance.
The most inveterate opponents to the idea of accepting Ukraine and Georgia were Paris and Berlin. As a result, the summit, which normally used to play a purely ritual role, turned into a site of protracted debates between foreign ministers.
An absurd compromise was found: not to grant MAP, but to write in a communiqué that Ukraine and Georgia “will become” NATO members. In fact, this meant that Kiev and Tbilisi received nothing but vague promises, and Moscow received nothing but vague threats. But the half-heartedness of this decision by no means mitigated its consequences.
The five-day war between Georgia and South Ossetia that broke out a few months later, largely triggered by Bucharest, ended in defeat for Tbilisi and a sporadic realism awakening in Western corridors.
And with that, the interest in the Ukrainian question in the Western political world began to fade again. The GUAM organization gradually fell silent. The reforms aimed at bringing Ukraine and the EU closer have stalled yet again, all the more so because a conditionally more pro-Russian Yanukovich came to power in Kiev, and President Barack Obama, Bush’s successor, decided to place his bets on “reset” in relations with Moscow.