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Are Russia fears holding up Ukraine's bid to join NATO?

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By Stefan Weichert; Emil Filtenborg
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy talks with servicemen as he visits the war-hit Donetsk region, eastern Ukraine.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy talks with servicemen as he visits the war-hit Donetsk region, eastern Ukraine.   -   Copyright  AP/Ukrainian Presidential Press Office
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Given that it is at war with Russia, it’s little surprise that Ukraine is so keen to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). For Kyiv, membership of the defensive pact would deter Russia from intensifying the conflict in eastern Ukraine.

And the Ukrainians believe that they are ready: In June, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said that Ukraine is “more ready than most countries in the European Union” to join NATO. Indeed, Zelenskyy added that he believed Ukraine is more ready than most European Union states.

But in the United States and in Brussels, where NATO is headquartered, the view is less bullish. President Joe Biden said recently that Ukraine needs to “clean up corruption” before it could join NATO, as well as “meet other criteria”. “It remains to be seen,” said Biden, if it can.

Ukrainian journalist Yuriy Butusov spent years criticising Ukraine’s defence establishment before he was offered a position as an advisor to the minister of defence, Andrii Taran. He accepted because he wanted to “put things in order” at the ministry, he said. He lasted just six months.

In a lengthy Facebook post he wrote after leaving his job, Butusov criticised everything from major issues with the military supply chain to a lack of strategy. He also cited a lack of willingness on the part of the government to reform the military.

On NATO, Butusov’s views are clear.

“It would be a big mistake to join NATO without internal reforms. Ukraine is not ready for the European Union or NATO. We don’t have the project of our own state. We cannot unite our state to do anything. Power is fragmented, without strategies, doctrines, or institutions,” he said.

According to Butusov, the Ukrainian state and the army, in particular, is governed by several “clusters” of officials “working in different directions without a plan”.

He claims the Ukrainian military is poorly equipped, poorly managed, and ineffective.

In an emailed statement, the office of the deputy prime minister of Ukraine, Olha Stefanishyna, said Butusov’s claims were “misleading.”

“Ukrainian leadership has a clear vision and the strategy of reforms, which move Ukraine closer to NATO standards, as well as NATO requirements and reforms objectives,” it said.

In Butusov’s view, reforming the army would take one year. Ukraine needs to update field manuals, slim down the military to only professional units with better weapons and training.

In one year, he said, the army would be ready not just to fight Russian-backed separatists who occupied swathes of Eastern Ukraine in 2014, but to reach NATO standards.

“I wrote many times: Look at Britain and the new strategy Johnson presented in parliament. It has very clear points and aims; the vision is very clear. What are the problems they have, and how do they achieve changes?” he said.

“It is the principal difference between [Ukraine and Europe]. If you don’t have a strategy, you don’t have quality planning. Without quality planning, you don’t have an effective budget, and without that, you cannot achieve your aims.”

Ukraine’s MOD is willing to admit shortcomings, including a lack of communication between the government and the army, but promises that new legislation will resolve the issues.

'Decent progress'

”Coordination exists and it is operational. Probably sometimes it is not smooth yet, as we all want. But the president, the government and the parliament are doing their best to introduce best western (NATO and EU) practices to Ukraine’s security and defence,” the statement said.

A 2019 report by Ukrainian thinktank New Europe found that Ukraine had implemented reforms to meet 196 NATO standards since 2014, when the war began. It further claimed that compared with states in Eastern Europe, Ukraine was “already showing decent progress”.

But the country still has some way to go. A report signed by the head of the presidential administration in Ukraine, Andriiy Yermak, comes with a one hundred page list of requirements for reforms to be made between now and 2025, specifically in order for Ukrainian legislation to be harmonised with other NATO member states in the realm of defence and security.

There is the view, however, that whatever Ukraine does, it is not reforms in Ukraine or a change of heart in Washington or Brussels that will grease the wheels of NATO ascension. The force holding the country back is to Ukraine’s east, not its west, in Russia.

Efrem Lukatsky/Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.
US Navy sailor of destroyer USS Ross Davonne Chestnut from Phoenix, Arizona, left, practices hand-to-hand combat during Sea Breeze 2021 maneuvers, in the Black Sea, Wednesday,Efrem Lukatsky/Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

“The primary question is whether or not NATO would be able to defend Ukraine, should they become a member of NATO,” Henrik Larsen, a senior researcher at the Center for Security Studies in Zurich, told Euronews.

“If you guarantee a country’s security without being able to defend it, you undermine the whole alliance. That is the primary concern. It is very unrealistic that NATO is able to scare off Russia.”

But, Larsen added, that “it is not something that NATO is willing to say because it would mean publicly bending to the bully methods of Russia. But in reality, that is what has happened.”

Russia has proved that it is willing to use military power to secure its interests in Georgia, in 2008, and in Ukraine since 2014. And because NATO is unlikely to risk a conflict with Russia over Ukraine joining NATO, Larsen said, membership is for Ukraine “a distant aspiration”.

In an article for Carnegie Europe, James Sherr, a senior fellow at the Estonian Foreign Policy Institute at the International Center for Defense and Security in Tallinn, agreed.

“It is inconceivable that thirty NATO allies that cannot even agree on the wisdom of providing Ukraine with defensive weaponry will agree to its accession,” Sherr wrote.

The Ukrainian government, meanwhile, warns against giving in to pressure from Moscow when it comes to Ukraine’s Membership Action Plan (MAP), a key step to Ukraine joining the alliance.

“While [the] Kremlin’s propaganda sets the idea that by granting the MAP for Ukraine NATO will provoke Russia, let’s be frank: Does Russia need any reason to escalate?” it told Euronews.

“More likely the Kremlin will find or simply invent any suitable reason if that fits Putin’s strategic geopolitical interests.”

NATO, meanwhile, denied that Russia had any bearing on Ukraine’s membership of the alliance in comments by Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg following the Brussels summit.

“I think it's extremely important to underline that every nation has the right to choose its own path. And that includes also what kind of security arrangements it wants to be part of, including whether it wants to be part of, a member of NATO or not,” Stoltenberg said.

“Russia, of course, has no say. We will not return to an age where we had spheres of influence, where big powers decided what small neighbours could do. This is about fundamental principles of accepting the right of every nation to decide.”

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