June 24, 2021

Ukraine and NATO: what’s next?


Thirty years ago, on August 1, 1991, former U.S. President George H.W. Bush spoke in Kyiv. It was later dubbed the Chicken Kiev speech. In his speech, Mr. Bush said that, “Some people have urged the United States to choose between supporting President Gorbachev and supporting independence-minded leaders throughout the USSR I consider this a false choice. In fairness, President Gorbachev has achieved astonishing things, and his policies of glasnost, perestroika and democratization point toward the goals of freedom, democracy and economic liberty. […] Yet freedom is not the same as independence. Americans will not support those who seek independence in order to replace a far-off tyranny with a local despotism. They will not aid those who promote a suicidal nationalism based upon ethnic hatred.”

Twenty-three days later, on August 24, 1991, Ukraine proclaimed its renewed independence. Ukraine’s renewed independence effectively led to the dissolution of the Soviet Union into 15 independent states. Тhe direct result of Ukraine’s renewed independence was clearly in the best interests of NATO and its member states.

In any event, despite Mr. Bush’s Chicken Kiev speech, all the member states of NATO recognized Ukraine’s independence. U.S. President Jimmy Carter’s National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski would later write: “It cannot be stressed enough that without Ukraine, Russia ceases to be an empire, but with Ukraine suborned and then subordinated, Russia automatically becomes an empire.”

Unfortunately, NATO has not yet fully grasped that political reality and its unique opportunity to change the course of history and ensure peace, security and stability in this crucial region of the world.

That is why during its 2008 Bucharest Summit, NATO balked under Russia’s pressure and did not offer Ukraine and Georgia NATO’s Membership Action Plan. This moment of NATO’s indecision would embolden Russia to invade Georgia four months later and then Ukraine six years later.

Despite this bitter Euro-Atlantic disappointment, Ukrainians have continued to build their country and actively engage in the process of Ukraine’s integration into the European Union, which eventually led to the signing of the EU-Ukraine Associ­ation Agreement.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, on the other hand, publicly decried that the “breakup of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century” and tried to recreate it by any means and at any cost by 2015 under the guise of the Customs Union, later the Eurasian Economic Union, which – to be meaningful – necessarily had to encompass Ukraine.

Ukraine dashed this major endeavour of the Russian president with the phenomenal Euro-Maidan that not only chased the fourth president of Ukraine to Russia, but also enshrined Ukraine’s will to sever its ties with its Soviet past and to move forward decisively in the direction of Europe.

This tremendously important turn of events was also in the best interests of NATO and its member states.

However, Ukraine had to pay a very high price for its crucial geopolitical decision.
Indeed, in response to his embarrassing failure to recreate the Soviet Union, the Russian despot with his huge imperialistic appetite invaded and occupied Crimea and a portion of eastern Ukraine in 2014.

Since then, as a result of Russia’s military aggression, over 14,000 individuals have been killed and more than 30,000 injured in the occupied Donetsk and Luhansk regions alone, and there are currently over 1.5 million internally displaced persons in Ukraine.

Despite this ultimate sacrifice, Ukraine courageously doubled down and on February 7, 2019, the Ukrainian parliament amended Ukraine’s Constitution to encompass the strategic course of Ukraine toward full membership in the European Union and NATO.

Ukraine also implemented this strategic course by cooperating with NATO regarding security in the Black Sea region and making significant contributions to allied operations, the NATO Response Force and NATO exercises.

This is all unmistakably in the best interests of NATO and its member states.
However, it was still not enough for NATO to offer Ukraine NATO’s long-awaited Membership Action Plan during NATO’s Summit in Brussels on June 14.

Instead, history repeated itself as Mr. Putin warned that NATO membership for Ukraine would be a “red line” and NATO timidly declared in its Brussels Summit Communiqué that, “We reiterate the decision made at the 2008 Bucharest Summit that Ukraine will become a member of the Alliance with the Membership Action Plan (MAP) as an integral part of the process; we reaffirm all elements of that decision, as well as subsequent decisions, including that each partner will be judged on its own merits.”

For Ukrainians who defend Ukraine’s independence and, by the same token, stop Mr. Putin’s further westward military advances, NATO’s 2021 Brussels Summit Communiqué does not provide Ukraine anything more concrete regarding the NATO Membership Action Plan. Thus, recalling the Chicken Kiev speech, Ukrainians may perceive this communiqué as the Belgian Chicken Waterzooi Communiqué.

Just as Ukraine had boldly proclaimed its renewed independence 23 days after the Chicken Kiev speech, it is now incumbent on Ukraine and its diaspora to steadfastly continue Ukraine’s Euro-Atlantic course until Ukraine achieves its constitutional goals of full membership in the European Union and NATO.

Eugene Czolij is a former president of the Ukrainian World Congress and the president of Ukraine-2050, a non-profit organization established to help implement within one generation – by 2050 – strategies for the sustainable development of Ukraine as a fully independent, territorially integral, democratic, reformed and economically competitive European state.