Ukrainian Security: Drifting Alone


2012-11-06 by Richard Weitz

Ukraine is not currently a full member of any of Eurasia’s strongest military blocs.

It remains outside NATO, the Moscow-dominated Collective Security Treaty, and the European Union. Ukraine has joined several weak security institutions, such as the co-founded the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), the GUUAM (Georgia-Ukraine-Uzbekistan-Azerbaijan-Moldova), and the Community for Democratic Choice, formed in Prague on in December 2005 by the presidents of Ukraine, Georgia, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Romania, Moldova, Slovenia, and Macedonia to focus on the promotion of democratic values, regional stability and economic prosperity.

The NATO Option

Membership in NATO is not a goal of the current Ukrainian government.

The previous government had such aspirations, but encountered major problems with Russia and its own divided population when it sought to move in that direction—which many NATO governments were reluctant to encourage in any case.

Ukraine’s cooperation with NATO began in earnest after signing a Charter on a Distinctive Partnership between Ukraine and the North-Atlantic Treaty Organization in July 1997 (a supplementary Declaration to Complement the Charter was signed on August 21, 2009).

The Charter established several subjects for broad if not deep consultation and cooperation—further defined in the November 2002 NATO-Ukraine Action Plan—as well as a special NATO-Ukraine Commission to institutionalize the relationship without formal membership. Recent activities have including helping eliminating Ukraine’s large stock of surplus convention weapons and providing language, civics, and other courses to Ukrainian officers.

In turn, NATO’s 2010 Strategic Concept reaffirms the Alliance’s commitment to partnership with Ukraine. The constructive partnership between Ukraine and NATO is developed by continuous political contacts and activity of the NATO-Ukraine Commission (NUC), which is the primary mechanism for bilateral dialogue, established in 1997.

In early 2008, Tymoshenko, Yushchenko, and Parliament Chairman Arseny Yatsenyuk submitted a joint letter to NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, declaring Ukraine’s readiness to accept a Membership Action Plan (MAP) for NATO—a step generally considered a requirement for membership.  U.S. President George Bush and other American leaders subsequently lobbied vigorously for Ukraine’s MAP application. Bush even visited Ukraine a few days before arriving at NATO’s April 2-4 summit in Bucharest.

At the Bucharest summit, the NATO governments decided to postpone offering Ukraine and Georgia a MAP. Germany, France, and other West European governments worried about antagonizing Moscow over the issue—adding to the strains from the Russia-NATO disputes over Kosovo and missile defense—as well as about the lack of popular support within Ukraine for NATO membership. Credit Image: Bigstock

The summit declaration affirmed that the two countries “will become NATO members” eventually, but most NATO leaders have made clear they do not envisage Ukraine’s joining the alliance anytime soon given the country’s limited progress in defense and security sector reform as well as the widespread opposition within Ukraine and Russia to its accession.

The Russian national security establishment made clear it opposes Ukraine’s becoming yet another NATO member on Russia’s borders. After meeting with Yushchenko at the Kremlin on February 12, 2008, Russian President Vladimir Putin observed that if Ukraine were to join NATO and host U.S. missile defense sites, “in response to such a potential deployment on Ukrainian territory, Russia—and theoretically we can’t rule this out—could aim its missile systems at Ukraine.” To address Russian and domestic concerns, Ukrainian leaders subsequently reaffirmed that Ukraine’s constitution prohibits foreign bases on Ukrainian territory, with the temporary exception of the Russian base at Sevastopol.

Polls indicate that only a minority of Ukrainians wished to join NATO.

Opposition to membership is greatest among the Russian-speaking majorities in eastern and southern Ukraine, especially in the Crimea.  (Surveys show much greater popular support for Ukraine’s entry into the EU.) The Yushchenko government pledged that, before actually joining NATO as a full member, it would hold a nationwide consultative referendum on the issue.

Ukraine is the only Alliance partner participating in all NATO’s primary peacekeeping missions. When visiting Afghanistan in late October 2012, the commander of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zamana, said that, “Ukraine is fully aware of that the security situation in Afghanistan affects the security of the region and the world. Therefore, our position remains unchanged – we will continue participating in both the current operations and the future NATO missions [i.e., after 2014] in the country.”

The country was the first partner country to launch cooperation with NATO regarding cyber defense. Ukraine also cooperates againsts money laundering, trafficking of drugs and arms, and human trafficking and collaborates with the Euro-Atlantic Disaster Response Coordination Center, through which Ukraine receives assistance during natural disasters.

Another area of Ukraine-NATO collaboration is military reform. Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, Ukraine inherited the second largest military in Europe, second to that of Russia. On paper, it included nuclear weapons and other modern armaments, though the ability of Ukraine’s new armed forces to actually use them effectively was always questionable.

Ukrainian Military Reforms

Since independence, Ukraine has implemented many military reforms, including reducing the size of its army [eliminating weapons systems and armaments such as combat aircraft and tanks, and relinquishing all the nuclear weapons and nuclear delivery vehicles Ukraine inherited from the Soviet Union.

When Ukraine gained independence in 1991, its armed forces consisted of 780,000 personnel, 6,500 tanks, 7,000 armored vehicles, 1500 combat aircrafts, and more than 350 warships as well as 1,272 strategic nuclear warheads and 2,500 tactical nuclear weapons. By the end of 1996, the country had eliminated more than 400,000 personnel, 600 combat aircrafts, 2,400 tanks, and 2,000 combat armed vehicles.

Ukraine currently has 130,000 active duty personnel of which 70,000 serve in the army in three corps, 14,000 in the navy, and 45,000 are members of the air force. About half of all active duty personnel serve under voluntary contracts while the other half are conscripts. The country can also rely on 85,000 paramilitary personnel and 1,000,000 reserve personnel.

Current reform plans aim to disband the territorial commands and instead have army units serve in a Joint Rapid Reaction Force, a Main Defense Force, and a Strategic Reserve. The air force has slightly more than 200 combat planes including 80 MiG-29s, 36 Su-27, 36 Su-25, and 36 Su-24. The Russian Navy has some 13,000 personnel in the Crimea.

A major problem is that Ukraine’s armed forces are underfinanced, leading to limited training, increasingly outdated equipment, and personnel dissatisfaction. Despite the large force that Ukraine can field on paper, most of the country’s armed forces, even the air force and navy, can only conduct territorial defense missions and plans to end remain unimplemented.

Security Threats to Ukraine

Many of Ukraine’s international borders do remain officially unresolved, though no one expects to see a major conflict any time soon. A boundary treaty drawn up in 1997 between Ukraine and Belarus has not been ratified due to unresolved financial claims. Romania claims Ukrainian-administered Zmiyinyy Island. The Russia-Ukraine boundary through the Sea of Azov and Kerch Strait is contested.  Ukraine also opposes a causeway being constructed by Russia toward Ukrainian-administered Tuzia Island in the Kerch Strait.

The main security threat to Ukraine since independence has been that Russia will seek to incorporate all or some parts of its territory.

In the early years following the end of the Soviet Union, some Ukrainians and many Russians considered the separation between Russia and Ukraine unnatural. Proposals regularly arose for reunification or at least the transfer of some Ukrainian territory, such as those regions dominated by ethnic Russians, to the Russian Federation.

Conversely, many NATO countries consider keeping Ukraine independent from Russia a geopolitical imperative.

Without the Ukraine, Russia’s economic and military potential is an order of magnitude less than the former Soviet Union.

This is not a pressing security concern at the moment, but Putin’s threats made only a few years ago show it could become one again sometime soon.