Between the "Reset Button" and "Recommit Button": Messages and Challenges to Ukraine's European Future

by Lyudmyla Pavlyuk 20 October 2009

Interview with Janusz Bugajski, Director of the New European Democracies Project and senior fellow in the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Washington, DC

LP: You are the author of the book "Cold Peace: Russia's New Imperialism." Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, we have observed different phases in US relations with Russia. Cold War, then a "cold peace," then signs of a renewed Cold War and a promise of peace again. Do you see any logic or periodicity in U.S. - Russia relations? How warm is the present stage of peace?

JB: The fundamental competition between Russia and the United States has survived the Cold War, the post-Cold War, and "the Cold Peace." This competition continues in different guises, in different parts of the world, and with different manifestations, whether it is political, strategic, or economic. But this basic competition between the two powers has not ended regardless of the end of ideology, regardless of pragmatism as it is called, regardless of common or differing interests. Hence, we may go through hot, warm, and cold periods but the fundamentals are constant. Russia is trying to regain its status as a global power. At the same time, U.S. global power is beginning to a decline while it has established alliances and influences in different parts of the world that Russia resents or claims as its own exclusive zone. As a result, Russian-American competition has intensified.


LP: No wonder that Ukraine's supporters of Euro-Atlantic integration took the news about the "reset button" with concern. Several former political leaders in Central and Eastern European countries, including Vaclav Havel and Alexander Kwasniewski, published an open letter to Obama's administration voicing concerns that that their region is no longer "at the heart of American foreign policy." Does the "reset button" orientation imply a declined strategic status for the region?

JB: Central-Eastern Europe matters to America, but it is not the key area of insecurity, instability and national interest. And that is probably a good thing. If there was a strong American interest that would mean that the region is highly unstable and insecure. America considers this region to be within NATO's orbit, within the European Union, within the Euro-Atlantic community. It will be defended when needed. However, this does not exclude cooperation with Russia on other questions. To reassure the Central Europeans I think it was important for Vice President Joe Biden to visit both Kyiv and Tbilisi to resend a message that America does not believe in spheres of influence, it does not divide the world through grand bargain with Russia, and it does not sacrifice the security interests of the Central European countries for Russia's assistance such as it is in Afghanistan. It is an exaggeration to say that America somehow stepped back. Washington is trying to balance security, assistance, and its alliances in Central Europe with cooperation with Russia. Whether this is successful or not, that is another matter.

LP: The "recommit button" metaphor has become a welcome complement of the "reset button" metaphor: it serves as an indicator of the present American administration's effort to find balance between cooperation with Russia and demonstrating commitment to Ukraine and Georgia. How could the U.S. assure that the "recommit button" will work? What must be done beyond metaphors, besides rhetoric and declarations, in particular for Ukraine-NATO relations?

JB: You are right, we should look beyond rhetoric to practicalities. And there are several elements here. NATO at this point is not going to enlarge any further. The only country that NATO will include, I think in the next year or, is Macedonia, if there is a resolution of the name dispute with Greece. The question of Georgia, Ukraine and other countries in Eastern Europe is on hold in the sense of membership. It does not mean they cannot achieve membership, but in order to do so they need to meet all the required criteria, and in Ukraine's case, they need to have public support. Every country entering NATO has had a majority of public support for membership. In other words, the Alliance does not ask any country to be a member, the country itself needs to ask the Alliance and meet its criteria. Secondly, there are other ways into the Alliance other than through the Membership Action Plan. Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary did not have Membership Action Plans before they became members. Other countries have membership action plan for years but still have not become members. An important factor here is not the process itself but the results, in terms of internal reforms, civil-military interoperability, and military modernization.
The European Union is very important for these countries. It is still too early to say what the results of the Eastern Partnership Program (EPP) will be. Some criticize it for being simply an enhanced European Neighborhood Policy (ENP), that insufficient funds are allocated, and there is no specific membership track. I think it is important for all countries, particularly for Ukraine as one of the most developed countries, to demonstrate commitment to this program and to push for an EU association agreement. In other words, enhancing and developing the EPP, because most probably Ukraine will be a European Union member before it becomes a NATO member.

LP: The international media now casually write about Abkhazia and South Ossetia as "formerly Georgian territories." In the Ukrainian projection, this model of partition reminds one of the need to avoid the disintegration scenario in Crimea. In what way should Ukraine guarantee its integrity - if not through NATO what are the realistic options? To the extent that Ukraine tries to be a respectful neighbor for Russia, there has always been a risk of provocations in Ukraine's southern regions that could legitimize Russia's interference.

JB: Every country has its specific national interest. Ukraine's national interest has to be defined by the Ukrainian people as represented in government. If the majority of Ukrainian people want Ukraine to be part of the Western structures, within the EU, NATO, and the transatlantic community that is the way the country should go regardless of what Russia says. If there is division in Ukraine in terms of its political and strategic direction that will be reflected in policy, and this is what we have seen in recent years.
In Georgia's case, the majority of Georgians support NATO and EU membership. That is why I think Russia moved to partition Georgia - to prevent it qualifying as an integrated state controlling its territory. Moscow de-facto partitioned Abkhazia and South Ossetia from Georgia. In the case of Ukraine I believe, unfortunately, that the more Ukraine moves westward, the danger from Russia would grow. The alternative is to continue to be "neutral" or in the "gray zone" with the ongoing political mess we have witnessed since 2004, and not deciding the future of the country, and then the Russian regime would be satisfied. That is clearly not in Ukraine's national interest or the interests of its people. I strongly believe that it is in Ukraine's long-term interest to be part of the Western community, particularly the EU and eventually the NATO alliance.

LP: Support for NATO accession in Ukraine had increased after the Georgian war, especially in the western regions. It is understandable that the awareness of a threat consolidates society. What about constructive stimuli? How can the potential of positive pro-NATO arguments be used?

JB: I would be very interested to survey among the military in Ukraine, in particular among Ukrainian officers - how they understand NATO and its operations. I am convinced that the majority would support NATO membership because it means modernization of the military, it means new equipment, it means higher standards, and it means international interoperability. All these things are very important for moving Ukraine into the 21st century. Unfortunately I would say that many politicians and mid-level bureaucrats are still stuck in the 20th century mentality and this is promulgated by Russia's propaganda against NATO. Responsible leaders need to explain to citizens the benefits of being part of NATO as compared to the stagnation and danger emanating from Russia's neo-imperial sphere. NATO is part of the European integration process and the Russian leadership is intent on preventing Ukraine assuming its rightful place in the European community.

LP: What aspects from the Eastern and Central European experience, gained in the process of preparation and accession to NATO, are applicable to Ukraine and what cannot be applied because of real or perceived "Ukrainian specifics"? Which messages to the public in Ukraine would be most appropriate in the current circumstances of internal polarization?

JB: There are several important messages regarding NATO. First, it enhances national security and does not endanger it. NATO integration improves military performance, civil-military relations, and the modernization of the armed forces. Second, NATO membership is part of the process of European integration. In other words, the EU member countries are much more effectively seen as secure if they are part of NATO. This is one of the major messages from the Central Europeans or Visegrad countries. Once you are part of NATO, businesses are more likely to invest and you can make faster progress toward EU accession. Third, which must be stressed in Ukraine, NATO membership does not threaten Russia's security. Quite the opposite, it actually makes Russia's borders more secure. Without NATO membership, there is more uncertainty and instability as we saw in the case of Georgia. In other words, if Georgia had been a NATO member, it is doubtful that Russia would have intervened militarily because of the deterrence factor and article five guarantees for Georgia. Conversely, it is doubtful whether Georgia would have used force to try to regain Abkhazia and South Ossetia because NATO members would have restrained it. In reality, it is Ukraine's neutrality that makes the country more vulnerable to Russian pressure.

LP: The security and identity considerations seem to be inseparable in contemporary discussions about alliances and geopolitical choices. What grand narratives were presented to the public in Central-Eastern Europe during the NATO information campaign and what basic values were conveyed to them?

JB: The narratives in Central-Eastern Europe on NATO accession were twofold. First, that finally these countries were joining the Western club in which America was the key member. They were joining the club which would make them secure and help ensure progress in other areas such as progress toward the EU. This should inspire the public. The second message is that although Russia was very weak in the 1990s sooner or later it would regenerate. And if it was not democratic and strong at the same time then it would rekindle its imperial impulses, which is what happened in the past decade. The Central Europeans saw it as a window of opportunity just in case Russia reverted back to its old ways. Unfortunately it did. So, NATO for them is also a form of protection as well as a means of security.

LP: About a decade ago, some journalists and scholars wrote about the post-Communist countries of Eastern Europe as a "frontier zone" or even a "buffer zone" between East and West. That was applied to migration patterns, cultural self-perceptions, and political stances. One historically rooted projection of the "frontier" concept were Polish myths about the country's "watchdog" role for Western civilization. Now that Poland has become politically integrated in the EU, has the frontier zone role passed to Ukraine?

JB: Poland, to its credit, has not seen itself as a border of "European civilization." It views Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, and Georgia as being part of the European experience and not a border region. Warsaw believes it is essential to bring Ukraine into Europe's institutional fold. Unfortunately, Russia sees Ukraine as a border between itself and a democratic Europe, it sees Ukraine as a border between itself and America. The same is true with Georgia. Russia is creating borders, whereas Poland, NATO, and the Western countries are trying to break them down.

LP: What is your opinion about the concepts of "Russia's interests" and "Russia's sphere of influence"? These formulas often appear in discourses that motivate Russia's opposition to Ukraine's Euro-Atlantic strategies. While they circulate and are taken seriously, they put Ukraine in a position of Russia's symbolic property. The stereotypes about upsetting Russia are not consistent either with Ukraine's post-colonial dignity. However, they persist and are used to justify informational, economic, and diplomatic wars...

JB: Moscow views Ukraine, Georgia, Belarus, and other countries in the region as being part of Russia's privileged sphere of influence. What does that mean? It means that Russia feels it has more rights to determine the destiny of those countries than those countries have to determine their own destiny. Each country seeks its own sovereign decision in terms of international membership. The difference with the Soviet period is that Russia no longer wants to impose a specific ideology, specific political parties, or a specific socioeconomic system on its subordinate neighbors. What they do want is to determine the security and foreign policy of these countries. In other words, as far as Russia is concerned, Ukraine does not have the right to choose the alliance to which it belongs. That is the core of what Moscow is telling Kyiv.

LP: Do ideologists and politicians who promote the idea of "Russia's sphere of interests" also mean the Baltic states?

JB: Ideally, yes, Russia would like to have privileged sphere and privileged influence in the three Baltic countries. However, the Kremlin is also realistic and understands that these countries are no longer part of CIS and they cannot be brought under the Russian security umbrella. What they are trying to do is to marginalize these countries within NATO, to scapegoat them as "Russophobic" or "anti-Russian," to alienate them and to prevent NATO from giving them full security guarantees. That is why after the Georgian war the three Baltic republics made strenuous efforts to signal to NATO that they need contingency plans because they remain vulnerable to Russia's pressure. Similarly with Poland and to a certain extent Romania. All these states are now revisiting the core purpose of NATO which is mutual defence.

LP: What is the chance of a win-win situation for Ukraine and Russia with regard to the issue of Ukraine's NATO accession? Some years ago, Yulia Tymoshenko discussed the "together with Russia" pro-NATO strategy in international media. Now the U.S. is increasing its level of cooperation with Russia, there has been some hypothetical talk about a possibility for Russia to become a member of NATO. Russian leaders might have reasons not to accept this offer. But if membership is framed positively as an option for Russia, how could Russia deny this option for Ukraine?

JB: Ukraine should not wait for Russia to qualify for NATO membership because the wait will be indefinite. There are two important reasons why Russia cannot become a NATO member. First, it does not want to because it sees itself as an equivalent or a counterpoint to NATO. All of its internal and external propaganda against NATO would not disappear overnight and it would lose its chief enemy toward which it mobilizes the Russian public and its military and security services. Second, Russia does not qualify for NATO. It does not have a democratic structure or reformed civil-military relations. It is in conflict with most of its neighbors. It has severe internal disputes and faces potential partition. All these factors disqualify it from NATO entry. Ukraine is much further along in terms of NATO entry. Third, how would the Russian government convince its public that NATO membership is suddenly a good thing after years of drumming into them the message that NATO was anti-Russian. How could NATO turn pro-Russian overnight? So it is inconsistent with Moscow's own propaganda and its own policies. Ukraine, I think, has to separate itself from Russia's aspirations and to express and implement its own national aspirations. It is the time for Ukraine to stand on its own two feet and to move forward and not stand still or go backwards.

Lyudmyla Pavlyuk