Right now, Vladimir Putin must be ruing the inability of the KGB to finish off Victor Yuschenko. The strategic consequences of Ukrainian membership in NATO would be tremendous, and I'm not exaggerating in the least when I say so.
COLD war tensions threatened to flare anew yesterday after Ukraine, once the heart of the Soviet industrial-military complex, declared its intention to join Nato and won the blessing of the United States.
Ukraine’s admission would bring Russia’s Black Sea naval base and much of the former Soviet armaments industry into the embrace of the American-led military alliance, and expand Nato to Russia’s southwestern border.
The newly elected President Yushchenko told a special Ukraine-Nato summit in Brussels of his long-term aim to join the 26-member alliance, although he insisted it was not a move against its giant neighbour Russia. “We want to see Ukraine integrated into both the European Union and the North Atlantic alliance,” he said.
President Bush supported Ukrainian membership in principle provided it made sufficient reforms. He declared: “Nato has an open door for those European democracies who fulfil the obligations. There is strong support for President Yushchenko in his challenging endeavour to bring Ukraine closer to Euro- Atlantic integration. “We welcomed Mr Yushchenko and reminded him it is a performance-based organisation, and that the door is open. Nato will help him.”
Russia is coming to terms with its failure to prevent Mr Yushchenko winning December’s election, but is deeply troubled by the threat to its national security by Ukraine’s courting of Nato. Russia’s Southern Fleet is based in Sevastopol, southern Ukraine. The country is also a key designer, manufacturer and exporter of weapons, especially missiles, many of which are in Russia’s arsenal.
Russia had previously resisted Nato’s eastwards advance, and virulently opposed membership for the far less strategicially important former Soviet Baltic states.
Mr Yushchenko sought to pre-empt Moscow’s protests by declaring: “Let me say clearly that Russia is our strategic partner. Ukraine’s policy on Nato is in no way directed against any other country, including Russia.” However, Ukraine’s move is certain to add to the tensions when Mr Bush meets President Putin tomorrow in the Slovakian capital of Bratislava. (emphasis added)
No kidding about that "add to the tensions" bit: the loss of access to the Black Sea would effectively kneecap the Russian navy, leaving it only the Baltic enclave of Kaliningrad as a window on the West. An old-time nationalist like Putin must be spitting blood at the thought that such a tremendous setback could happen on his watch.
What do I think of Ukraine's bid to join NATO? I (cautiously) welcome it; although it's certain to raise tensions with Russia in the near term should it occur, the Ukrainians are understandably eager to seek a guarantee that their big brother next door won't try to reassert its hold, having done so for 300 years. What is more, the advent of another member which still has fresh memories of how dear freedom is would act as a useful counterbalance to self-indulgent and obstreperous states like France and Germany.
PS: In related news, Newsweek has a profile of Putin, in which the claim is made that the man is increasingly governing in a paranoid and isolated style, like a Russian Richard Nixon. If accurate, it does not augur well for relations between Russia and the West.