Ukraine, once a keen suitor of NATO, has abandoned its aim to be a member of the alliance, its new leader said on Thursday, in a move that should bring relief to many western capitals, as well as Russia.
“Ukraine will continue developing its relations with the alliance, but the question of membership is being removed from the agenda,” the Ukrainian Foreign Minister Kostyantyn Gryshchenko, was quoted by the Russian state-owned Interfax news agency as saying.
“Entry into NATO is not realistic for our country today,” Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych said. “NATO conditions would require us to have the support of the majority of the population.”
NATO membership was pursued, with the enthusiastic support of former US president George W. Bush’s administration and the Labour government in Britain, by the pro-western former president Viktor Yushchenko. This was despite a lack of enthusiasm inside Ukraine and concern in NATO.
Ukraine was considered a potential NATO partner along with Georgia. Concern in many NATO countries increased in 2008 when Russia responded with military force to a Georgian attack on South Ossetia, an enclave in Georgia.
At a summit in Bucharest in April 2008, alliance leaders agreed that Ukraine “will become a NATO member” in the future, but added that it was up to the Ukrainian people and their elected leaders to determine the country’s path.
Since then, most NATO countries, including the US and Britain, have realized membership of Ukraine and Georgia would provoke conflict, notably with Russia. This month, the Albright report on NATO’s new strategic concept made no mention of prospective Ukrainian membership.
Interfax quoted Gryshchenko as saying NATO membership did not have the support of the majority of the population and had a “destructive effect” on policy.
Yanukovych came to power in February and has moved the former Soviet republic back closer to Moscow in several policy areas. Last month, he reached agreement with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on extending the lease on the Russian Black Sea fleet base in Sevastopol for 25 years. They also reached agreement on gas prices.
A dispute over gas price rises led Russia to cut supplies to Ukraine in 2006 in a move that caused concern across Europe. The gas was switched back on only after Ukraine agreed to pay almost twice the former price. In January last year, Russia again cut supplies in a row over unpaid fees.
Yanukovich has told Moscow that Ukraine would avoid membership of any military blocs. He has not responded to Medvedev’s invitation to join the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization. Gryshchenko suggested Ukraine would continue to take part in military and civil emergency programs with NATO.