That it will become a NATO country is clear

Ukraine will became a NATO country in the not too distant future. What will that mean for Russia?

Even though the exact date of Ukraine’s entry into NATO is not known, or set, yet, that it will become a NATO country is clear. How will Russia take it is the question.

Scenario One: Nothing At All

It does not take a genius to guess that very many in Russian’s would dearly like to see Ukraine’s integration into NATO proceed the way it did under President Leonid Kuchma. It was pseudo-integration then. Kyiv merely blackmailed the Kremlin with its talks with the Alliance then, extorting from Moscow economic preferences or driving a hard bargain on the terms of presence of the Russian Black Sea Fleet in the Crimea. All in return for alleged faithfulness. This integration could take literally centuries, which was quite all right for Moscow and Kyiv alike.

The current situation does not look hopeless from Moscow’s point of view. Opinion polls in Ukraine indicate that the population of the country is fairly reserved with regard to membership in NATO. According to the latest opinion polls whose results were published last week, 51% of the population (70% in the eastern regions of the country) is against membership in the Alliance. It is hardly surprising therefore that some prominent politicians including Viktor Yanukovich (leader of the Regional Party, currently the favorite in the parliamentary election campaign scheduled to culminate in March 2006) make active use of anti-NATO slogans at this point.

Alexei Makarkin, Deputy General Director of the Center of Political Technologies, does not think meanwhile that Russia should count on politicians like these. “They are pragmatics,” Makarkin said. “As soon as the process becomes irreversible, their anti-NATO rhetoric will be immediately abandoned.”

It seems that the process will become irreversible soon now. First and foremost, because the Ukrainian political establishment is practically unanimous on the subject of the necessity of becoming a NATO country. “They want to be in the West,” to quote Fyodor Lukianov, Editor-in-Chief of Rossiya v Globalnoi Politick.

NATO is interested in Ukraine too. “Expansion eastward and in the southeast direction, closer to the main theater of operations, is the main vector of development of the Alliance,” Lukianov continued. Despite the opinion prevailing in the country, it is not Russia the Alliance is concerned with, it is the Middle East, “which is both the main source of instability in the world and, no less importantly, the main source of oil.” From this point of view, Ukraine is the ideal transit base that will enable NATO to boost its influence in the region. It means that interests of the involved parties coincide. As for public opinion, Lukianov says that, “it can always be fixed.”

Russia and its stand on the matter is the only obstacle official Kyiv may encounter. On the other hand, it does not look as though anyone intended to ask it. Russia will be listened to with ill-hidden impatience, no more. On the other hand, Russia has some considerable bargaining positions in this particular case. Before joining NATO, Ukraine will have to do something about the Black Sea Fleet (candidates for the Alliance are not supposed to have military bases of third countries on their territory) permitted by the recent accords to remain in Sevastopol until 2017.

All the same, Lukianov is convinced that Washington and Brussels’ support will make even that problem solvable. The Alliance may make an exception for Ukraine. Lukianov is convinced that Ukraine will become a NATO country well before 2017, in 2010 at the latest.

Scenario Two: Neither Peace Nor War

So, Ukraine becomes a NATO country. How will Russia react?

We are unlikely to see anything new, anything we have not seen already. As when the Baltic States joined the Alliance, Moscow will come to from the initial shock and life will continue as before. Sure, some ear-splitting statements will be made, but actual countermeasures are highly unlikely.

The joint Russian-Ukrainian military-technical programs will probably be the only exception. Meaning that the Kremlin will curtail them (Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov made that clear not long ago). These days, the Russian military-industrial complex needs its Ukrainian counterpart as manufacturer of engines for helicopters of MI and KA families and power plants for ships. Ruslan Pukhov, of AST Center, believes however, that Russia can organize their manufacture on its own territory. Neither will it be greatly affected by severance of ties with Antonov Design Bureau, owner of technical documents and blueprints of AN planes. As for the Ukrainian military-industrial complex, its inevitable death will be the price for membership in NATO Kyiv has to pay.

Russia may also stiffen the border regime with Ukraine (particularly should it fail to have the visa regime with the European Union liberalized by then) and make life harder for Ukrainian exporters, but that sums it all.

Of course, Russia cannot be expected to merely sit tight watching NATO expand its influence over so sizeable a chunk of the post-Soviet zone, but the Russian elite as it is, will never go for an open confrontation with the West. And neither will its direct descendants.

“The Russian elite is inseparably linked with the West by economic and personal interests. It will never go for an open confrontation with the West. These men may dislike NATO and the United States all they want but it is Western banks that they have accounts with,” Andrei Ryabov of the Moscow Carnegie Center said.

The use of the terms like “sovereign democracy” or “Russia the fortress” by some representatives of the Russian ruling class should not mislead anyone.

“It’s a game, a smoke-screen needed to camouflage true priorities of Russia’s policy in the post-Soviet zone,” Lukianov said. “Moreover, this is a smoke-screen for domestic use only. Psychologically, most Russians still live in the USSR, and discovering that they actually live in a different state now will certainly be a shock.” According to the expert, Russian authorities’ actual steps this year indicate that Russia is gradually shedding its imperial aspirations. Consider withdrawal of the bases from Georgia, for example. Official Moscow hit the roof at first but eventually put up with practically all Georgian demands.

According to Lukianov, Russia accepted the role and the niche reserved for it by its Western partners. It is playing the part of a colossal and relatively predictable reservoir of energy resources Western economies need and use. Countries of the West in their turn make new accents in their assessment of Russia. The words “energy security” can be heard from Western leaders much more frequently than “human rights” or “democratic values”.

Scenario Three: Confrontation

In the meantime, possibility of a confrontation on a major scale between Russia and the West should not be ruled out in all entirety.

First, nobody could guarantee that the incumbent Russian elite will be still in power five or six years from now. A dramatic turn in the direction of populist nationalism is possible, and that assumption can hardly be disputed now. It may be that by the moment Ukraine is accepted in NATO, foreign policy of Russia will be determined by men like Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus (who is fairly popular with Russians and can be counted on to have no bank accounts in the West). Belarus is a vivid example that exploitation of anti-Western phobias and propaganda of the besieged-fortress ideology are more than a means of political technologies for regimes like that, they are one of the major instruments of survival.

Second, Ukraine a NATO member will become the worst sore in the relations between Russia and the West for years to come. All of Russia will be passing judgment on true intentions of the West as such on the Alliance’s behavior in Ukraine. Should NATO do something in Ukraine that may be appraised by Russia as incorrect or outright hostile (say, should it establish military bases near the borders of the Smolensk region), Moscow’s reaction may be pretty drastic. Neither will the Kremlin put up with official Kyiv’s claims for the role of the main promoter of democracy in the post-Soviet zone.

Should Russia decide on “an asymmetric response to NATO the aggressor,” the main strike will be directed at Ukraine. As a matter of fact, Russia’s ability to show Washington (or Brussels) its place are severely restricted and practically non-existent. (Recall the effect Moscow’s threats prior to NATO expansion into the Baltic States had.) The same is true of Moscow’s political clout with Ukraine. On the other hand, the Kremlin wields economic leverage with Ukraine. In fact, the ability to seriously damage the neighbor’s economy is the only thing that still heartens the Russians not yet free of imperial mentality.

Suppose Russia imposed stringent restrictions on trade with Ukraine (essentially put up an economic blockade). First and foremost, Moscow will try to make use of gas. It stands to reason to expect that Ukraine will already be paying Russia $140-160 for 1,000 cubic meters by the moment of its entry into NATO. It means that the gas card will have already been played.

All the same, Russia will still be able to use the “gas stick” against Ukraine. Over 25% of all revenues of the Ukrainian budget come from gas and oil transit via the territory of the country. When the North European Gas Pipeline is finally built in 2009, Moscow will be able to re-route a lot of its gas export bypassing Ukraine altogether. Needless to say, effect on the Ukrainian financial system will be calamitous. Finally, it is even possible to conceive of the truly horrible scenario when Russia restricts gas export to Ukraine itself causing a major energy crisis in this country.

Ukraine desperately needs Russia as a major market for its goods. Export to Russia amounts to nearly one third of all Ukrainian trade turnover. Unlike the United States, European Union, and Middle East, however, Russia is not buying raw materials from Ukraine. It is buying end products. For example, up to 50% of pipe output in Ukraine is exported to Russia (large diameter pipe, first and foremost). Manufacturers of sugar and confectioneries, engineering plants need Russia too.

Even that is not all. Ukraine depends on Russian oil, and four major refineries in Ukraine belong to Russian oil companies. Should the latter get a message from the Kremlin and restrict deliveries of oil to their refineries in Ukraine, the country will certainly be in trouble.

Introduction of a visa regime and deportation of all illegal Ukrainians from Russia will deliver another hard blow at Ukraine.

What experts Profil has approached could not offer even a rough estimate of the consequences of these steps for the Ukrainian economy. They only agree that the consequences will be truly catastrophic.

And what will Russia gain? Actually nothing. In fact, it will be affected too. Economic relations cannot be just banned. Curtailment of official trade turnover will generate a shadow one.

Generally speaking, economic sanctions as an instrument of political pressure have a major flaw. They are a one-time weapon only. Russia may knock Ukraine out but it will work only once. What if the Ukrainian economy rearranges itself and eventually recovers? Ukraine will become a bona fide foreign country for Russia then, and for good. It is ordinary Russians and Ukrainians who will fall victim of that. That is why Russia – should it go for it – must be aware that it will make all Ukrainians without exception its bitter enemies. Russia’s zone of influence to the west will end 500 kilometers from Moscow.