NATO’s ‘mistake’ with Ukraine membership in face of Russia: ‘Can’t reverse that now’

Kyiv reporter reveals how Ukrainians really feel about Russia

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Russian forces have begun returning to their bases after the completion of military exercises on the border with Ukraine, it was announced this morning. A Defence Ministry spokesman said: “Units of the Southern and Western military districts, having completed their tasks, have already begun loading onto rail and road transport and today they will begin moving to their military garrisons.” While it raises a degree of hope for possible de-escalation, large-scale drills are still ongoing, and it is not clear how many units are being withdrawn, with Russia having massed more than 130,000 troops along its shared border with Ukraine. The news comes ahead of the Meeting of NATO Ministers of Defence in Brussels today.

Defence Secretary Ben Wallace is expected to attend, where the military aliance’s response to the ongoing crisis will be discussed.

While many have hit-out at Russia for its increasing aggression, Dr Paul Flenley, an expert in Russian foreign policy, and a Senior Lecturer in Politics at the University of Portsmouth, said the ongoing crisis could be seen as NATO’s own doing.

He told Express.co.uk: “The mistake NATO made was in 2008 at the Bucharest NATO conference, explicitly offering membership to Ukraine and Georgia.

“Had they just left it vague and said it’s open to any democracy to join NATO if they wanted to [they would not have the current issues with Ukraine], it’s this explicit promise that has created this dilemma really.

“Obviously, they can’t reverse that now. So Putin isn’t going to get any movement from the West on that one.”

Ukraine and Georgia were denied membership at the 2008 NATO summit in Bucharest, but then-Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer promised that they would both eventually become members.

President Vladimir Putin has always been openly hostile to Ukrainian membership of NATO.

He has bemoaned the “loss” of former Soviet republics, which included Ukraine, Georgia, Belorussia, Uzbekistan, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia.

Though Ukraine has had a partnership with NATO since the Nineties, it has largely been a loose one.

In February 2008, Putin addressed the prospect of Ukrainian membership of NATO when then-Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko visited the Kremlin.

He said: “It is horrible to say and even horrible to think that, in response to the deployment of [NATO missile facilities] in Ukrainian territory, which cannot theoretically be ruled out, Russia could target its missile systems at Ukraine.

“Imagine this just for a second.”

Dr Flenley said that Ukraine is important to Russia because many there do not view it as a separate country, and explained: “Russians see Ukraine as not really being a foreign country in the way that France is for the UK. It’s very much closer.”

He added: “For Russia it’s difficult to see Ukraine as a wholly independent separate country.

“It’s part of Russian history and that’s why, to have NATO troops and Ukraine becoming part of NATO, it really hurts.

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“This thing which is part of us, Ukraine, is now going to be part of a hostile military alliance.

“So Ukraine is particularly sensitive within Russian national thinking. That’s not just Putin, it’s widespread in Russia.

“They see Ukrainians as their brothers, as part of us and that certainly underpins the relationship.”

Western Ukraine has always been significantly more pro-NATO compared to eastern Ukraine, which is far more anti-NATO and pro-Russia.

According to a survey conducted by the Ukrainian Institute for the Future last month, some 64 percent of Ukrainians support NATO membership, while 17 percent do not.

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Those most in favour of joining NATO were in the west of Ukraine and Kiev, where the pro-NATO figure was 73 percent and 71 percent respectively.

In the east of Ukraine, however, just 47 percent of people support the idea.

Dr Flenley said: “Parts of western Ukraine were never formally part of Russia, they were part of Poland and attached to Ukraine after the Second World War.

“The more Ukrainian speaking parts of Ukraine don’t have this kind of connection with Russia, although lots of them are Russian speakers.”

It is this national pride that makes any potential invasion a “great gamble”, according to Dr Flenley.

He explained the Ukrainian army has been re-equipped, and would resist Russian forces., and said: “They would resist and they would have the will.

“Among Russian troops, if they invaded, it’s doubtful whether they would have much passion.

“They’d be questioning why are we invading Ukraine, especially when the body bags start going home, whereas Ukrainians would be fighting for their independence, so the passion would be much greater on the Ukrainian side.”

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