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NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen (right) receives the Order of Liberty from Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko (left) at a ceremony in Kiev on August 7, 2104. (Photo: flickr / NATO)

Will Ukraine Bid To Join NATO Unleash 21st Century Cold War?

Experts warn that if US and Europe continue to expand NATO's reach without recognizing destructive consequences, crisis in eastern Ukraine risks serious escalation

Jon Queally

In a move that could dramatically spike international tensions and escalate the conflict in eastern Ukraine, the Prime Minister of the Ukraine government in Kiev on Friday submitted legislation to Parliament declaring intention to join the western military alliance of NATO and longer-term ambitions to actually join the European Union.

Prime Minister Arseny Yatsenyuk submitted the proposal on Friday just ahead of a NATO emergency meeting held in Brussels to discuss the ongoing crisis in Ukraine.

Following that meeting, NATO's Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen emerged to say NATO would "fully respect" Ukraine's effort to join the alliance.

In comments on Thursday, President Obama chastized Russia for its behavior in Ukraine, blaming President Vladimir Putin for the continued resistance shown by armed rebels in the regions of Luhansk and Donetsk who have resisted submission to the government in Kiev which came to power in a coup earlier this year. "The  violence [of the pro-Russian separatists] is encouraged by Russia," the president charged. "The separatists are trained by Russia.  They are armed by Russia.  They are funded by Russia.  Russia has deliberately and repeatedly violated the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine."

Responding to such accusations on Friday, Putin dismissed the idea that Russia was solely to blame for the current situation as he praised the resistance fighters in eastern Ukraine and said the Kiev government--backed by western power--was guilty of killing civilians as the Ukraine Army has conducted mass shelling against rebel-held cities. According to the Moscow Times, Putin said the Russian takeover of Crimea earlier this year was essential to save a largely Russian-speaking population from Ukrainian government violence and that continued fighting in eastern Ukraine, where pro-Russian separatists launched an uprising in April, was the result of a refusal by Kiev to negotiate.

"We don't want [any large-scale conflicts] and don't plan on it," Putin said. "But naturally, we should always be ready to repel any aggression toward Russia."

He continued, "Russia's partners... should understand it's best not to mess with us." Then added, "I want to remind you that Russia is one of the leading nuclear powers."

In his remarks, Obama made direct reference an upcoming NATO summit—scheduled for next month in the UK—where he said the U.S. and other alliance members would reaffirm their "unwavering commitment" to Ukraine.

Though not well understood by many in the west, a move by Ukraine to join NATO  actually strikes at the heart of the current crisis and experts warn that further moves by the U.S. or European leaders to encourage Kiev's official alignment with either NATO or the EU could have significant and disastrous consequences.

Writing at FireDogLake, DS Wright called the effort to join NATO by Prime Minister Yatsenyuk—a favorite of western leaders—a "potentially catastrophic move," writing:

If Ukraine successfully petitions to become a member of NATO then Ukraine could be ground zero for a nuclear war between Russian and NATO forces. Under the rules of NATO, any attack – real or perceived as real – on a member must be responded to by all members.

Before Ukraine can formally seek membership it must reverse its currently codified status as non-bloc which was put in the Ukrainian Constitution by couped out former President Viktor Yanukovich in 2008. Not only does being a member of NATO risk nuclear war it also drops any pretense of not being alligned with the European Union and United States – something Russia has made increasingly clear it will not accept.

Speaking with Democracy Now! on Friday morning, journalist Jonathan Steele, former Moscow bureau chief for the Guardian newspaper, argued the most important aspect to understand about the underlying political dynamics is that "Russia is trying to prevent Ukraine joining NATO."

To explain the reasoning behind Russia's thinking, Steele explained, "Imagine what would happen if Canada or Mexico decided to join an anti-U.S. alliance? Obviously, the U.S. would be concerned. Russia has legitimate concerns about the expansion of NATO. We’ve already heard just in the other day the Secretary-General of NATO Anders Fogh Rasmussen was saying that NATO is now going to preposition stocks in Eastern Europe, and bring equipment in and have bases there. It is only further provocation to Moscow."

Steele was referring to comments made by Rasmussen earlier this week in which he said NATO is planning to create a military "spearhead" in former Eastern Bloc countries as a way to counter Moscow.

The latest political developments—including charged accusations coming from Brussels, Washington DC, and Kiev—come as fighting continues and death mount on the ground in eastern Ukraine.

On Friday, the United Nations released a new report highlight the devastating human toll that fighting has taken on civilians living in or near the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk. According to the UN:

Intense fighting, including the use of heavy weaponry by both sides, in densely populated areas of eastern Ukraine, has increased the loss of civilian life, with an average of around 36 people being killed every day, says a new report issued today by the United Nations human rights office.

The report, produced by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and covers the period from 16 July to 17 August, expresses dismay at the killing and wounding of civilians who are trapped in urban areas or attempting to flee the fighting in eastern Ukraine using “safe” corridors established by the Government.

In a lengthy analysis—titled Why the Ukraine Crisis is the West's Fault—published in this month's issue of Foreign Affairs, University of Chicago professor of political science John J. Mearsheimer describes why the unraveling conflict in Ukraine—though largely treated in the western media as the result of Russian duplicity and aggression—is, in fact, largely the result of interference by the U.S. and NATO members who have steadily attempted to draw Ukraine into their economic and military sphere without understanding (or simply disregarding) the deadly ramifications. According to Mearsheimer:

... the United States and its European allies share most of the responsibility for the crisis. The taproot of the trouble is NATO enlargement, the central element of a larger strategy to move Ukraine out of Russia’s orbit and integrate it into the West. At the same time, the EU’s expansion eastward and the West’s backing of the pro-democracy movement in Ukraine -- beginning with the Orange Revolution in 2004 -- were critical elements, too. Since the mid-1990s, Russian leaders have adamantly opposed NATO enlargement, and in recent years, they have made it clear that they would not stand by while their strategically important neighbor turned into a Western bastion.

For Putin, the illegal overthrow of Ukraine’s democratically elected and pro-Russian president -- which he rightly labeled a “coup” -- was the final straw. He responded by taking Crimea, a peninsula he feared would host a NATO naval base, and working to destabilize Ukraine until it abandoned its efforts to join the West.  Putin’s pushback should have come as no surprise. After all, the West had been moving into Russia’s backyard and threatening its core strategic interests, a point Putin made emphatically and repeatedly. Elites in the United States and Europe have been blindsided by events only because they subscribe to a flawed view of international politics.

Offering a similar assessment—including a history lesson towards the origins of the crisis, scenarios of possible outcomes, and the steps he thinks are needed to de-escalate the situation—a piece in The Nation this week by Stephen Cohen, professor emeritus at New York University and Princeton University, offers another thorough review of some of the moving parts in Ukraine. It reads, in part:

In politics as in history, there are always alternatives. The Ukrainian crisis could have at least three different outcomes. In the first, the civil war escalates and widens, drawing in Russian and possibly NATO military forces. This would be the worst outcome: a kind of latter-day Cuban missile crisis.

In the second outcome, today’s de facto partitioning of Ukraine becomes institutionalized in the form of two Ukrainian states—one allied with the West, the other with Russia—co-existing between Cold War and cold peace. This would not be the best outcome, but neither would it be the worst.

The third outcome, as well as the best one, would be the preservation of a united Ukraine. This will require good-faith negotiations between representatives of all of Ukraine’s regions, including leaders of the rebellious southeast, probably under the auspices of Washington, Moscow and the European Union, as Putin and his foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, have proposed for months.

Meanwhile, Ukraine’s tragedy continues to grow. Thousands of innocent people have been killed or wounded, according to a UN representative, and nearly a million others turned into refugees. It is a needless tragedy, because rational people on all sides know the general terms of peace negotiations:

  • Ukraine must become a federal or sufficiently decentralized state in order to permit its diverse regions to elect their own officials, live in accord with their local cultures, and have a say in taxation and budgetary issues, as is the case in many federal states from Canada to Germany. Such constitutional provisions will need to be ratified by a referendum or a constitutional assembly, accompanied or followed by parliamentary and presidential elections. (The rushed presidential election in May was a mistake, effectively depriving more than 40 percent of the country of their own candidates and thus a real vote.)
  • Ukraine must not be aligned with any military alliance, including NATO. (Nor must any of the other former Soviet republics now being courted by NATO.)
  • Ukraine must be governed in ways that enable it to maintain or develop economic relations with both Russia and the West. Otherwise, it will never be politically independent or economically prosperous.
  • If these principles are adopted, they should be guaranteed, along with Ukraine’s present territorial integrity, by Russia and the West, perhaps in a UN Security Council resolution.

But such negotiations cannot even begin until Kiev’s military assault on eastern Ukraine ends. Russia, Germany and France have repeatedly called for a cease-fire, but the “anti-terrorist operation” can end only where it began—in Kiev and Washington.

In terms of ending the violence and solving the conflict—and second only to actually achieving a cease fire or truce among the warring factions—critics of the European and U.S. stance towards Ukraine agree that in order to defuse the crisis, the western nations must ensure that Ukraine is not ripped further apart and commit to taking NATO membership off the table.

"The United States and its allies should abandon their plan to westernize Ukraine and instead aim to make it a neutral buffer between NATO and Russia, akin to Austria’s position during the Cold War," argues Mearsheimer. "This would not mean that a future Ukrainian government would have to be pro-Russian or anti-NATO. On the contrary, the goal should be a sovereign Ukraine that falls in neither the Russian nor the Western camp. To achieve this end, the United States and its allies should publicly rule out NATO’s expansion into both Georgia and Ukraine."

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