Since 2014, Ukrainians have been facing direct Russian aggression against their country on a daily basis so they are taking seriously the new threats coming from their northern neighbor. The ongoing Russian military buildup around Ukraine has already provoked a consolidated response on the part of the EU and the world's leading powers, which have already outlined "unprecedented" sanctions set to be imposed on Russia should Moscow further escalate.
Ambassador Nataliia Galibarenko, Head of Ukraine's Mission to NATO, told Ukrinform how NATO actors are reacting to the latest developments. She also spoke of the assistance Ukraine can count on, and why Russia has no right to take part in determining Ukraine's future relations with the Alliance.
NATO PERCEIVES RUSSIAN THREAT VERY SERIOUSLY
- Ms Ambassador, the past weeks and months turned out to be truly alarming for Ukraine in the wake of the latest amassing of Russian troops near the country’s borders. How did officials react to this situation here at NATO Headquarters? Do the Allies sense the existing threats as regards these events?
- Since the initial report came out on the buildup of Russian troops along the Russian-Ukrainian border, the Alliance has been closely monitoring developments both in Ukraine itself, in the temporarily occupied territories, and directly near the border. In fact, they had the worst expectations.
The level of threat of a direct military incursion was regarded as very high. Therefore, both the Alliance and its leadership have been in constant contact with the Ukrainian side in order to jointly achieve understanding and assess the current situation.
The Alliance has chosen a clear line – to maintain unity in the face of the Russian threat and adhere to a common position in response to violations of Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity.
As you know, NATO is a military-political alliance. The Alliance does not impose sanctions and neither does it have its own armed forces. It cannot provide direct armed support to Ukraine. But NATO is an important platform for the Allies to reach a consensus on coordinated action in support of Ukraine, including Russia sanctions.
THE "NOTHING ABOUT UKRAINE WITHOUT UKRAINE" PRINCIPLE REMAINS FUNDAMENTAL
- Presidents Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin had a phone call on the situation around Ukraine without Ukraine's participation. Recently, French President Emmanuel Macron initiated and held talks with the Russian leadership, which were preceded by contacts on the same issue between Germany and Russia at the level of foreign ministers. What is Ukraine’s place in these talks? Do we really no longer object to negotiations related to us but held behind our back?
- I cannot agree with the assumption that the mentioned "nothing about Ukraine without Ukraine" principle was violated in this case. After all, U.S. President Joe Biden’s phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky following Biden’s call with Putin was preceded by relevant contacts at the level of the head of the Ukrainian President’s Office and our Minister for Foreign Affairs with their American counterparts.
This rule must remain unwavering as regards other diplomatic contacts, too.
RUSSIA HAS NO RIGHT TO SCHOOL UKRAINE OR NATO
- But during such negotiations, Russia puts forwaed direct ultimatums, for example, demanding guarantees against further eastward expansion by NATO. The West declares its readiness to discuss such "concerns." Where’s Ukraine's position on such ultimatums here and how is it being taken into account?
- Over the years of war, Ukrainians have developed a stable immunity to all sorts of allegations voiced by the Russian Federation. The demand to draw new red lines in Europe and prevent NATO enlargement to the east is yet another point in Russia's guidebook of "boogeyman stories" about NATO.
By committing an act of aggression against Ukraine, Russia has deprived itself of any moral right to come forward with advice, let alone ultimatums. The NATO secretary general voiced the same position when he said Ukraine's future membership in the Alliance was a matter of political will of 30 NATO Allies and Ukraine, and that no third party had the right to influence it. That’s where we stand.
RUSSIA IS NOT INTERESTED IN ENDING CONFLICT WITH UKRAINE
- But the very fact that America agrees to negotiations under military pressure provokes Putin to pursue such blackmail. The Kremlin doesn’t seem to be asking for the right to offer advice – it is imposing it by force. Biden has already expressed readiness to discuss with Russia the latter’s "security concerns" in the presence of a select few NATO members. What can be on the table? In this context, does Ukraine have any room left for compromise?
- Russia has been pursuing its blackmail not only on our borders and not only through threats of direct military aggression. Russia is attacking on several fronts. Gas blackmail is being used to "heat up tensions." An insane propaganda campaign involving disinformation about Ukraine continues. Russia is actively imposing an idea that the West is weak, that it won’t be able to support Ukraine, limiting itself to words.
I believe that the Russian Federation is just as wrong as it was in 2014, when they refused to believe that the West would impose sanctions. The fact that European partners have agreed to develop a package of possible actions against Russia in the event of aggression is a very big step forward.
As for the statements about the possibility of the West launching dialogue with Moscow, I suggest we not make a tragedy out of it too early, instead assuming that the content of such talks is a key factor in determining our attitude to dialogue with Russia.
Ukraine is proving with real action that it supports a diplomatic settlement of the conflict with Russia. This is confirmed by our attempts to revive the Normandy format and fill the negotiations in the Minsk format with practical content. Instead, Russia is sabotaging both platforms, supplying manpower and weapons to the occupied Donbas, handing out Russian passports en masse, and ensuring the illegal participation of Ukrainian citizens in Russian elections.
This is clear evidence that Russia is not interested in resolving this conflict. It aims to nourish a permanent source of conflict in our territory, which will be sucking all juices out of us – human, financial, and moral. The Kremlin's goal is obvious – to hinder at any cost Ukraine's integration into the EU and NATO.
THE OBJECTIVE IS TO MEET THE CRITERIA FOR NATO MEMBERSHIP
- But, frankly, Ukraine's desire to join the Alliance has never seen full support of all NATO Allies. Now, against the background of the Russian ultimatum, is it worth mentioning the issue of an MAP for Ukraine? Can we expect anything of this kind from the next NATO summit in Madrid?
- We are aware that our integration into NATO is taking place amid harsh rhetoric and opposition from the Kremlin. Moreover, this rhetoric is aimed at Russian citizens, on whom a myth is being actively imposed of an aggressive NATO bloc that threatens Russia's security.
Secondly, the future of Ukraine-NATO relations is a political decision to be taken by the 30 Allies and Ukraine. I won’t hide this: currently, there is no consensus among the Allies on granting Ukraine the MAP. Among the reasons are fears of escalation by Russia.
But for us, these circumstances change nothing. The decision of the NATO Bucharest Summit (2008 - ed.) stipulates that Ukraine will one day become a member of NATO, and a step in this direction will be to provide the MAP for the country. This decision was reaffirmed in the final document of this year's Brussels Summit.
So there’s commitment on the part of the Alliance. Also, there’s Ukraine’s priority, laid down in the Constitution, to become a member of the EU and NATO. We must work hard to achieve this goal, despite warnings coming from the Russian Federation.
With regard to the expectations of next year's NATO Summit in Madrid, it should see the adoption of a new NATO Strategic Concept that would set out the Alliance's main benchmarks and priorities for the coming decade. It is important for Ukraine to see in this document a confirmation of the Alliance's open door policy towards partners such as Ukraine.
RUSSIA THROWS ITS INTERNATIONAL COMMITMENTS INTO A TRASH BIN
- I might be wrong but it seems that in this "staring game" with Russia, the West was the first to blink. That’s because the West has things to lose, while Russians often see no value in their own lives. One of the demands Russia has put forward concerns the denunciation of the Bucharest Summit commitments regarding the future membership of Ukraine and Georgia. Did NATO partners try to somehow test Ukraine's attitude to such a plot?
- There is no such discussion within NATO and there can’t be any: all decisions and final documents of the summits are not subject to revision.
I believe our northern neighbors didn’t actually expect that in response to their so-called “concerns,” Allies would agree to provide Moscow with some documentary security guarantees. Rather, the expectation was that the threat of a direct military invasion of Ukraine would force the United States to enter into a direct dialogue with Putin. And they did achieve this goal. In fact, we see typical Russian behavior – to raise the stakes to the skies, bring the situation to a standstill, and then strike a pose and declare their readiness to negotiate.
Let us recall the Budapest Memorandum, signed by the Russian Federation, and the Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation between Ukraine and Russia, which recognized the inviolability of borders. It is Russia that has thrown its international obligations into the trash bin. And now they are starting to school the Alliance up to where exactly the latter’s borders should stretch.
NATO HELPS UKRAINE DAILY IN ARMED FORCES REFORM AND CAPACITY DEVELOPMENT
- According to certain signs though, a number of our partners from the Alliance would not mind seeing Ukraine as a kind of buffer. Systemic objections to the MAP and Ukraine's membership in NATO only confirm this assumption. Was it any surprise to you to hear from Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg that Ukraine is only a partner for NATO, so the Alliance will not defend it as it would any of the Allies?
- The secretary general didn’t say anything unexpected in his statement. Indeed, we are a partner country, we’re not yet a member of the Alliance. Accordingly, we can’t count on the troops of NATO Allies to join us in repelling Russian aggression on our territory. This is the reality we are working with today.
However, this does not mean that the Alliance doesn’t have in its arsenal the means to help Ukraine. All NATO Allies, with some exceptions, are also members of the EU. This means there’s a possibility of developing a strong sanctions package in case of Russian aggression, proposals for which were presented by our Minister (Foreign Minister of Ukraine Dmytro Kuleba - ed.) at a NATO foreign ministerial in Riga.
In addition, NATO provides strong military and political support to Ukraine, both at the Allied and at the bilateral levels, from advisory assistance to the supply of equipment and weapons at the bilateral level. NATO helps us every day when Allied warships enter the Black Sea, when NATO instructors train our troops, when they help reform Ukraine's Armed Forces.
We should not be upset by the fact that NATO will not fight for us and instead of us. Instead, we should take advantage of all the opportunities offered by practical cooperation with NATO to boost our defense capabilities.
RUSSIAN THREATS HAVE NOT REDUCED THE LEVEL OF COOPERATION BETWEEN UKRAINE AND NATO
- How has the current situation with Russia affected the practical military cooperation between Ukraine and the Alliance? There was once an idea to increase the number of NATO training centers in Ukraine and even move them closer to the eastern borders. What about now?
- Russia's armed aggression has not in any way worsened our cooperation with NATO, and in some areas it has even become an additional stimulus. For example, this applies to sharing experience in combating hybrid threats. We live in a time when it is not necessary to deploy troops or use tanks to destabilize a country. Cyberterrorism, for example, brings no less destructive effects. Ukraine has gained some experience in countering such threats, which is of interest to Allies.
As for the conduct of various exercises and trainings on Ukrainian territory, we will increase their number, as required by the EOP status. We are also working to increase the presence of our officers in NATO bodies, where possible. At the same time, we need to reach a new level of relations, for example, in the exchange of confidential data. As recent events in Ukraine have shown, this topic is extremely relevant.
IN CONFRONTATION WITH RUSSIA, WE SHOULD RELY ON OURSELVES FIRST
- What do you think Ukraine should prepare for in the coming weeks and months?
- The years of armed confrontation with the Russian Federation have taught us important lessons, and one of them is to rely on our own strength. In my contacts with my NATO counterparts, I always make it clear that Ukraine is not intimidated, there is no panic or frustration. Because today we are much stronger: we have a highly combat-ready Army that is ready to defend the country.
But this doesn't mean we need this war. And this doesn’t mean that the West should calmly observe the developments and rejoice that Ukraine can stand up for itself.
Together, we have to prevent aggression, develop a tough package of countermeasures that would be really painful for the Russian economy. We expect effective military support from our Western partners, including the supply of weapons for effective defense.
Such actions by western powers can destroy Russia's narrative of a "weak West" and, above all, convince the Kremlin leadership that the West is determined to stop another war in Europe and will not succumb to Russian blackmail.
Dmytro Shkurko, Brussels
Photo: Ukraine's Mission to NATO