Late last week, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko unexpectedly announced that Ukraine would hold a referendum on the country’s NATO membership, presumably in the near future. Ukraine-based journalist and Lenta.ru contributor Nikolai Podgorny has laid out the many reasons why the initiative is ludicrous.
Last week, during his visit to Germany, Poroshenko told the Berliner Morgenpost newspaper that the government would stage a referendum on whether Ukraine should join the North Atlantic Alliance. Kiev’s plans to hold a plebiscite on the issue are nothing new – over the last two years, Poroshenko repeatedly promised to do so sometime during the next half-decade. Still, last week’s did cause a mild stir, with observers wondering where exactly the president expected to get support for his ambitious plans.
In his own detailed analysis of the issue, Lenta.ru contributor Nikolai Podgorny pointed out that Poroshenko has supported Ukraine’s NATO membership long before he became president, and even before the Maidan coup. “He actively worked in this area even when he was Ukraine’s foreign minister under President Viktor Yushchenko between 2009 and 2010,” the journalist wrote.
Back then, Podgorny recalled, Poroshenko confidently argued that Kiev could join the alliance in as little as “one to two years,” particularly if it found the necessary “political will” and public support. President Yushchenko, incidentally, never did find support for his pro-Western political, economic and military policy, and left office with an approval rating of 3%. At the time, less than a fifth of Ukrainians supported their country’s membership in the alliance.
Following his victory in the 2014 snap presidential elections, organized following the ouster of President Viktor Yanukovych in February of that year, Poroshenko returned to his Yushchenko-era agenda. However, according to Podgorny, “he very quickly realized that Ukraine’s accession to NATO, even in “the new geopolitical environment, was not something that could become a reality.”
“The NATO summit in Wales, held in September 2014, was an important moment for Poroshenko,” the journalist noted. “The Ukrainian leader, attending the summit in person, counted on using the theme of ‘Russian aggression’ in the Donbass to squeeze the maximum possible benefit out of the situation and to obtain a ‘special status’ for Ukraine in the alliance. However, nothing came of it. Poroshenko was patted on the back, assured of support, and promised the ridiculous sum of €15 million in assistance.”
The shock from this summit contributed to Kiev’s decision to hold off on plans to revoke its non-aligned status, according to Podgorny. “It may sound shocking, but the parliament, and then Poroshenko himself, formally revoked the status only in December 2014 – that is, over half a year after the president’s inauguration. It was at that time that Poroshenko laid out the time frame for Ukraine’s NATO membership, saying that in the best possible circumstances, Kiev would be able to meet the alliance’s criteria no earlier than 2020.”
In his interviews since then, Poroshenko hinted that the process could take even longer, accounting for the “deep reforms” that were needed at all levels of Ukrainian politics and society first. “Having outlined the country’s direction, the head of state rarely returned to the subject between 2015 and 2016, even if he continued to say at every opportunity that NATO membership was an immutable strategic goal for Kiev.” the journalist added.
It’s with that in mind that Poroshenko’s comments for German media last week came as a surprise, Podgorny said. Poroshenko did not offer specific dates, but the subtext left no doubt that he was talking about the near future. “In the interview, Poroshenko also cited statistics which said that four years ago, only 16% of Ukrainians supported the idea of their country joining NATO; now, this figure was 54%.”
“There’s something worth thinking about here,” the journalist noted. “Ukraine will hold its next presidential elections in 2019. In other words, Poroshenko, noting his readiness to organize a referendum, or to move it forward dramatically, either believes that he has the election in his pocket, or is talking about holding it during his next term.” Accounting for his uncertain approval ratings, which slipped to just above single digits last year, both scenarios “look doubtful, to put it mildly,” according to Podgorny.
Nor is it a certainty that Poroshenko would get the necessary 50% in the referendum, the journalist added. “It’s obvious that under the influence of a massive wave of anti-Russian and pro-Western propaganda which Ukraine’s population has been subjected to over the last few years, the number of people supporting the alliance has increased, and even exceeded those who oppose it. It’s also clear that Poroshenko found it absolutely critical to tell Western media that over 50%, that is, an absolute rather than a relative majority of the population, support the initiative.”
However, the president’s words don’t match opinion polling, Podgorny noted. Last year, several opinion polls by firms generally loyal to the government, including the Kiev International Institute of Sociology and the RATING polling organization, found that only between 39-43% of Ukrainians supported joining NATO, whereas 29-31% were firmly opposed, with the rest undecided.
Finally, even if Poroshenko’s figures were correct, and 54% did support joining the Western alliance, that would still leave roughly half of the country in opposition. “It’s no secret that attitudes toward NATO vary greatly by region: firm support in the west meets with sharp rejection in the east and south. Poroshenko has to understand the consequences of ignoring the opinion of half of the country in pushing through the ‘correct’ result,” Podgorny noted.
Western politicians have yet to offer their take on Poroshenko’s sensational comments. Their position on the matter was made perfectly clear over the last year with repeated statements to the effect that Ukraine’s membership is not even up for discussion, the journalist noted. “Speaking bluntly, the fact is that there’s simply no one in the alliance waiting for Ukraine, and this is something Kiev generally understands.”
With this in mind, Podgorny noted that Poroshenko’s words are probably little more than an attempt to draw media attention from the country’s many political and socio-economic problems, as well as the intensifying war in eastern Ukraine, where the Ukrainian army has faced heavy losses around the town of Avdiivka in the last week.
“In the broader sense, Poroshenko may be trying to start the first steps for his presidential campaign, and mobilizing the ‘patriotic’ part of the electorate around him,” the journalist suggested. “Under such a plan, he could connect the referendum to the 2019 elections in the hope that Ukrainians will support both NATO membership and the politician that organized the referendum.”
“The plan is risky, but Poroshenko’s position has to be understood, Podgorny stressed. “What else can he do, if he wants to stay in his post, but has no political, economic or social victories to speak of?”
In any case, the journalist pointed out that Ukraine’s current cooperation with NATO is already at levels which are ‘unprecedented’ in Ukrainian history. The alliance is busily engaged training Ukrainian troops and security personnel, is playing a key role in military reforms, and periodically hints at the delivery of lethal weapons to the country. “Moreover, NATO has full-fledged representation in Kiev, giving parliament ‘valuable guidance’ on which laws should be passed, and how.”
With all of this in mind, the obvious question that comes to mind is: What sense is there in NATO risking accepting a war-torn and instability-prone country like Ukraine into the alliance, when it already enjoys a strong presence in the country, all without any actual responsibilities for defense if things go downhill?