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Edging erratically forward

James Sherr examines NATO-Ukraine relations and Ukraine's aspirations for integration into Euro-Atlantic institutions via the prism of defence reform.

Looking to NATO: The sustainability of defence reform would be in doubt without the NATO-Ukraine relationship (© NATO)

Ukraine's integration into Euro-Atlantic security structures and the transformation of its national security system have become indivisible pursuits. For the dedicated professionals who work in these domains, they have also become all-consuming issues. Yet in each area, progress entails a struggle against Soviet legacies and mentalities, a demoralising financial climate and the continual intrusions of domestic politics. Progress is real and palpable, in some areas striking. But is it enough? Inside Ukraine's Armed Forces, the dynamics of modernisation, stagnation and decay are still precariously balanced. In some other branches of the security sector, the spirit of reform has yet to emerge. Until the corner is turned, until reform is visible, comprehensive and sustained, Ukraine will not be integrated within itself, let alone with Europe.

Progress has been driven by two impulses. The first is Ukrainian national interest. The second is the NATO-Ukraine relationship.

In 1991, Ukraine inherited armed forces designed to prosecute general war under somebody else's direction and against states that are now partners. It also inherited powerful security forces designed to protect a totalitarian system from domestic opponents, not to say civil society itself. A critical mass of state officials, security professionals and independent experts understand the importance of overcoming this legacy. They know that unless Ukraine's military and security forces are transformed in function, capability and ethos, not only will they be unable to address new security challenges, they may actually damage national security. Today, Ukraine is not threatened by those who would attack it, but by those who would undermine it. Poorly trained, under-financed and discontented armed forces, security and law-enforcement bodies not only create temptations to undermine it; they furnish accomplices and instruments for that enterprise.

These insights and apprehensions were expressed in Ukraine's first National Security Concept, drafted by the analytical staff of the National Security and Defence Council (NSDC) under the leadership of its then secretary, Volodymyr Horbulin, and adopted by the Verkhovna Rada (parliament) in January 1997. The Concept assaulted the general war ethos (which had been inbred in Ukraine's Soviet-trained officer corps) by stipulating that in conditions where both state and society were weak, the prime security challenge would be to forestall and resolve local crises, emergencies and conflicts and prevent them from being exploited by actors - internal and foreign - with ulterior political motives. Proceeding from this analysis, the Concept identified the "strengthening of civil society" as the first of nine national security challenges for Ukraine. In June 2003, the Rada adopted an updated and far more detailed document, the Law on Foundations of National Security, which is the product of extensive interagency work. Less concise than its predecessor, it is still a bold and often revealing document, giving due attention to the connections between a distorted economy, dysfunctional bureaucracies, criminality and threats to the state. It is critical of the performance of the state and, by implication, many who wield power within it. Both national security documents emphasise that reform is an imperative for the entire security sector, not the Armed Forces alone.

Yet it is the Armed Forces that have been the most reformist. Even so, reform has come in stages, each of them beset by collisions with vested interests and economic reality. The most dramatic period of transformation occurred immediately after the country became independent when, in defiance of gloomy Western prognoses, troops of the former Soviet Armed Forces, Interior Ministry and KGB numbering 1.4 million men were substantially reduced and thoroughly resubordinated - all without conflict and upheaval. This undertaking was a contribution to European order second only to the country's unilateral nuclear disarmament. But it was an early and finite contribution, not an ongoing and dynamic one.

Reform dynamic

Not until December 1999 was such a dynamic launched. Following his re-election as president, Leonid Kuchma appointed an interagency group on defence reform, co-chaired by then Defence Minister Army General Oleksandr Kuzmuk and then NSDC Secretary Yevhen Marchuk (who became defence minister on 25 June this year). The result of its deliberations was a State Programme of Armed Forces Reform and Development 2001-2005, which was approved by President Kuchma on 28 July 2000.

The State Programme outlined a command and force structure far more consistent with genuine security challenges than its 1996 predecessor. But on force reduction, the sine qua non of sustainable reform, the State Programme was disappointing. In January 2001, Ukraine's Armed Forces numbered 310,000 servicemen and 90,000 civilians. By 2005, these were to be reduced to 295,000 servicemen and 80,000 civilians. To proponents of far-reaching reform, these were depressing figures. Moreover, while the State Programme rightly placed its emphasis on Forward Defence Forces (with a large rapid reaction component), it also maintained a requirement for a larger component of Main Defence Forces and Strategic Reserve Forces, as well as an astonishingly large inventory of tanks, armoured fighting vehicles and artillery pieces. If in some respects, this force structure was suited to a country against which "the use of full-scale military force. has little probability", in other respects it clearly was not. Just as clearly, the projected force structure remained at variance with economic reality, as many NATO and Ukrainian experts were quick to emphasise.

Unless Ukraine's military and security forces are transformed, they may actually damage national security

Fairly swiftly, this combination of cold economics and expert criticism began to have an effect. By January 2002, Defence Minister Kuzmuk's successor, Army General Volodymyr Shkidchenko had revised projected equipment holdings downward by more than 30 per cent. During that year, the Programme was also supplemented by two more radical and promising documents, the Concept of the Armed Forces 2010 and the State Programme of Armed Forces Transition Towards Manning on a Contract Basis. Moreover, deep reductions are finally becoming a reality and Ukraine is now studying possibilities to reduce the armed forces more steeply and in a shorter timeframe. Predictions are rarely wise, even outside Ukraine, but the Defence Review, based on a carefully considered geopolitical assessment, is likely to produce a realistic framework for sustainable development and reform once it has been completed in June 2004.

Without reform's second impulse, the NATO-Ukraine relationship, its sustainability would be open to greater question. Most analysts consider the turning point in this relationship to have been the signing of the Charter on a Distinctive Partnership at the Madrid Summit in July 1997. However, the issue is more complex. On the one hand, well before conclusion of the Charter the scale and intensity of cooperation with Ukraine had become unprecedented in NATO's relationships with a non-member state, not to say a state that (before 2002) did not officially aspire to NATO membership. On the other, in terms of substance and reform, the crucial turning point arose with President Kuchma's decree on defence reform in December 1999. In previous years, Ukraine had essentially regarded NATO as a vehicle through which it could build closer links with Europe - hence largely in political terms - and the menu of NATO-Ukraine activities lacked a clear direction and theme. After 1999, the scheme of cooperation acquired military-technical definition and focus, in the words of Defence Minister Kuzmuk, "to support defence reform in the country". Consistent with this maxim, the State Programme of Armed Forces Reform and Development 2001-2005 was submitted to NATO Headquarters for review at the same time as it was submitted to President Kuchma.

From that point forward, the Joint Working Group on Defence Reform established under the Charter became the working organ of cooperation and the fulcrum of the relationship. Within this framework, Ukraine identified National Defence Reform Objectives for review by NATO, and the overall relationship became one of structured audit and consultation, supported and to an important extent guided by the NATO Liaison Office in Kyiv.

Ukraine has participated in the Planning and Review Process of the Partnership for Peace since its inception in 1994. Whereas the original focus was on units declared available for NATO-led PfP activities, Ukraine decided in autumn 2000 to use this planning tool in support of its defence reform efforts and its application was gradually extended to include all armed forces subordinated to the Defence Ministry. These have been astonishing developments for a military establishment which only recently regarded transparency as a threat to departmental interests and national security. These developments have also been reinforced from below. Almost 20,000 Ukrainian servicemen have participated in peace-support activities, the majority of them under NATO leadership. In addition, the officer educational system is being recast in a Euro-Atlantic direction, with blocks of NATO familiarisation courses and emphasis on local conflicts and peacekeeping, rather than general war. These steps form much of the background to Ukraine's May 2002 decision to pursue NATO membership as its long-term objective. They also explain much of the substance of the NATO-Ukraine Action Plan, which has come about as a direct consequence of the May 2002 declaration and NATO-Ukraine discussions in November 2002 in Prague. Taken together, these developments are producing a significant cultural change in the defence establishment.

But the change has yet to take hold of the country, almost 30 per cent of whose citizens perceive NATO as an "aggressive military bloc". Neither has it fully penetrated all relevant governmental departments, which approach Euro-Atlantic integration without sufficient coordination and with different degrees of understanding. These two challenges, which have long preoccupied Yevhen Marchuk and his deputy at the NSDC, Serhiy Pyrozhkov, have been directly entrusted to the newly formed Centre for Euro-Atlantic Integration, directed by Volodymyr Horbulin (former NSDC Secretary) and attached to the Presidential Administration. At an analytical level, issues of coordination and information are also addressed by the National Institute of Strategic Studies (which has several regional branches) and at least two highly influential non-governmental organisations: the Institute for Euro-Atlantic Integration (directed by former foreign minister, Borys Tarasyuk) and the Razumkov Centre (directed by the former head of the NSDC analytical staff, Anatoliy Grytsenko). Complementing these efforts, the NATO Information and Documentation Centre, which has existed in Kyiv since 1997, has focused much more of its effort on regions where NATO is unpopular and poorly understood.

Defence reform is no longer a slogan in Ukraine. It is reality. Its future, however, remains a matter of deep uncertainty. Unless there is a breakthrough on two fronts, the future is more likely to arouse scepticism than hope.


The first obstacle is finance. The defence budget has grown within the past three years and now stands at about 1.8 per cent of GDP. Although a presidential decree stipulates that the budget should be set at a level equal to three per cent of GDP, the current figure is not inconsiderable, given the level of spending in other European countries. But there are additional factors to take into consideration.

According to Georgii Kriuchkov, chairman of the Rada's Standing Commission on Security and Defence: "We cannot maintain because there is not enough money, yet in order to reduce them we also need money." This is because career service personnel cannot be released into the civilian economy without offers of jobs and housing. Moreover, both base closures and the disposal of surplus equipment cost money. Hence, without a considerable increase in resources, the cycle by which force reductions release funds to create a smaller, professional army cannot be set in motion.

Moreover, however many presidential decrees are signed, adequate funding will not be available without economic reform in the country. The key test of reform is whether it provides the incentives and guarantees needed to coax Ukrainian business into the legal (and taxable) economy. This will not happen as long as property rights are undefended, as long as the judiciary itself is "practically defenceless", as long as employees in law enforcement are impoverished and as long as local bureaucrats behave like private entrepreneurs rather than public servants. The NATO-Ukraine Action Plan emphasises these issues even more than issues of military capability, not only because they matter in their own right, but also because military capabilities will remain deficient until they are confronted.

The second obstacle is the security sector outside the jurisdiction of the Defence Ministry. Whereas the collapse of the Soviet Union and its centralised Defence Ministry and General Staff left behind armies of "ruins and debris", in the case of security and law-enforcement bodies, it left behind coherent structures and the mentalities and practices that came with them. While not all of this sector is obstructionist, the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) and the Interior Ministry, which not only controls internal troops and ordinary police but a number of specialised formations, remain problematic.

NATO was originally slow to recognise this problem. The Partnership for Peace initially focused only on the integration of national armed forces. Only in December 2000 was reform of interior forces and border troops placed on the agenda of NATO-Ukraine cooperation, and such cooperation did not become an open subject of discussion with the SBU until after the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001. The result has been the formation of a schizophrenic security culture in Ukraine. Whereas the Armed Forces have become accustomed to transparency, even intrusiveness, the latter structures are ill at ease with democratic scrutiny and oversight and do not provide parliament with a full breakdown of their budgets, expenditures, sources of finance and staffing levels, not to say schemes of command, recruitment and training. The Law on Counterintelligence, adopted in December 2002 is, by Euro-Atlantic standards, disturbingly permissive in its definitions of powers, authority and threats. This is not to say that everyone of influence inside these structures regard these standards with suspicion, but it is open to question whether their influence and that of outsiders will overcome institutional resistance.

The resignation of Defence Minister Shkidchenko on 20 June was potentially worrying for both the reform process and the NATO-Ukraine relationship. Shkidchenko was an exceptional individual by any standards: a thorough professional who secured the loyalty of his subordinates as well as the trust of outsiders, not least the military establishments of NATO countries. However, the appointment of Yevhen Marchuk as Shkidchenko's replacement five days later augurs well. Marchuk not only made NATO-Ukraine cooperation the defining theme of the NSDC during his 20-month tenure there, but also, along with Shkidchenko, was one of the two principal motors driving defence reform. Despite the discouraging political climate - likely to become even more discouraging as the November 2004 presidential elections approach - Marchuk has a decisive attribute. As a former deputy prime minister, acting prime minister and prime minister (between June 1995 and May 1996), he has unrivalled experience of senior state service. As a prominent civilian since the demise of the Soviet Union, he is able to stand up to civilians in a way that might be misinterpreted if coming from a military officer. Yet he also has the contacts and experience to secure the interagency support that is now so critical to defence reform. If, despite the intrusions of the political process, Marchuk succeeds in driving defence reform forward and achieving clear progress, Ukrainians will almost certainly be looking to NATO for an even closer relationship.

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