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Ukraine takes step toward joining NATO

 A protester confronted police on Tuesday near Ukraine’s Parliament as lawmakers voted on the measure.
A protester confronted police on Tuesday near Ukraine’s Parliament as lawmakers voted on the measure.GENYA SAVILOV/AFP/Getty Images

MOSCOW — The Ukrainian Parliament voted Tuesday to abandon its nonaligned-nation status, a major step toward joining NATO. It was a pointed rebuke to Russia, which is accused of a separatist insurgency that is gripping eastern Ukraine.

The Parliament, called the Verkhovna Rada, voted overwhelmingly, 303 to 8, to repeal a 2010 law that codified a policy of “nonalignment” and to instead pursue closer military and strategic ties with the West.

Former president Viktor Yanukovych, who was toppled in February after months of huge street protests in Kiev, the capital, pushed through the 2010 law shortly after he took office. Yanukovych fled to Russia after he lost power.

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The 2010 law defined nonalignment as “nonparticipation of Ukraine in the military-political alliances.”

The revised law, which was a priority of President Petro Poroshenko, requires Ukraine to “deepen cooperation with NATO in order to achieve the criteria required for membership in this organization.”

For now, it still seems unlikely that Ukraine will join NATO any time soon, in part because of Russia’s opposition.

Five NATO countries — Norway, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland — now share relatively short borders on Russia’s western outskirts, totaling about 780 miles. Adding Ukraine’s 900-mile border with Russia to that would move the alliance’s eastward flank substantially, and put it roughly on the same longitude as Moscow.

In addition, Ukraine also has an underfunded military that has been battered by the war with the separatists and its economy is in peril. Ukraine has much to overcome to achieve the stability that the alliance seeks in members.

Russia has denied repeatedly that it set off the separatist violence in eastern Ukraine, but in recent months it has also made clear that preventing Ukraine from seeking NATO membership is one of its top goals. In November, President Vladimir Putin’s personal spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, told the BBC: “We would like to hear a 100 percent guarantee that no one would think about Ukraine’s joining NATO.”

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Speaking to reporters in Moscow on Tuesday, the Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, sharply criticized Ukraine’s vote.

“This is counterproductive,” Lavrov said. “It only pumps up confrontation, and creates the illusion that by passing such laws it is possible to settle a deep domestic crisis within Ukraine.”

Repeating Russia’s longstanding contention that Yanukovych was ousted in an unconstitutional overthrow, Lavrov added: “A much more productive and sensible path is to start at last a dialogue with that part of their own people, which has been completely ignored since the state coup was carried out. There is no other way. Only constitutional reform, with participation of all regions and political forces of Ukraine, can give a correct tone.”

Russia has called repeatedly for a new, federalized system of government in Ukraine, which would expand the powers of regional officials. Poroshenko and his allies have been unwilling to create powerful regional governments, which might be more loyal to Moscow than Kiev. Instead, they have been drawing up a decentralization plan that would increase the authority of local officials.

In a move to counter the influence of NATO, Russia on Tuesday finalized a new economic alliance with other former Soviet nations it had vainly hoped Ukraine would join. The Eurasian Economic Union, which comprises Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Armenia, and Kyrgyzstan, will come into existence on Jan. 1. In addition to free trade, the group would coordinate the members’ financial systems and regulate their industrial and agricultural policies along with labor markets and transportation networks.

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The new alliance, however, immediately showed signs of fracture, as the leader of Belarus sharply criticized Moscow for damaging his country’s economic interests.

Belarus, sandwiched between Russia and European Union members Poland and Lithuania, has profited handsomely from Moscow’s ban on imports of EU food in retaliation to Western sanctions against Russia by boosting imports of food from EU nations and reselling it to Russia.

The Russian authorities have retaliated by halting imports of Belarus’s own milk and meat, citing alleged sanitary reasons, and banning transit of Byelorussian food bound for Kazakhstan through its territory on suspicion that much of it ended up in Russia.

‘‘In violation of all international norms, we have faced a ban on transit,’’ Lukashenko said. ‘‘It was done in a unilateral way and without any consultations.’’

Amid the Ukrainian crisis, Russia cannot afford losing Belarus, a major political and military ally. Lukashenko also knows that Russia needs him as the host of Ukrainian peace talks.


Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.