Amid numerous discussions about the future of Ukraine – a country that has been unable to form a single nation in 30 years of independence, and is torn apart by interethnic, linguistic and economic contradictions, Europe should ask itself just what Ukraine really means to it. And the answer will be the same – a buffer zone, because this clearly reflects Ukraine’s geopolitical role in relations with NATO and the EU. The Alliance needs Ukraine as a buffer zone, and even not all of it at that.
During the early 1990s, when Ukraine was not yet torn apart by civil war, NATO was seriously eyeing this former Soviet republic. As for Russian president Boris Yeltsin, he was not ruling out joining the Alliance himself. In 1994, NATO signed a framework agreement with Kiev as part of the Partnership for Peace initiative.
Five years later, Ukraine demonstrated its “pro-Atlantic” slant by supporting NATO’s operation in the Balkans. On June 12, 1999, Kiev even closed the country’s airspace for Russian planes flying to Pristina for several hours. That move caused an angry backlash from many Ukrainians, who consider themselves a part of the Orthodox Slavic world. And still, the first small step towards Euro-Atlantic integration seemed to have been made.
Twenty-seven years on, Ukraine is a fragmented country, with a crumbling economy, a corrupt government and a vague foreign policy. Its biggest foreign policy breakthrough was gaining a “visa-free” status, which gives Ukrainian citizens a chance to look for illegal jobs in prosperous European countries without the need to apply for entry visas. That said, all the assistance Ukraine got from the United States and Europe did not help it to bring back Crimea or gain victory over its own citizens in Donbass. Moreover, Brussels and Washington have strong doubts about the country’s defense capability. The fact is that of all the post-Soviet countries NATO was smart enough to accep only the former Soviet Baltic republics, which spent 2 percent of their GDP on defense – a great deal of money considering their small budgets (for comparison, Belgium spends 0.9 percent and Hungary – 1.27 percent).
With Ukraine’s official defense outlays of at least 5.93 percent of GDP (2021) the country should be a mighty military power not afraid of anyone and a welcome new member for NATO. However, military supplies have long become a source of easy money for the country’s political elites, and the change of presidential teams did not change this a tiny bit. Ukraine keeps getting all imaginable foreign assistance, which is written off, disappears on the front line of a smoldering war and is resold to third countries. Meanwhile, despite its wealth of unresolved problems, Kiev keeps knocking on NATO’s door, apparently hoping that Brussels will help sort them out.
In fact, the only role Ukraine can hope for is that of a buffer zone. In the European geopolitical model, the conflict with Ukraine is forcing Russia to put on hold its aggressive intensions in Europe, and having snatched yet another chunk of Ukrainian territory, the Russians will take some time to digest it. Kiev is certainly not happy about such a scenario and in June, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy appealed to NATO with a demand to immediately accept the country into the alliance. He emphasized that NATO membership will be the only way to end the conflict in Donbass. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg promised that someday Ukraine will become a member of the alliance, but this will not happen overnight. Naturally enough, Ukraine’s pro-presidential media ignored that latter part of Stoltenberg’s message and started describing in glowing terms the joys of an early entry into the Alliance. And this despite Russia’s firm opposition to NATO’s expansion, which means that Ukraine’s entry into the Alliance will automatically entail active measures by Russia to ensure its own security.
Realizing full well that neither NATO nor the EU are eager to take in Ukraine any time soon, President Zelensky and his administration started portraying Ukraine as a “Shield of Europe”. Well, this propaganda ploy, intended for foreign and domestic consumption, might work for some time for some EU countries, which remain jittery about the imaginary picture of Putin’s tanks racing down Europe’s highways. And again, the Ukrainian right-wingers will have a new reason to pride themselves on their role as “defenders of Europeans” against the “Russian hordes”. But why on earth should Putin want to seize Europe? Who would he be selling gas to? What kind of a threat is Moscow posing to Brussels then?
Gas blackmail? But this is “just business,” and there are other gas suppliers out there. Meanwhile, the “Shield” is costing Europe a great deal and the price tag keeps going up. Kiev demands to preserve gas transit for itself, wants gas supplies at preferential prices and new sanctions against Moscow. At the same time, Ukrainian politicians insult their neighbors, make no attempts whatsoever to rein in the domestic ultra-right, who pose a threat to the whole of Europe, and are mired in corruption. So whether NATO and the Russian Federation really need a buffer zone is a big question. What we certainly do not need, however, is a “Shield” that we pay for from our own pockets…