Ukrainian Think Tanks Liaison Office in Brussels

Ukrainian society is increasingly supporting the idea of Ukraine’s accession to NATO as a mechanism for guaranteeing national security. Over recent years a dynamic growth in the level of such support has been observed in all regions of Ukraine without exception. At the same time, such support does not prevail in all the regions: residents of the East and South continue to remain more skeptical regarding the prospects of Euro-Atlantic integration than residents of the West and Center of Ukraine which in truth does not give grounds to speak of the sustainable interregional consensus in support of the Euro-Atlantic vector of integration in Ukraine. It is quite obvious that the overall situation in regard to security and the prospects of regulating the conflict in the Donbas, the effectiveness of cooperation with the Alliance and the readiness of the latter to meet halfway on the Euro-Atlantic aspirations of official Kyiv will have an impact on the stability of the current indicators of support for NATO.

The possibility of maintaining the current level of support of NATO (or the expansion and “leveling off” of the base of this support between the regions) will depend on a proper understanding the motivations of support or opposition to the North Atlantic Alliance in Ukrainian society as well as devising an effective information policy on NATO which would best correlate with the respective motivations and inquiries of society.

In June 2017, the support of NATO in Ukraine reached a record-high indicator – 47%. The results of a nationwide polling conducted by the Ilko Kucheriv Democratic Initiatives Foundation (DIF) jointly with the Razumkov Centre testify to this. Thus, one can affirm that practically every second resident of Ukraine considered NATO membership to be the best option for guaranteeing national security.

Such a level of support of NATO among Ukrainian citizens was difficult to fathom some five years ago when, according to data of sociological studies, only one-eighth of the residents of Ukraine at best (13%) gave preference to the corresponding variant of guaranteeing national security. Moreover, in 2012 the option of Ukraine’s joining NATO was notably less popular than the idea of Ukraine’s non-aligned status (42%) and was two times less popular among Ukrainians than the support of a military union with Russia and other CIS countries (26%).

Undoubtedly, the Russian military aggression in the East of Ukraine in 2014 became the turning point in the transformation of public opinion regarding NATO over the entire history of Ukraine’s independence. It was precisely from that point on that a notable growth in the support of the idea of Ukraine’s accession to the Alliance was observed: 33% in support of NATO was reached in May 2014, while in September of that same year already 44% of Ukrainians were among the proponents of the country’s joining the North Atlantic Alliance.

Support of NATO in Ukraine: what is hidden behind the numbers? Assuming that aspirations in favour of Euro-Atlantic integration will continue, it is quite important to understand as best as possible the underlying reasoning that pushed Ukrainians to support NATO starting from 2014 and motivates them to support the Alliance today. Equally important is to understand the factors that stimulate or limit the potential of further growth in public support of the Euro-Atlantic aspirations of Ukraine, in particular, the hidden phobias and widespread stereotypes of NATO, the overall level of awareness of Ukrainians about this organization as well as those principles underpinning its functioning.

One of the latest sociological studies conducted by the Ilko Kucheriv Democratic Initiatives Foundation (DIF) was targeted precisely on studying the aforementioned motivational aspects of NATO support in Ukraine and, on the contrary, the origin of the bias of Ukrainians regarding the North Atlantic Alliance.

The results of the study, in general, confirm the fact that among the overwhelming majority of the current supporters of NATO membership – 86% – the prime motivation behind supporting the accession of the country to NATO is the expectation to find “guarantees of the security for Ukraine”.

Such an approach of Ukrainians is not that surprising taking into account the protracted armed conflict in the Donbas which half of the population considers to be the main problem for Ukraine. Alongside that every third of the current proponents of NATO sees in membership in this organization rather a favourable opportunity to “strengthen and modernize the Ukrainian army” (33%), while one fourth of this group of respondents expects “growth of Ukraine’s authority in the international arena” (25%) from gaining NATO membership.

Therefore, the factors that sparked a notable growth in the support of NATO among Ukrainian citizens over recent years were largely quite foreseeable and dictated for the most part by the current challenges to the security of Ukraine. In this regard, many Ukrainians are probably looking for tools of quickly overcoming security threats by sheltering under the “umbrella” of the most powerful military-political alliance.

The more interesting considerations are reflected in the views of those Ukrainians who are rather inclined to not support Ukraine’s membership in NATO. The fears that membership in NATO could “pull Ukraine into NATO military actions” (44%), “provoke Russia to direct military aggression” (28%) and, finally, the conviction that “Ukraine in principle should be a non-aligned country” (27%) are determining factors for this segment of respondents.

Even though Ukraine is not a member of NATO, it has participated and, apparently, will continue to participate in different military operations and exercises jointly with NATO member countries. In particular, the Ukrainian military contingent jointly with NATO military forces took part in the IFOR/SFOR peace support operation in Bosnia and Herzegovina as part of international peacekeeping forces in Kosovo (KFOR). Also, Kyiv was engaged in the ongoing NATO counterterrorist operation “Active Endeavour” in the Mediterranean and NATO counterpiracy operation “Ocean Shield”.12 Therefore, fears of “pulling Ukraine into the military actions of NATO” are largely exaggerated and speculative in nature, if to consider the already existing experience of cooperation between Ukraine and the North Atlantic Alliance.

Although the fear among Ukrainians of “provoking Russia to direct military aggression” by joining NATO is certainly justified, as the rapprochement of Ukraine with NATO could aggravate the conflict and potentially lead to a full-scale Russian military offensive, it has to be acknowledged that Russian aggression and military presence is already a self-evident fact in Crimea and the Donbas region. In this context, it would also be interesting to raise the question whether the so-called “non-aligned status” and, consequently, the absence of any effective security guarantees for Ukraine, have contributed to the military aggression of Russia in the first place.

It is worth noting that since recently the Ukrainian government is making additional efforts aimed at raising the awareness of Ukrainian citizens about NATO and the process of the Euro-Atlantic integration of Ukraine. To this end, a plan of measures aimed to improve the policy of public informing on the issues of Euro-Atlantic integration was approved in May 2017.16 Ultimately, there are expectations that the respective policy will further increase the trust of Ukrainians in NATO. After all, it is clear that without building up such trust and, consequently, without having the stable public support for the idea of Ukraine’s membership in NATO, it will be difficult to hope for the success of the governmental policy in the Euro-Atlantic path.

Author: Ruslan KERMACH, political analyst of the Ilko Kucheriv Democratic Initiatives Foundation (Kyiv, Ukraine)

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