Ukraine's alliances are not a 'bargaining chip' in talks with Russia, country's deputy PM says

Ukraine’s proposed membership in NATO should not be used as a “bargaining chip” in this week's talks between Russia and the United States over the eastern European nation's plight, says Ukraine’s deputy prime minister for European affairs.

Kyiv has 'sovereign right' to pick its friends, even if Russia disagrees, official says

A Ukrainian soldier surveys the position of pro-Russian rebels in Donetsk region of Ukraine, on Saturday. (Andriy Dubchak/The Associated Press)

Ukraine's proposed membership in NATO should not be used as a "bargaining chip" in this week's talks between Russia and the United States over the eastern European nation's confrontation with Moscow, Ukraine's deputy prime minister for European affairs said Monday.

Olga Stefanishyna met the Western military alliance's secretary general on Monday ahead of a full meeting of the NATO-Ukraine Commission, which helps direct the relationship between NATO allies and the beleaguered nation.

Her statement comes as Ukraine seeks to underline not only its partnership with NATO but its burgeoning relationship with western Europe — efforts that some defence and foreign policy experts say are aggravating Russia.

It is a message that will no doubt be repeated today when Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky speaks with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

On Monday, Stefanishya repeated Zelensky's often-heard mantra — "nothing about Ukraine without Ukraine" — at a joint media conference with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, right, and Olga Stefanishyna, deputy prime minister for European and Euro-Atlantic Integration of Ukraine, speak prior to a media conference in Brussels, on Monday. (Olivier Matthys/The Associated Press)

"We have our own inherent, sovereign right to choose our own security arrangements, including treaties and alliances," Stefanishyna said. "The Euro-Atlantic integration is enshrined in our constitution and is supported by the majority of Ukrainian citizens. It's not a subject of negotiation or a bargaining chip."

The starting point for negotiations, she said, should be the withdrawal of more than 100,000 Russian combat troops now deployed on Ukraine's border.

This reminder of Ukraine's position came on the same day that senior American and Russian officials opened security talks in Geneva — the first in a series of critical meetings this week that will include direct negotiations between Stoltenberg and Russian diplomats on Wednesday.

The negotiations are meant to dial back tensions in eastern Europe, where Russia has issued sweeping security demands that include barring Ukraine from joining NATO and the withdrawal of Western forces from other parts of the region. Russia's proposals have been deemed unacceptable already by both the U.S. and NATO.

As the crisis has unfolded, Ukraine has been keen to demonstrate its utility to NATO and showcase its ties with the European Union.

In a meeting with Stoltenberg on Dec. 16, 2021, Zelensky spoke about "Ukraine's participation in NATO-led missions, involvement in the NATO Response Force and military exercises," according to a statement issued at the time by his office.

'Playing hardball'

Andrew Rasiulis is a former senior official at the Department of National Defence (DND) who once ran the department's Directorate of Nuclear and Arms Control Policy. He said underlining Ukraine's value to NATO — by citing its troop contributions to missions in Afghanistan and Iraq and its potential contributions to standing task forces — is a political calculation on the part of the Zelensky government that reinforces Russia's sense of insecurity. 

"It's significant because from the Ukrainian point of view, it shows they're as close to being de facto NATO as you can be," said Rasiulis, now a fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.

"From the Russian point of view, this is exactly what the problem is … and what they're saying is, 'Don't make an informal NATO.'"

The Ukrainians are "playing hardball" with Moscow, he added.

The chances of Ukraine being granted full NATO membership in the near future — or even an action plan for membership — are slim, said retired vice-admiral Bob Davidson, Canada's former military representative at NATO.

"You'd be hard pressed to find any of the nations come out and say they're reluctant" to admit Ukraine, he said. "I think publicly they will all make optimistic and positive statements about a possible Ukrainian accession to the alliance.

"But behind closed doors, I think, the general sense of reluctance stems from the worry that NATO would be importing conflict were it to allow either Georgia or Ukraine to join."

Activists display a huge Ukrainian national flag during a SayNOtoPutin rally near St. Michael cathedral in Kyiv, on Sunday. (Efrem Lukatsky/Associated Press)

Threats and diplomacy

Moscow has made it clear that it is determined to halt the eastward expansion of the alliance along its borders and has been steadily building up forces in the region throughout the fall.

The Kremlin has denied it intends to invade Ukraine — but Russian President Vladimir Putin warned during a meeting with Russian generals before Christmas that his country will seek "retaliatory military-technical measures" if the West does not recognize its security concerns.

On Monday, Stoltenberg said NATO is willing to listen to Russia's security concerns but Moscow must also recognize the fears and apprehensions of alliance countries.

He said he has confidence in diplomacy — but also tried to temper expectations for this week's talks.

"It's a good sign, a positive sign that Russia is now willing to meet in the NATO-Russia Council here in Brussels," he said, adding that the best that can be expected from talks this week is the two sides agreeing on a path to de-escalation.

"I have negotiated with Russia before, as Norwegian prime minister, and I know it's possible to make deals with Russia."


Murray Brewster

Senior reporter, defence and security

Murray Brewster is senior defence writer for CBC News, based in Ottawa. He has covered the Canadian military and foreign policy from Parliament Hill for over a decade. Among other assignments, he spent a total of 15 months on the ground covering the Afghan war for The Canadian Press. Prior to that, he covered defence issues and politics for CP in Nova Scotia for 11 years and was bureau chief for Standard Broadcast News in Ottawa.


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