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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Russia, Kaliningrad, Ukraine and NATO

NATO's upcoming eastward expansion and its new partnership with Russia have prompted a major change in direction by one of Europe's largest and most unsettled nations, Ukraine. Ukraine has abruptly dropped its longstanding policy of balancing itself between the West and Russia. Its government recently requested talks on becoming a full member of both NATO and the European Union. The reaction has been guarded: Both European governments and the Bush administration seem unsure whether Ukraine should be a part of the Western alliance in the future, and there is resistance even to upgrading its relations with the EU. But Ukraine is too big to be safely kept on the back burner. The United States and Europe must formulate a clear answer.

Given its huge size, strategic location and relatively sophisticated industrial economy, Ukraine is a natural member of the transnational organizations that are slowly spreading across the continent. Without Ukraine, the longstanding Western goal of a Europe "whole and free'' will remain incomplete; without an anchor in those institutions, the country's long-term stability and even its viability as an independent nation could be seriously threatened. Yet Ukraine, as it exists today, is a most difficult partner for the West to take on. Its economy remains a post-Communist shambles, and though it is nominally a democracy, President Leonid Kuchma has frequently resorted to thuggish tactics.

Of even greater concern is Ukraine's involvement in improper arms trafficking and service as a transit point for illegal drugs and other contraband. Flouting Western appeals, Ukraine's big weapons companies have shipped arms to Macedonia, Serbia and East Africa. Secretly recorded audiotapes suggest that Kuchma himself at least discussed selling sophisticated antiaircraft systems to Iraq.

The Bush administration and most European governments have steadily distanced themselves from Kuchma. Congress has reduced U.S. aid. Some officials argue that Ukraine should not be invited even to begin discussions with NATO on conditions for becoming a member, at least as long as Kuchma and his cronies are in power. But NATO, which has laid out comprehensive and detailed reform programs for each of the countries seeking membership offers later this year, could also provide a structure for long-term change by Ukraine. A dialogue could constructively begin on such issues as arms sales, drug trafficking and military reform, with the understanding that these are the first steps in a membership preparation process that could extend for a decade. Making countries such as Ukraine fit for the club of Western democracies may not be NATO's first purpose, but the alliance is the best vehicle that exists for managing what is, ultimately, a transition vital to long-term European security.

This comment appeared as an editorial in The Washington Post.