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13 March, 2018

“Member-states that feel direct threat clash with those believing that things will get settled somehow”

Head of Ukraine’s Mission to NATO on the prospects of NATO expansion, Ukraine’s plans on defense reform, and the impact of politics on security considerations within the Alliance

Interviewed by Yuriy Lapayev

How do you assess the implementation of the 2017 Annual National Program for NATO-Ukraine cooperation? What are our international partners saying about it?

— We have recently received recommendations from NATO member-states on how they assess Ukraine’s implementation of ANP in 2017. I can hardly sum it up in two words: the program itself has 60 pages divided into five sections, from political to military and defense sections. Assessment of the program by our partners is a 24-page long text. ANP is a document that allows us to focus on the efforts Ukraine has to take in order to reform. It is not a proof of NATO expecting something from us. Therefore, the first section of ANP has nothing to do with defense or security. It refers to political issues. It records changes of our course that took place in 2017. This section also lists all reforms which we have set as our goal, which have to take us to the future as we see it. I’m talking about decentralization, healthcare reform, pension reform and others.

Sections two and three refer to defense, military and security issues. Here, the situation is somewhat simpler. We have the Comprehensive Assistance Package, as well as the Strategic Defense Bulletin which Ukraine has developed and presented at the NATO Summit in Warsaw in 2016. Reforms are conducted in Ukraine in line with these documents. Funds and resources from NATO as an organization and its individual member-states have been allocated for this. Trust funds have been set up, including some very specific ones — for rehabilitation and treatment of injured soldiers, for instance. We have wider working groups focusing on reforms in defense industry, preparation for a transfer to NATO standards, changes in logistics, improvement of armaments, anti-mining activities — all those things Ukraine needs for survival. By the way, Ukraine is the largest recipient of money and resources and has the biggest number of R&D programs with NATO under the Science for Peace and Security program. All of this constitutes the ANP.

I would like to remind you that 2018 will mark the 10th anniversary of the NATO Summit in Bucharest where we were denied a Membership Action Plan (MAP). Still, despite this denial, a decision was made that Ukraine would use the ANP mechanism as MAP. Despite everything, Ukraine is making the necessary changes without a formal MAP.

Can you share how the ANP is developed and what the details of the 2018 ANP are? What is NATO’s current focus in cooperation with Ukraine?

— 10 years ago we said that Russia was dangerous, so we needed to join NATO. We were not taken very seriously, to put it mildly. The fact that we are not a NATO member today is our problem. It is a result of us having doubts for too long, jumping from one side to another based on our domestic politics. Whether we like it or not, we are now an eastern outpost or flank of NATO. Beyond us there is only Russia which has set a goal to not be a friend or a partner for NATO, and is obviously constructing its policy against the Alliance.

This is a danger. In response, NATO is forced to adapt and reinforce its presence in Eastern European member-states. This activisation is the most intense since the end of the Cold War. Back then, everyone thought that peace had come to Europe. American and Canadian units left European territory while other groups were reduced significantly: NATO had more than 30 different command structures in the early 1990s and only seven by 2014. Today, a realization has set in that Russia’s militarization continues, including in the occupied Crimea where it can place nuclear forces. Therefore, Ukraine is surely under NATO’s radar even if it’s not a member-state, only a friendly partner. Ukraine has the largest territory in Europe and an army that grows out of necessity to resist Russia’s aggression. This army should be controlled by civilian and democratic processes, among others, so that it does not turn into some kind of a “junta” of which the Russians have been talking for so long.

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Meanwhile, a concept of compatibility exists. It means a capacity to fulfill tasks in cooperation. Ukraine is still participating in all NATO operations. Of course, our contributions are correlated with our needs in the East. Still, 40 Ukrainian troops are in Kosovo today. Also, we are engaged in NATO’s rapid response force that should be ready to deploy in any part of the Alliance within 24 hours. Our plane is ready to be engaged in its operations. We additionally train paratroopers and specialists in chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear defense. Our military should be prepared for joint operations, provide NATO-standard logistics, and follow military standards and rules of combat accepted in NATO. In fact, that’s what we’re working on now. This routine work is not always interesting. However, it is the crucial element and the most time-consuming one.

What about non-military spheres?

— Our researchers are working in R&D projects with NATO specialists. A special fund is studying different aspects of hybrid warfare and capacities to resist it. We are accumulating knowledge, even if, unfortunately, we are experiencing it all firsthand. Now we can gain knowledge and share it with NATO. We have recently finished an important project on nuclear decontamination of an area where nuclear ammunition used to be stored with the Germans. This was in Vakulenchuk, a village in Zhytomyr Oblast. Nearly EUR 1mn was spent on the project. We have presented the results in NATO.

Now, we are starting a new stage of the project as the German side is prepared to fund and manage it. These projects are not directly linked to security or defense, they are purely environmental.

Real-time exchange of information on air traffic is another important element. It helps the military better understand where a target is and boosts the security of civil aviation. More such projects are underway.

What about exchange of information? Are all parties to the dialogue happy with how it’s going?

— We start every day by informing our NATO partners on developments in Ukraine. Unfortunately, sometimes this information contains the number of our military killed on the frontline. Also, we share updates on major operations and on what is happening in the country in general. NATO has a pretty clear understanding of the threats Ukraine is facing, and of modern warfare used against our army. We have data on this warfare and share it with NATO. 

According to surveys from early last year, not all member-states were willing to interfere if Russia attacked a NATO country. Has that trend changed?

— I can’t claim that this trend was not known of before. In surveys, however, an answer depends on the way the question is asked. Indeed, there must be some nominal German bürgers who are reluctant to defend a nominal Estonia. Fortunately, however, the elites that are in power in those countries have long established that nobody would question the principle of collective defense. Otherwise the bloc would seize to exist. I’m certain that any government in any member-state understands this. And no country has left the Alliance so far.

Given the fact that American troops are the core of NATO, member-states were certainly concerned when the newly elected US President Donald Trump forgot to mention his country’s commitment to Article 5 of the North-Atlantic Treaty at a summit at NATO’s headquarters. 

That changed over time. He must have realized that it is the core principle. The US is the one to remember about this article: NATO’s history has one case of its enactment after the US was attacked on September 11, 2001. This underlines the importance of the article which nobody has tried to test so far. Commitments like these help keep up peace in Europe.

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Are the forces deployed in Europe actually capable of countering a sudden Russian attack?

— Concerns are understandable. That’s why NATO was so sensitive about the Zapad 2017 drills conducted by Russia and Belarus. It is possible to mobilize a significant force under the guise of drills. The rapid pace of this mobilization is the indicator that is taken into account in assessments of real intents of a given country during military planning. This is a concern for NATO. And, of course, they need to know what force to accumulate, although here member-states that feel direct threat always clash with those believing that things will get settled somehow. NATO is a dynamic organization, it always has these lively debates.

I can add that one rapid operation could probably take place. But let’s remember that the US Armed Forces and their military budget are larger than the top ten military powers, including Russia. So [Russia] could plan a suicidal mission and conduct it, but it should realize what would come next. I assume that such actions are planned in the Alliance — it’s not pleasant, but it’s necessary. Nobody wants to scare or provoke Russia. But NATO strategists should obviously take Russia’s growing appetite into account. 

How does politics affect decision-making in NATO? Look at the growing tensions between NATO and Turkey.

— NATO is a military political organization, first and foremost. Therefore, its members try to avoid any political clashes. Especially that the Alliance runs on the principle of consensus. Of course, it is extremely difficult to come to a consensus between 29 member-states — far more difficult than in the early days of the bloc.

The changes in Turkey are drawing the attention of Germany and the Netherlands. But NATO has so far managed to avoid confrontation between Greece and Turkey, old and new member-states, and it has to seek compromise. When it comes to the heavy defense part, the military of the member-states have a complete consensus, I believe. They don’t just manage to co-exist at the NATO or military headquarters. They plan operations together and support each other. Overall, they stay away from delving into politics too deeply. 

Bosnia and Macedonia have MAPs. When do we expect them to join NATO? Where could it expand next?

— Macedonia is candidate No1 to join NATO. It has had its MAP for a while now, some of the longest times. It is indeed close to membership. The only stumbling block is its name which it is forced to solve with Greece. The consensus principle is holding it back. Our Georgian partners have made significant progress. By contrast to Ukraine, they have not been wasting time but preparing thoroughly and conducting reforms. I will not be surprised if they get some kind of promotion in status or a MAP despite the unresolved conflict and occupied part of their territory. The latter is a legend, a set of myths whose origin nobody can really explain.

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We were often criticized before for Ukraine’s neutral status recorded in the Constitution. That didn’t exist. Still, many politicians were seriously talking about it. It’s the same thing with the [occupied] territory. There are various approaches debated by scholars on whether Art. 5 can apply to the territory which the state does not control. This should be left up to the experts. It has nothing to with MAP. I like this phrase I hear when I ask whether things really are so difficult and whether we really need to fulfill MAP? In the past, these things were done through political decisions, with no complicated plans or programs (Turkey and Greece were accepted despite the unresolved conflict). What I hear in response is that it’s a “moving target” in NATO’s terminology.

This means that we plan to join the bloc today, while it will be a different organization ten years later with different demands and expectations. By the time we get closer to it, the organization will change more. Therefore, we must change permanently and reform ourselves so that we at least keep up with the moving target. But we are not doing it for NATO. If our soldiers looked like NATO troops from day one, had the same discipline and could fight like NATO troops do, the war would be different, I’m sure. Nobody would have decided to let their forces out in the streets just like that, with Russian insignia or not. If the [Ukrainian] army had fulfilled orders and shot when necessary, the result would have been different.

There is an active debate on civilian control over the army, especially in the context of the De-Occupation Law which expands the powers of the military. One of the changes is a civilian minister of defense. This is often referred to as NATO’s requirement. Does the Alliance really insist on Ukraine having a civilian as defense minister? What are NATO’s recommendations on this?

— Civilian control over the armed forces and security sector is one of the key issues of interest for NATO. Every nation decides on ways to accomplish this. There is no universal recipe, but there is an understanding that the Armed Forces should be accountable to the people, including through parliament.

Therefore, it is reasonable to expect that Ukraine’s Defense Ministry will be headed by a representative of the ruling political force. This is about openness and accountability, including financial accountability. In a nutshell, all recipes for a more open and accountable government can be fully applied to the Armed Forces and the Defense Ministry.


Vadym Prystaiko was born on February 20, 1970, in Odesa Oblast. He graduated from the Kyiv Polytechnic Institute in 1994 and Ukrainian Academy of International Trade in 1998. Amb. Prystaiko was Chief Economist and Deputy Head of Department for Trade and Economic Relations with African, Asian and Trans-Pacific Countries at the Ministry of International Economic Affairs and Trade. From 1997 to 2000, he was Deputy Head of the Asian-Trans-Pacific Department at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. From 2000 to 2001, he was consul at the General Consulate of Ukraine in Sydney. In 2002, he was appointed to the Foreign Policy Department at the Presidential Administration. From 2004, Amb. Prystaiko served as Policy Advisor at the Embassy of Ukraine to Canada and chargé d’affaires for Ukraine in Canada. From 2007 to 2009, Amb. Prystaiko was Deputy Director of NATO Department at the MFA. He served as Deputy Head of Mission of Ukraine’s Embassy to the USA. From 2012 to 2014, he served as Ambassador of Ukraine to Canada and Ukraine’s representative at ICAO. From 2014 to 2017, Amb. Prystaiko was Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs. In 2017, he was appointed Head of Ukraine Mission to NATO.

Translated by Lidia Wolanskyj  

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