September 4, 2008

Tipping the Scales in Favour of NATO: Notes from Kyiv

As we communicate with Ukrainians, we get to know the background of the region and are more able to make suitable foreign policy decisions concerning the East.

As we communicate with Ukrainians, we get to know the background of the region and are more able to make suitable foreign policy decisions concerning the East.

Two years in Ukraine is more than enough time to realise how big the Slavic souls of Ukrainians are and how easy it is for an Estonian to find a place in their heart. The attitude of Ukrainians towards Estonia and Estonians is straightforward and respectful. A couple of months after the events surrounding the removal of the Bronze Soldier in Estonia, which were widely broadcast in Ukraine, a ticket inspector in Sevastopol, home port of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, welcomes our travelling party with a cry: “Oh, you’re from Estonia, that’s great! Tell me, is Jaak Joala still alive?” In which other city hosting a Russian naval base would a ticket inspector show such concern for Estonia? However, we would be mistaken if we thought that the benevolence of Ukrainians towards Estonians means that their foreign policy is as unequivocally western-oriented as ours.
Estonia’s reaction to the Orange Revolution
In November 2004, the prevailing mood in the tent camp set up at Kyiv’s Independence Square was similar to that in Estonia during our Singing Revolution – people were intoxicated by freedom and self-determination. Despite the ensuing disillusionment with politics, those weeks produced a breakthrough in Ukraine, the effects of which cannot be reversed. It was an irreversible shift for the better. The political changes connected with the Ukrainian presidential elections in the late autumn of 2004, which the outside world generally refers to as the ‘Orange Revolution’, sent a strong signal that Ukrainians are willing to fight for their democracy.
Estonians owe much of the progress made during the first decade after the restoration of our independence to various foreign experts who advised us. We acquired first-hand experience of the uselessness of reinventing the bicycle; instead, we could rely on the advice of those more experienced when implementing the necessary reforms. Maybe that is why of the 26 NATO members, Estonia reacted the fastest to the requests of the NATO Liaison Office (NLO) in Kyiv to send a representative to help them.
In October 2005, the Estonian Ministry of Defence (MoD) made its contribution to Ukrainian long-term reform efforts by sending an adviser to work at the NLO in Kyiv. My main responsibilities as adviser included political cooperation between Ukraine and NATO and the coordination of Ukrainian security sector reform with NATO. After my two-year term in office, I was replaced by another MoD official. The Alliance welcomed the Estonian contribution and I believe that we managed to build mutual trust in our relations with partners and to increase the role we play in NATO.
This was not the first time Estonia had sent a defence adviser abroad. However, it was the first time we sent a civilian to work in NATO structures. In addition, it was the first time for the Estonian MoD to send a permanent representative to Kyiv. This decision was based on the argument that it would best serve Estonia’s national interests if Ukraine took its security and defence policy decisions independently, i.e. without undue pressure from Russia. We also thought that if we shared our experiences of how to seek NATO and EU membership, we would enhance stability and security in our immediate neighbourhood.
What does the NATO Liaison Office do in Kyiv?
The NLO in Kyiv is quite special as the only other NATO representation abroad is located in Moscow. In addition, there are one-man contact points in Macedonia and Georgia. The NLO was established in Kyiv in April 1999 to promote Ukraine’s cooperation with NATO. The main responsibilities of the NLO are: first, to develop the relationship between the Alliance, Ukraine and NATO members; second, to give advice to both Ukraine and NATO on their future cooperation; and third, to coordinate various Ukraine-related projects, programmes, events and visits. The NLO keeps Ukrainian institutions and opinion leaders constantly informed of different cooperation opportunities. It offers practical advice to NATO and Ukrainian officials on how to organise cooperation activities, from simple workshops to visits of the North Atlantic Council. Together with Slovakia, which fulfils the role of NATO’s Contact Point Embassy, the NLO also convenes monthly meetings of the ambassadors and defence attachés of all NATO members in order to harmonise the provision of defence aid and to share information.
Moreover, the NLO in Kyiv coordinates three specific programmes. The first programme involves the professional development of civilian personnel in the defence and security sectors. It provides Ukrainian defence officials a chance to undergo practical training at the MoDs of NATO members, to learn English and to acquire a basic knowledge of civil control and defence planning. The second programme finances and regulates the retraining of officers who have lost their jobs as a result of the downscaling of the Ukrainian armed forces. The third programme involves the safe storage and destruction of superfluous and out-dated ammunition.
The NLO communicates daily with the Ukrainian MoD, armed forces, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the National Security and Defence Council chaired by the President, the security services, the President’s Secretariat, the Parliament, the Ministry of Internal Affairs, Interior Troops, the Ministry of Emergencies, the border guard and the Ministry of Economics. The main purpose of maintaining good relations with Ukrainian government agencies is to support the comprehensive implementation of security and defence sector reforms. The NLO staff has quadrupled over the last two years. At the moment, it employs seventeen people from seven countries: from Estonia, the US, Lithuania, Poland, Germany, the UK and Ukraine.
An Estonian working at the NLO
In Kyiv, the Estonian representative fulfils the post of the NLO Deputy Head, with the primary task of promoting effective teamwork in the office. In addition, she shares our pre-accession reform experiences with Ukrainians and coordinates Ukrainian security sector reform.
“What can a small country like Estonia teach a large one like Ukraine?” asked several Ukrainian sceptics in the beginning. Well, you cannot give and receive advice without mutual sympathy and a willingness to act. It takes more than the benevolent affection of ticket inspectors in Sevastopol to ensure strong and practical cooperation in reality. You need professional expertise in administrative functions and a political leadership who can reach unanimous agreement on the policies adopted. Nevertheless, the goodwill of ‘ordinary people’ creates the right mood for cooperation in the first place.
It is always possible to find plenty of reasons why the recommendations of one or another country do not fit the ‘unique’ Ukrainian model. While Estonia is too small, Poland is too Catholic, the US is too rich and western, and the UK’s democratic traditions are too long. Yet I met many Ukrainians during the two years I lived in Ukraine who were genuinely keen to learn more about Estonia’s experiences.
Ukrainians were mostly interested in the pre-accession organisation of interagency cooperation in Estonia, i.e. who decided what defence reforms to implement and how to do it. In addition, Ukrainians wanted to find out how Estonians organised regular meetings for defence experts from various government agencies in order to discuss key issues and how parallel ministerial meetings about pre-accession preparations were convened by the Prime Minister. An Estonian mid-level border guard official confided in me years later that these meetings had helped him to better understand NATO and to recognise the necessity of reforms. Similarly, Ukrainian officials would benefit from a common approach to NATO stimulating their team spirit and from ministerial support for western defence reforms.
Ukrainians are also open to Estonia’s experiences on how to communicate NATO and defence reforms to the public. This issue is very important in Ukraine as the public maintains an ambivalent attitude towards NATO and no government wants to make the decision to join NATO against the will of the people. Officials in Kyiv were curious to know how the need for and the choice of changes in the defence sector were explained to the Estonian public. Ukrainians were deeply impressed by the executive defence courses organised by the Estonian MoD in order to familiarise Estonian opinion leaders with the basic principles of national defence. Kyiv now plans to launch similar courses as the Ukrainian public is poorly informed about security and this ignorance leads to opposition to change. A few years back, a Ukrainian journalist conducted a poll among Crimeans, the results of which showed that people were strictly against NATO, whereas they supported the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation.
Furthermore, the Estonian experiences concerning the pre- and post-NATO accession restructuring of the Estonian MoD, the drafting of a defence strategy and the application of the principles of civil control were introduced to Ukrainians. I communicated every day with various Ukrainian government agencies and it left me with the impression that Ukrainians like direct and personal contact. For example, Ukrainians prefer telephone calls and face-to-face meetings to e-mails. Meetings are held in Ukrainian, as it is the official language, even if most of the participants speak Russian as a native language or English. An oral agreement is usually enforced by a ministerial decree. This way new impetus is given to projects which have otherwise come to a standstill.
Estonia’s interests in Ukraine. Conclusions for future action
It is in the interests of Estonia that new democracies along the borders of the European Union and NATO become stronger. Therefore Estonia must actively support defence and security sector reforms in Ukraine and closer integration between Ukraine and NATO. In order to do that, Estonia should continue sending defence advisers to Kyiv, at least in the coming years. Only permanent representatives make it possible to maintain our present high level of attendance and direct contacts with Ukrainians, to capture the local ambience and to understand what Ukrainians really need.
The aim of the NLO in Kyiv is to have somebody on the ground to monitor the implementation of all the good ideas suggested during short seminars. Otherwise western consultants would brainstorm for half a day in Kyiv, collect their papers and fly back to their home capitals, while everything would stay the same in Ukraine. Let me remind you here of the first so-called European experiences Estonia had during the 1990s. By being present in Kyiv, you can keep your finger on the pulse of local processes.
A representative of a small country like Estonia permanently residing in Kyiv performs more efficiently and has a greater impact on Ukrainian developments if he or she works under the aegis of NATO compared with working alone. The backing of NATO gives more weight to our words in a country which is almost fifty times as large as Estonia.
We can affect changes in Ukraine which are beneficial to our own security by way of contributing to a better understanding between Ukraine and NATO. As we communicate with Ukrainians, we learn more and more about the background of the region and are hence able to make suitable foreign policy decisions concerning the East. A fellow diplomat once said approvingly that there are two important foreign representations in Kyiv that really make a difference in Ukraine – the NLO and the representation of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD). While the rest of the foreign embassies focus mostly on process analysis, the NLO keeps those processes on the right track and the EBRD allocates funds for their implementation.
Besides, the support given to Ukrainian reform efforts and the friends found among progressive Ukrainians can have their compensations in quite unexpected situations. For example, a citizens action network started a campaign to promote Estonian goods in April 2007. This portal displayed banners proclaiming ‘Buy Estonian fish fingers!’ and ‘Baltic sprats are the best!’ as a countermove to Russia’s decision to boycott Estonian products after the events related to the Bronze Soldier. If Estonia’s aid to Ukraine helps to encourage such attitudes, our mission has been already partly accomplished.

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