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The president and first lady of Ukraine visit the UK. Courtesy of President of Ukraine / CC BY 4.0

The Long and Arduous Road: Ukraine Updates Its National Security Strategy

Taras Kuzio
Commentary, 16 October 2020
Ukraine, National Security
Ukraine’s latest national security strategy document is yet another step in the country’s decades-long struggle to uphold its sovereignty and territorial integrity.

October has already been a busy month for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. He attended an EU–Ukraine summit in Brussels (6 October), followed by a visit to the UK (7–9 October), including an interview with BBC HARDtalk, and hosted a visit to Ukraine of Polish President Andrzej Duda (12–13 October). Reforms, the rule of law, fighting corruption and national security dominated these meetings.

The UK and Ukraine signed a historic ‘Political, Free Trade and Strategic Partnership Agreement’ based on the EU–Ukraine Association Agreement. The UK continues training Ukrainian forces and supplying military equipment, particularly for Ukraine’s navy. Last month, 250 British paratroopers from 16 Air Assault Brigade dropped into the Ternivsky training area in the Mykolayiv region just north of Russian-occupied Crimea. There, they teamed up with thousands of Ukrainian troops ahead of Exercise Joint Endeavour. Three US Air Force B-52 bombers undertook an observation flight studying Crimea and the Black Sea.

In September, Zelensky signed a decree on Ukraine’s national security strategy which updated Petro Poroshenko’s May 2015 version at the beginning of the Russian–Ukrainian war. Poroshenko’s decree became a law in June 2018.

Ukraine’s first legislation in this field came in June 2003 with the adoption of a law on the foundations of national security. Presidents Viktor Yushchenko (2005–10) and Viktor Yanukovych (2010–14) modified this law in February 2007 and June 2012.

Five of Ukraine’s six presidents have supported NATO membership and all six presidents have supported EU membership for Ukraine. Only one of Ukraine’s presidents (Leonid Kravchuk, 1991–94) was from western Ukraine, which disproves the commonly held stereotype of the country being heavily divided between a ‘pro-Russian east’ and a ‘pro-Western west’.

Ukraine’s Evolving Ideas on National Security

Ukraine’s 2003 national security law was supported unanimously by centrist and national democratic political forces, including Yanukovych’s Party of Regions. This was the first occasion where Ukrainian legislation openly declared Ukraine’s goal of NATO membership. Unlike Russia, Ukraine has always backed NATO enlargement and since 1997 the country borders four NATO members.

Vladimir Putin ignored Ukraine’s goal of NATO membership during Kuchma’s presidency and his opposition only dramatically grew after the 2004 Orange Revolution which led to the election of Yushchenko. The period from 2005–08 witnessed the emergence of a more recalcitrant Russia (as seen in Putin’s February 2007 speech to the Munich Security Conference) and the 2008 invasion of Georgia. In April 2008 at the Bucharest NATO summit, Putin first made territorial claims towards Ukraine’s east and south (which in 2014 he called ‘New Russia’) and described Ukraine as an ‘artificial’ entity. A year later, Ukraine for the first time expelled Russian diplomats for supporting separatism.

The Russian threat to Ukraine was by then a reality but this was not yet declared in official Ukrainian documents. When Russia was mentioned, as in the 2003 law, it was indirectly when referring to the ‘temporary’ stationing of the Black Sea Fleet in Sevastopol. The roots of the 2014 crisis lay in a host of Russian activities conducted in the previous decade through the Party of Regions (which signed a cooperation agreement with United Russia in 2005), and training in Russia and support given to Crimean separatists and pro-Russian extremists in the Donbas.

Although Yanukovych adopted all the demands made by Russian President Dmitri Medvedev in his August 2009 open letter to Yushchenko, written in response to the expulsion of diplomats, he never supported Ukraine’s integration into economic or security structures in Eurasia. The major accommodation Yanukovych introduced to meet Russian demands was the adoption of an ephemeral ‘non-bloc’ foreign policy in May 2010 (overturned in December 2014) which dropped NATO membership.

Removal of the goal of NATO membership was insufficient for Putin, and in 2012–13 he strongly lobbied and pressured Yanukovych to drop the EU Association Agreement, which under the Eastern Partnership offered integration but not membership. This important detail is ignored by Western realists and Putinversteher scholars who blame the EU and NATO for the 2014 crisis. Without the Euromaidan Revolution and its victory, the unpopular Yanukovych may well have been re-elected by fraud the following year and – under pressure from Moscow – would likely have taken Ukraine into the Eurasian Economic Union (as the CIS Customs Union had become).

How the 2014 Crisis Changed Ukrainian National Security Thinking

Russia’s annexation of Crimea and hybrid war and invasion in eastern Ukraine shattered illusions held by eastern (but not western, who never held them) Ukrainians of ‘fraternal’ relations between both peoples, a concept which had been a staple of Soviet nationality policies since the late 1930s. The Russian threat to Ukraine had become real. Euromaidan politicians had to deal with the new Russian threat which, fortunately for them, was easier because the Party of Regions had disintegrated and the Communist Party could no longer participate in elections after the adoption in 2015 of four decommunisation laws.

Incorporating the Russian threat into national security thinking had to be undertaken alongside improving the very poor condition of the armed forces, which had been ruined during Yanukovych’s presidency when Russia had been permitted to infiltrate and control key areas. In addition, Ukraine had to legislate to combat a broad range of new security threats in what Oscar Jonsson and Robert Seely describe as ‘full-spectrum conflict’.

In addition to Ukraine’s 2015 national security doctrine, numerous laws were adopted on: combating information warfare and cyber warfare; border control; the Ukrainian security service (SBU); fighting terrorism; protecting state institutions, officials and state secrets; and defending the exclusive maritime zone. Numerous laws also dealt with: reviving the military-industrial sector and ensuring its complete divorce from Russia; bolstering the army; adopting a new military doctrine; and converting the Internal Troops of the Ministry of Internal Affairs into a national guard and the Militsiya into a police force. In January 2018, the Anti-Terrorist Operation (ATO) format for fighting the Russian–Ukrainian war led by the SBU was transformed with new legislation into a Joint Forces operation led by the military.

Many of these reforms were undertaken with NATO, EU and Western government support. NATO was particularly important in providing guidelines for security sector reforms. Lacking a full understanding of Russian full-spectrum warfare, not all the steps undertaken by Ukraine were supported by the OSCE and other international organisations.

Russian information warfare played a crucial role in inflaming tensions and spreading disinformation in 2013–14, and combating it was as important as the actual military fighting. Ukraine banned Russian social media (VKontakte, Odnoklassniki, Yandex), Russian television channels and radio, Russian films, newspapers and some books, and placed hundreds of Russians on a ban list.

Russia’s vitriolic information warfare has not abated in the last six years, targeting Ukraine as much as the EU, NATO and US. Russians view Ukraine as second to the US in terms of being the most unfriendly to Russia. While successfully minimising external Russian threats, Ukraine’s 2015 and 2020 national security concepts do not adequately deal with the possibility of internal threats from pro-Russian political forces financially backed by Russia through, for example, Viktor Medvedchuk and his three television channels (Putin is godfather to his daughter). The Russian Orthodox Church is losing influence following Constantinople’s granting of autocephaly to Ukrainian Orthodox in January 2019 but continues to act as a Russian fifth column.

There is little to differentiate Poroshenko’s 2015 and Zelensky’s 2020 national security concepts on the questions of declaring Russia a threat to Ukraine and the goals of returning occupied territories. In the 2020 concept, Russia is defined as an ‘aggressor state’ on eight occasions which conforms to the view of 72% of Ukrainians. The 2020 concept has the benefit of seven years of Russian full-spectrum warfare to more fully understand the threat it poses.

The 2015 and 2020 concepts continue to outline the goals of NATO (mentioned 11 times), which has been included in every national security document, except under Yanukovych, and the EU. In February 2019, the Ukrainian constitution was changed to incorporate the goals of NATO and EU membership, making these more challenging to change.

While the 2020 concept declares the US, UK, Canada, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Lithuania, Poland and Turkey as ‘strategic allies’, it mistakenly omitted Romania. Meanwhile, including Germany and France was a sop to the Normandy Format which provides a stage for Zelensky but which has been quite moribund.

The building of a bridge linking the northern Caucasus to Crimea and Russia’s November 2018 piracy in the Sea of Azov has presented Ukraine with a challenge to develop a maritime national security strategy. Building a new navy based in Odessa and Mykolayiv with the support of the UK and US will take time.

Following a prolonged war and referendum which made Putin de facto president for life, the 2020 concept shows a greater realisation that the Russian–Ukrainian war will continue. This is irrespective of Zelensky’s striving for peace because Putin’s objectives in Ukraine are unrealistic and unattainable short of Ukraine’s capitulation.

Taras Kuzio is a Professor at the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

BANNER IMAGE: The president and first lady of Ukraine visit the UK. Courtesy of President of Ukraine / CC BY 4.0

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