The Feodosia blockade: when enough is enough


MOSCOW. (RIA Novosti defense commentator Viktor Litovkin). -- Almost a week after protesters blocked the Ukrainian seaport of Feodosia over a "suspicious" cargo including HMWVs and other military materiel unloaded shortly before from U.S. cargo ship Advantage, the Ukrainian defense minister actually admitted to having lied to his people.

At first the Defense Minister Anatoly Gritsenko insisted the USS Advantage had delivered only "construction materials" for the overhaul of the local military training base, but then had to backtrack in a televised statement, saying the cargo included armaments and military equipment for the joint U.S.-Ukrainian tactical exercise Sea Breeze 2006.

However, "inconsistencies" in official statements is something the Ukrainians have long got accustomed to. The real reason for the upheaval is much simpler. The protest just goes to show that the people are against letting NATO and the U.S. in and letting their country out into the orbit of the Alliance.

This is evident not so much from the content of the posters and slogans the protesters are waving as from the simple fact that the Peace Shield, Black Sea Force, Sea Breeze, Joint Assistance, and other elements of the NATO-sponsored Partnership for Peace Program involving Russia, Ukraine, and other post-Soviet states for nearly a decade, have never caused such a powerful public outcry.

The answer lies in politics. Though the upcoming exercise as such follows the usual peacekeeping-oriented scenario, its stated purpose is perceived differently in the context of anti-Orange sentiments that have grown tremendously after the Ukrainians propelled an Orange president to power a year ago.

The bottom line is that the president has not kept his promise to improve life in the country. Prices are growing far faster than wages and pensions; relations with Russia, a brotherly nation to many locals, are deteriorating; the Russian language, most recently denied any status whatsoever even in municipalities where it is far more widespread than the official Ukrainian, is under increasing pressure; and government's drive for Western and Atlantic integration, despite concrete damage Ukraine has already suffered in return for little more than vague promises, only makes the problem worse.

As long as Gritsenko's project to bring the national fighting force closer to NATO standards was seen as a promise of transparent military expenditures, more efficient bureaucracy, streamlined structure, shorter terms of conscription, and higher role of professional service, people welcomed the idea. As long as Ukraine's role in Kosovo, African, and Middle Eastern NATO-led operations, and the U.S.-led Iraqi deployment was seen as an opportunity for the soldiers to test themselves in combat - and, importantly, earn more than they would have at home, even without as much danger and challenge - people supported it.

Today's prospect of full NATO membership is different. Joining an international military effort because you have been asked and agreed to do so is not the same as because you have been ordered to and left without any choice. Just take the example of NATO newcomers who had to support the 1999 bombing of the neighboring Yugoslavia, looking sheepishly how people of their ethnicities - Romanians, Bulgarians, Hungarians - were imperiled as well as Yugoslavs.

Another reason that adds to anti-NATO sentiments is the increasingly clear danger that Ukrainian defense firms would lose their Russian partners. Most recently, Moscow again refused to go further on the project of the Antonov-70 military transport aircraft. This was clearly done much less because of "excessive load on the centerwing and weak engines," as Russian Air Force Commander Vladimir Mikhailov put it, than because of extremely high political risks. Moscow has shown plainly that investing billions of rubles in a project that, if finished successfully, will benefit NATO - which might one day be not in line with Russia's interest - is the last thing it wants.

Motor Sich, the Ukrainian producer of engines for the Mi-8 (Hip), Mi-17 (Hip), and Mi-24 (Hind) helicopters of Russian design, has also felt the growing pressure. In a move that might bankrupt the factory and add to unemployment, which already runs higher in Ukraine than in the neighboring Russia and Belarus, Moscow is shifting the engine orders home - to St. Petersburg-based Klimov and Moscow-based Chernyshev plants. The Russians are also withholding further investments in other projects seen as politically sensitive in the context of Kiev's newfound Atlantic loyalties.

To a sane observer, these moves hardly look as "Moscow's revenge upon the breakaway" or whatever others might say. This is a consistent policy of hedging the apparent political risks of dealing with a partner who is potentially dependent on decisions made in Brussels - and, ultimately, in Washington, D.C. - where long-standing interests of the Ukrainian people will hardly be of much value.

The Feodosia blockade, for all its political motivation and lack of logic as it undermines genuine PfP cooperation, still carries a powerful message that the people of Ukraine have much more common sense and stronger self-preservation instincts than most of its political elite. The yawning gap between the interests of the people on the ground in the Crimea and southern and eastern regions of the country and those of the egotistic Orange government is becoming all too obvious in Kiev and beyond.

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