Fico balks at Ukraine’s NATO membership

AS NATO foreign ministers gathered in Brussels and agreed to creating a new rapid reaction force based in Eastern Europe on December 2, in Bratislava Prime Minister Robert Fico was asserting that Ukraine should not be invited to join the military alliance.

AS NATO foreign ministers gathered in Brussels and agreed to creating a new rapid reaction force based in Eastern Europe on December 2, in Bratislava Prime Minister Robert Fico was asserting that Ukraine should not be invited to join the military alliance.

The 28 foreign ministers of the NATO alliance agreed to a so-called Spearhead Force, a 4,000 person unit which is meant to respond to mobilise against a potential threat within days. The new unit was first discussed at the September NATO summit in Wales and came as the Baltic States, Poland and others have expressed increased concern over the security threat emanating from Russia. “The new force should be ready in 2016,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said in a prepared statement. “In the meantime I expect Allies to make available an interim force early next year to provide the capabilities we need.”

On the same day Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin took part in talks with NATO foreign ministers via video conference, at a public forum hosted by the Hospodárske noviny daily, Fico claimed that he believed it was about 70 percent likely that a full on military conflict would break out in Slovakia’s eastern neighbour. “I’m talking about direct military conflict,” he said. “I’m not talking about the current Russia–Ukraine conflict, but the great conflict.”

Such comments drew condemnation from those allied with the centre-right opposition, including MEP Ivan Štefanec. “Fico’s words about alleged global conflict between Russia and the United States are a dangerous simplification of the situation and obscure the fact that there are Russian, not American soldiers occupying the territory of Ukraine today,” he told the TASR newswire.

During the public forum, Fico also scoffed at the idea that his government should boost military spending to the level of 2 percent of annual GDP, a number Slovakia committed to when joining NATO in 2004. “Geopolitically it would not mean anything, it would just be enjoyed by the armaments companies,” he said. Slovakia spent 1 percent of GDP on defense in 2013, according to the World Bank.

As was expected much of the NATO gathering was focused on the continued conflict in Ukraine. While Fico was critical of the idea of Ukraine one day joining NATO, Foreign Minister Miroslav Lajčák declined to comment on the issue when asked directly by the daily Pravda. He did note that Ukraine still needed to make considerable changes before it could even be considered. “Reforms are not a substitute for solutions to the war situation in eastern Ukraine, but simply a necessary part of it,” he added.

Stoltenberg, who took over as NATO chief October 1, was willing to comment on potential Ukrainian membership, albeit diplomatically. “We have an open door policy,” he said at a press conference. “If Ukraine will vote for the members of the Alliance, I will respect it. In the event that it does not, I respect that too.”

Most tread lightly when discussing potential Ukrainian membership publicly as they seek a solution to ongoing violence in eastern Ukraine – something that will require negotiations with Russia. Official diplomatic relations between NATO and Russia have been frozen since January, but the foreign ministers agreed to open a channel of discussions between military leaders.

“Unfortunately, we are not as far as we would like,” German Foreign Minister Franz Walter Steinmeier told the press. “Russia is violating international law by the annexation of Crimea and fighting in the east of Ukraine is continuing. No matter where separatists have weapons, their delivery must be stopped. We need to achieve a long-term political solution.”

Officials agreed to continue increased air patrols over the Baltic Sea and rotating of troops into Poland and the Baltic States as part of increased measures that began after Russia’s February invasion of Crimea. They also cleared aid to help the Ukrainian government upgrade logistics, cyberwarfare defenses, medical services, military command and control and disability payments for wounded soldiers.

The foreign ministers also met with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Dr. Abdullah Abdullah over the Resolute Support mission to further train Afghan Security Forces that begins at the turn of the year. In October, 242 Slovak soldiers returned from Afghanistan, with 55 more set to come home by the end of the year. Slovakia will spend an estimated € 1.2 million U.S. dollars in 2015-17 and send up to 66 service people as part of Resolute Support in two rotations per year.

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