In Brussels yesterday, defence minister Stepan Poltorak faced the press after the NATO-Ukraine committee session. The first question, a sharp one, was by a countryman: «Isn't controversial that our army is being reformed by the same people who ruined it for 24 years?»
Responding, Mr Poltorak admitted he hears that often. He continued, though, that the people who ruined the Ukrainian army were not serving there any longer – they either escaped the country after the fall of Viktor Yanukovych or have retired. «In the leadership especially, let me assure you they are no longer there,» he said.
«Let me assure you, all who serve in the armed forces right now are Ukrainian patriots,» promised Mr Poltorak. «At helm of the current Ukrainian army are the people who stopped the enemy and hindered him to get deep into Ukrainian territory.»
As affirmed to Postimees later by defence minister Hannes Hanso, Ukraine seems to have changed indeed: «With an Ukrainian minister coming here and saying that here in NATO he is among his friend and allies …»
Officially, Ukraine is in cooperation with NATO since the 1991ies. From the Bucharest summit of 2008, the alliance documents hold the promise that one day Ukraine would be a member. Nevertheless, for years it has been doubtful whether the Ukrainians were in earnest about the relationship.
«Looking back some two-three years ago: to a degree there was cooperation, even we had a hand in it,» said Mr Hanso. «I think the current motivation of that nation to change and to compile definite plans with years and dates on what would be completed by these deadlines shows us that both in Ukraine and even among the allies the attitude has changed.» Kiev has undertaken to have its army in compliance with NATO standards by 2020.
At that, Mr Hanso admitted that the tasks facing Kiev are not easy. «By 2018, Ukraine needs to get all of its defence forces under civilian leadership, at the moment the generals are still actually in office,» he said citing an example. «We all know Ukraine’s problems beginning with corruption and opaqueness and ending with the reforms – whether in reality or on paper.»
Still, the Estonian minister feels like in Ukraine things have really begun to shift. «As I met the Ukrainian minister in December, he told me: «See, Hannes, had I had the army I’ve got now 1.5 or two years ago, all would be absolutely otherwise!»» recalled Mr Hanso. «This crisis has actually made them to get with it.»
According to Mr Hanso, it is absolutely amazing the way Russia keeps shooting itself strategically in the leg. «Perhaps they have some short-term expectations, but the result is the opposite,» he noted. «At the moment, Russia is obviously turning Ukraine into a Western nation.»
«The fact that from new year we have battalions in Baltics and Poland – a couple of years ago, we would have had to walk on our hands and it still would not have happened, but see now,» said Mr Hanso. «Thanks to what? Basically, this is all the fruit of Russia’s behaviour.»
The way Mr Hanso sees it, it is also thanks to Russia that Sweden and Finland have become de facto NATO members, now participating in all allied events. Even at this defence ministers meeting, they were here as special guests – at the supper where EU and NATO relations were discussed.
On the other hand, at the press conference, Mr Poltorak heard accusations by a Russian journalist why Ukrainians are shooting at civilians in Donetsk region.
To that, the Ukrainian minister replied that the Russia-backed so-called separatists have this year attacked 7,000 times while Ukrainians have only responded 900 times: «Only when our army was endangered, when terrorist formations attacked our troops.»
Mr Poltorak added to sting the separatists: «We have information that terrorist formations are indeed shooting directly unto the territories they hold.»
When Mr Poltorak was inquired about the Minsk accord, he curtly snapped: «There is no ceasefire.» He said the terrorist formations are attacking daily, the guns banned under Minsk accord applied recently.
Mr Hanso agreed that the situation has worsened: «Battle level conflicts have again intensified after a more peaceful period. Thousands and thousands of Russian soldiers are still there. There has been no alleviation of tensions – it is just that the Ukrainians themselves have become stronger; politically, therefore, the Russians cannot do anything other than keeping up the tensions.»
«Are we seeing the Minsk accord nearing? Honestly, no,» said Mr Hanso, adding that surprising statements have therefore come from allies regarding Russia. Not only USA, but unexpected nations are speaking against alleviating the sanctions seeing that in Ukraine it is no better.
«Not directly a NATO issue, but us having 22 states both in NATO and EU, it is important in light of this month’s summit,» thinks Mr Hanso.