Oleksandr Bielov: “Membership of Ukraine in NATO is first and foremost a deterrent!”

Honored Science and Technology Figure of Ukraine, Laureate of the State Prize of Ukraine, Lieutenant General of the Reserve




Among Ukraine’s geopolitical priorities is integration into the world and European security space, embodied primarily by the North Atlantic Alliance (NATO) and the European Union (EU). The history of this issue, which is at least 30 years old, dates back almost to the moment Ukraine regained its independence. It is enough to mention the Declaration on the State Sovereignty of Ukraine (July 16, 1990) and the Verkhovna Rada’s Resolution “On the Main Directions of Ukraine’s Foreign Policy” (№ 3360-XII of July 2, 1993). It should be noted that the basic provisions of the Declaration, especially its IX section “External and Internal Security”, and the Resolution were subsequently implemented (though not quite consistently) in the Law № 2411-VI of 2010 “On the Principles of Foreign and Domestic Policy” and its next editions, including from July 2018. The current Constitution of Ukraine, the National Security Strategy and other legislative acts formulate specific measures and procedures for solving these tasks. Among them are reforms in line with Euro-Atlantic and European approaches and the national needs of Ukraine’s security and intelligence sector, including its Security Service. This was explained by Oleksandr Bielov, who has been working on such reforms for almost two decades.


– Oleksandr Fedorovych, our society has always been interested in the activities of our special services, but today, I think, they are drawing special attention because of the latest events, which are becoming the central topic of almost all media. How natural is this, is there any logic of development?

– It is not easy to establish the proper functioning of any mechanism, especially if we mean the state mechanism, in which the functions of special services are extremely important. Realizing what you mean right now, I think it is appropriate to refer to the events that took place in the early 1990s, when Ukraine was regaining its independence and its civil society was ready to determine its future. Last but not least, Ukraine raised the issue of democratic civilian control over the activities of law enforcement agencies, including the Security Service and intelligence agencies.

I emphasize that in pursuance of Article IX of the “Declaration of State Sovereignty of Ukraine”, already in August 1990 legislation was adopted on the sovereignty of the Ukrainian government, its supremacy over the former KGB of Ukraine (Law of Ukraine “On Ministries, State Committees of the Ukrainian SSR” № 150-XII of August 3, 1990, other legislative documents).

This accelerated after the so-called coup, or GKChP. Already on August 24, 1991, the Verkhovna Rada adopted the Resolution “On the Political Situation in Ukraine and Immediate Actions of the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine to Create Conditions for the Non-Repetition of the Next Military Coup” (№ 1428-XII) and began the process of creating its own Armed Forces.

There is much to be said about such complicated events, but I will just point out that the main task in the early 1990s was to create a system of civilian control of the Security Service of Ukraine, the Armed Forces, special services, including intelligence and counterintelligence. After all, in a democratic society, this is always one of the priorities. Such work began, it continues, and, as we see today, it is not easy to overcome old stereotypes, although I am sure that we will manage to cope with them.

– This can be observed in the process of our country’s accession to European security structures, in particular to NATO, which has been talked about by politicians for many years. And no political event, with or without Ukraine’s participation, is taking place today without this issue being raised. Personally, you have directly to do with this topic, as you once chaired the NATO-Ukraine Joint Working Group on Defence Reform and the NATO-Ukraine Working Group on Civil and Democratic Control of the Intelligence Sector.

– We have been in contact with special services of European countries — members of NATO since 1993, when the work of joint groups of experts on the reform of the Armed Forces began. In the second half of the 1990s, there was a need to adjust the organizational principles of our army to foreign ones, using their experience. Especially of those who managed to join the Alliance immediately after the collapse of the Soviet Union — the Baltic countries, Poland and others. For example, procedures of the Partnership for Peace Planning and Review Process (PARP) is based on the Alliance’s general principles and determines the extent to which the country is committed to common tasks.

Therefore, there is a need to establish the Joint Working Group on Defence Reform to enable NATO member states to better understand the specific needs of Ukraine in expert assistance with the reform of national security sector and its institutions, especially the Armed Forces. In turn, this allowed us to organize relevant consultations with NATO partners in a targeted format.

– The military is well aware of what is meant in this case… But here’s the interesting thing: were these and other procedures imposed on us by order or were they recommendations?

– I assure you that no more than recommendations, without any requirements…

– I will ask the question differently: did the West’s advices what we should do suit us?

– Not quite. Because there were problems that we were not yet ready to deal with. As I have already said, the Joint Working Group on Defence Reform was created, because according to the previous procedures of cooperation, properly trained specialists did not have the appropriate status, according to which they could implement the planned… Therefore, already in 1998, I had to make efforts to create the Joint Working Group on Defence Reform, which provided to be the end users of our information the President of Ukraine (National Security and Defense Council) and the NATO Secretary General, and which could easily carry out joint military reform tasks. Later I had the honor to lead its work.

– With not everything suiting us and our response to the Alliance, how did they react?

– Well, they reacted calmly, that is in a civilized manner. Because they know that one should always look for a way to resolve the problem, instead of stubbornly imposing one’s vision, so that eventually it could not be called cooperation.

In this commission my deputies and I had to communicate with all the leaders of the structures that are part of the Alliance. And, of course, with the then NATO Secretary General G. Robertson…

Has the degree of the West’s trust in us somehow affected such trust on the part of the CIS countries?

– By the time the current president of Russia began to gain strength, everything had been as it should be with such confidence, that is, without problems. The Russians did not take our cooperation with the Alliance seriously. Remember, in those days, Russia’s cooperation with NATO was significantly more active than ours. For example, Mission of Ukraine to NATO employed 5–6 people, while Mission of Russia to NATO had 25–30 people, at least ten of whom were diplomats. It was difficult for us to work there, especially during Yanukovych’s presidency, when the Russians also started adding various “topics”, hinting that we should be concerned not with foreign affairs but with domestic ones.

– What do you mean?

– For example, their “reports” that Crimean Tatars were accumulating weapons for sabotage on the Crimean peninsula. Which was a lie. That is, they tried to convince us that Crimean Tatars were dangerous for Ukrainians. I do not think that Moscow adhered to such a “philosophy” in its relations with NATO, because at that time Russia was actively cooperating with Brussels, that is, with the Alliance. But now Russia is actively opposed to Ukraine’s cooperation with NATO, the EU…

– By the way, once we have raised such an important topic as cooperation with NATO, am I right in saying that our role in the Alliance is presented somewhat one-sidedly? Like, this is a kind of umbrella that saves from an enemy attack, and under which you eliminate all your possible security problems. In reality, the initiators of the Alliance did not mean so much the “umbrella” as the general rules of coexistence of European countries, when it is possible to prevent the desire of a NATO member to start a war with a neighbor, as was the case with the Second World War…

– I have to agree with you. Even in Russia, our possible accession to NATO is perceived as a direct threat. But joining NATO does not mean that Ukraine will necessarily attack Russia! Membership is first and foremost a deterrent! And this should be the argument when it comes to wanting to become a member of such an Alliance.

It is necessary to take into account the stereotypes of public perception of such a topic. After all, NATO is not just a protective “umbrella”. It is a certain structure of a member state, certain social guidelines, but not those that took place, say, in Soviet times, such as “he who is not with us is against us”… From this point of view, some people are looking at NATO today.

Today, few people know that in the 1930s, two textbooks appeared on Stalin’s initiative: “History of the All-Union Communist Party (Bolsheviks). Short Course” and “History of the USSR” for high schools, on which generations of the then Soviet state were taught. Such narratives are still practiced in Russia today. They are the basis of political decisions of the Russian leadership. Are you not surprised that the head of Russia’s foreign intelligence S. Naryshkin has been chairman of the Russian Historical Society for many years?..

In May 2009, a Decree of Russian President D. Medvedev № 549 established the “Commission Under the President of the Russian Federation to Counteract Attempts to Falsify History to the Detriment of Russia’s Interests”. It includes 35 people, led by S. Naryshkin (at that time — the head of the Presidential Administration). Among its works — “Federal List of Extremist Materials” for 2007–2019 (5005 materials, of which 59 concern Ukraine). Note that the materials include such internationally recognized scientific publications as: “The Holodomor of 1932–1933 in Ukraine: Materials of the Criminal Case № 475” (published by the Security Service of Ukraine); “Cheka-GPU-NKVD in Ukraine: Persons, Facts, Documents”, 1997, authors — Yuriy Shapoval, Volodymyr Prystaiko, Vadym Zolotaryov; “The Holodomor of 1932–1933 in Ukraine As a Crime of Genocide: a Legal Assessment”, 2009, author — Volodymyr Vasylenko; “Soviet Genocide in Ukraine”, 2009, author — Raphael Lemkin. What else needs to be commented on here?

– Yes, everything is clear here and we should always keep this in mind when it comes to the Russians’ perception of NATO… The topic of civilian control of state law enforcement agencies, which is also related to NATO, is also interesting. When you headed the working group, what did you pay attention to and how did you react to problems if they arose?

– On the initiative of the first Chief of the SBU Yevhen Marchuk, on November 25, 1991, one of the first legal mechanisms of democratic control over the Security Service (at that time called the National Security Service of Ukraine) was established. The Speaker of the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine Leonid Kravchuk by his order (№ 1859-XII) organized the National Security and Defense Council, which included well-known politicians, 5 deputies of Ukraine: Henrikh Altunyan, Mykhailo Horyn, Yuriy Kostenko, Valentyn Lemish, Volodymyr Slobodenyuk. Among other things, they took part in the consideration and adoption of SBU regulations, approval of annual work plans, appointment of management staff, etc.

And already on January 30, 1992, the members of Parliament of Ukraine began to discuss the draft Law “On the National Security Service of Ukraine”, which was represented by Yevhen Marchuk. Speaking, he stressed that it is absolutely necessary to create legal means for effective protection of Ukraine’s state security. But it is equally important to protect its citizens from any abuse of the secret service or its individual employees; to strengthen organizational and legal guarantees of legality in its activities, in particular to create a new control mechanism adapted to the real division of power into legislative, executive and judicial…

The norms of the adopted law on public control have been preserved to this day, although they have been revised over time. What is important here is not so much that such a principle is legalized, but how the SBU, the Armed Forces of Ukraine, and the Ministry of Internal Affairs adhere to this principle. After all, sometimes we hear people complaining that we lack such public control. But control is not only an opportunity to observe the specific activities of law enforcement agencies, when not all of their information is subject to disclosure. It is also the proper provision of agencies with everything necessary for effective operation!..

– Cooperation with NATO on security and intelligence reform took place in specific formats. Was this not the usual copying of foreign methods of such activities?

– In this regard, I cannot forget former CIA Director R. James Woolsey’s lecture, which he gave in 1997 at Harvard University to a group of Ukrainian scientists and officials. The technology of special services, he said, is in principle well known, so he focused on general issues of their organization, tasks, role and place in the system of governance of a democratic state, control mechanisms and more. In my opinion, this is exactly what we need to talk about today.

There are several periods in our cooperation with NATO. Throughout the 1990s, this was mainly done by special services analysts, not civilian specialists. In the middle of the first decade of the next millennium, the aspirations of Ukrainian and foreign specialists symbolically met, and their cooperation became public. At this time, the now well-known the Geneva Centre for Security Sector Governance (DCAF) is being established in Switzerland, with which I, at that time Director of the National Institute for Strategic Studies, had the honor of starting the cooperation of Ukrainian experts…

A qualitatively new period began in 2006, when the National Security and Defense Council of Ukraine established the NATO-Ukraine Working Group on Civil and Democratic Control of the Intelligence Sector (hereinafter referred to as the working group). It includes experts from NATO member states, and from the Ukrainian side — representatives of the Security Service of Ukraine, the Foreign Intelligence Service, the Main Intelligence Directorate of the Ministry of Defense, the intelligence body of the State Border Service of Ukraine, the National Security and Defense Council, etc. In 2006–2008, it held seven meetings.

The recommendations adopted by the experts of the working group were taken into account during the Comprehensive Security Sector Review in Ukraine in 2006–2008. At that time, an effective mechanism for NATO-Ukraine cooperation was established in the sensitive area of reforming the Security Service and intelligence agencies in order to adapt domestic special services to European and Euro-Atlantic legal, professional, moral and other standards.

In 2008–2010, the experts continued this work by way of seven staff talks needed by the Ukrainian side, supported by the NATO Secretariat and the “key group” of countries (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, USA, UK, Germany, Romania, Poland).

It is important that decisions on the implementation of the results of certain expert consultations were made exclusively by Ukraine…

– An interesting photo of famous Ukrainian politicians can be seen in one of the books about such activities. On what occasion did the elite of our intelligence community gather?

– I am sincerely grateful for your assessment – “the elite of our intelligence community”. Our colleagues from NATO and the EU are also present, and today they are sincerely helping us to resolve our problems in Ukraine’s geopolitical security.

The photo was taken during a meeting of the Ukraine-NATO and Ukraine-EU working group in May 2018, where the process of improving democratic civilian control over the Ukrainian security and intelligence sector was discussed.

I would like to remind you separately about the activities of two participants of the event — Yevhen Kyrylovych Marchuk and Heorhiy Korniyovych Kryuchkov. Unfortunately, this year, as a Chinese saying goes, they have joined the “silent majority” and are watching what we are doing. They have the right to do so, because they are real representatives not only of the “elite of our intelligence community”, but will also remain prominent politicians of Ukraine for a long time. They are united not only by extraordinary personal intelligence or our common responsibility for the Motherland, whose palette is diverse, sometimes contradictory, but it is what it is.

A meeting of the Ukraine-NATO and Ukraine-EU working group, where the process of democratic civilian control over the Ukrainian security and intelligence sector was discussed. May 2018

Heorhiy Korniyovych’s “communist” views on this point do not coincide with the fact that during his tenure in the relevant parliamentary committee, a breakthrough was made in reforming intelligence sector and cooperation with NATO and the EU. Once in 1998, I jokingly told him that he could lose a party ticket to the Communist Party of Ukraine for such a position. And when that happens, we will definitely celebrate such an event…

Former “KGB-ist” Yevhen Marchuk, pictured nearby, and we, as his colleagues, gave a true assessment of the Holodomor of the 1930s in Ukraine, the destruction of our intelligentsia in Solovki. Therefore, he could not help promulgating at the plenary session of the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine on January 30, 1992 the draft Law “On the National Security Service of Ukraine”, emphasizing that the draft was based on the provisions of the Declaration of Independence of Ukraine, the Declaration of State Concept of the new Constitution of the republic, as well as universally recognized international legal acts on human rights and freedoms in a democratic society.

– One of your colleagues told me that this project de facto became the basis for further work on the legislation, which modernized the activities of our special services and which still causes some unsatisfactory reaction from some.

– During the preparation of the draft Law, was used the experience of legal regulation of special services both in Ukraine and in the former Soviet Union and abroad (for example, in the USA, Canada, France, Poland, Germany and other countries). Its goal is to ensure reliable protection of the constitutional order of Ukraine, universally recognized human rights, to promote harmonization of relations between the state, society and citizens, and prevent the use of the National Security Service of Ukraine in party, group or personal interests.

I would like to emphasize once again that it is absolutely necessary to improve legal measures for the effective protection of Ukraine’s state security. And it is equally important to protect its citizens from any abuse by the security services or their individual employees.

– Thank you for answering my questions.

Recorded by Oleh Makhno

The full interview you can read in the “BINTEL” Geopolitical Analytics Journal, Issue 4, 2021



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