The annual Sea Breeze exercise is the largest naval, air, and land multinational military exercise hosted by Ukraine since 1997 and held in the Black Sea region in collaboration with the U.S. Navy. The purpose of the Sea Breeze exercise is to address a number of maritime security issues including counter-piracy, humanitarian relief operations, search and rescue, live fire, among other tasks. The results of media analysis of popular perception of the Sea Breeze exercise in Ukraine, based on a sample of five Ukrainian regional and national newspaper publications from 2001 until 2013, uncover several underlying themes describing the nature of public resistance to these exercises. The study affirms that Ukraine is not a uniform country, and any kind of successful public information campaign regarding the Euro-Atlantic prospects of Ukraine would have to address multiple security and non-security issues, as well as the region-specific concerns.
When examining the change of the public perception over time, it turns out that although the generally negative public perception of foreign military exercises on Ukrainian territory did not change significantly, the reporting of the issue in the Southern and Eastern regional newspapers became more moderate after the change of the post-Orange Revolution government. More in-depth content analysis of particular newspaper publications offers some insights regarding the changes in public perception. Thus, President Victor Yuschenko made foreign policy one of his top priorities in office, attempting to bring Ukraine closer to the Euro-Atlantic community, foster the process of Ukraine’s accession to NATO, and pursue a larger pro-European Union agenda. At the level of public perceptions, however, such an assertive pro-western foreign policy agenda was not well-received by the public, especially in relation to NATO. As the example of the Sea Breeze exercises demonstrate, since the Ukrainian public was not adequately prepared for the presence of foreign military forces on its territory, the Sea Breeze exercises caused massive protests in Crimea and other regions of Ukraine. In fact, during the post-Orange Revolution period, most of the governmental critique about Sea Breeze in local papers is directed against the President himself and his policies. Hence, the perceived assertive pro-western objectives of the Sea Breeze exercise resulted in the greater public resistance against this training, particularly in the Southern and Eastern regions of Ukraine.
Yuschenko’s successor President Victor Yanukovych employed a more moderate position that included re-framing Ukraine’s military doctrine and adopting a non-alignment policy towards NATO. He has attempted to redevelop and improve relations with Russia, and to establish Ukraine as a neutral country with many friends rather than one main strategic ally. Consequently, although this more moderate governmental policy slowed Ukraine several steps back on its Euro-Atlantic path, it also reduced many of the common public fears associated with NATO and, in some ways, created a more conducive environment for the Sea Breeze exercises. Although anti-Sea Breeze protests did not stop completely and the public did not change their overall views, people became more accepting of this training, and media reporting became more constructive and more factual, as illustrated by the following quotes:
"Only the toughest optimists believed that the end of the “orange” period in the new Ukrainian history will immediately make things better. In reality, not everything changed for better, and not everything changed immediately. We already learned that… The Parliament Deputies all together supported conducting in Crimea those sadly remembered drills “Sea Breeze”. As if there was no large-scale Crimean public protests against the presence of the American military in the Peninsular, and there was no appeal of the Crimean Parliament to their national colleagues and the President asking, to cancel the drills right in the middle of a tourism season. Now, the new government, similar to Yuschenko and Tymoschenko, is in a hurry to make an agreement with Crimean Tatar radicals… trying to gain their loyalty in the land issues"…Krymskaia pravda, No. 89, May 22, 2010
"As part of the preparation for the international educational exercises “Sea Breeze”, the navy forces of the border patrol unit of the Military-Naval Complex of Ukraine have completed their training in the Western Crimea and are heading to the main area to continue the drills… The military equipment and personnel are stationed on the ships “Konstantin Olshanskyy” and “Kirovohrad”. The series of civil tactical exercises preceded the main training program. Today the ships with the soldiers will arrive to the final training destination". Krymskaia pravda, No. 121, July 09, 2010
One lesson that could be drawn from this is that pursuing a one-sided and foreign policy agenda in a geopolitically divided country like Ukraine might not be the right path to achieving the desired outcome. The Sea Breeze lessons are applicable to other important foreign policy issues, including Ukraine’s relations with NATO. The example of Sea Breeze demonstrates that before the question of NATO membership reaches the point of a national referendum, a much more serious and long-term public information campaign needs to be conducted in Ukraine, to raise the level of public awareness regarding NATO and collaborative international security in general. Perhaps, such a campaign could also address the issues of military and institutional reform, and popularize the idea of transparent and effective public institutions and the value of international collaboration more generally, thus informing the Ukrainian public about the broader implications of the Euro-Atlantic path.