Editor's note:

Ukraine has waited a long time to receive a NATO membership action plan, and it will have to wait longer. Originally published in the Kyiv Post, Steven Pifer provides three recommendations for Kyiv.

Senior Ukrainian officials have voiced concern that NATO has provided no clarity regarding Ukraine’s membership prospects. Specifically, when might Kyiv receive a membership action plan, known as MAP?

Ukraine has already waited a long time. It will have to wait longer. That is unfair, but that is the reality.

Speaking in New York on the margins of the United Nations General Assembly meetings, Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba complained that the MAP process “has been dragging on for an indecently long time…there can be no endless integration. Everything must have its certainty and its clarity.”

President Volodymyr Zelensky expressed similar concerns earlier in the summer: “If we are talking about NATO and MAP, I would really like to get specifics — yes or no.”

Kuleba and Zelensky’s frustrations are entirely understandable. However, they will remain disappointed.

Over the past three decades, Ukraine’s interest in NATO has steadily grown. In 1994, it was among the first to join NATO’s Partnership for Peace. In 1997, NATO and Ukraine established a “distinctive partnership” aimed at deepening Kyiv’s relationship with the alliance.

In 2002, Ukraine announced that it would seek to join NATO, but Kyiv did little to prepare itself or follow up.  After the 2004 Orange Revolution, which led to the election of Viktor Yushchenko as president, the new Ukrainian government adopted a more serious approach. In the first half of 2006, it appeared headed for a MAP. Moscow did not express strong opposition, and many assumed that NATO leaders would approve a MAP at their November summit. However, Yushchenko’s appointment of Victor Yanukovych as prime minister derailed things, especially in September when Yanukovych said he had no interest in a MAP.

Yushchenko asked again for a MAP in January 2008, with support from Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko. This time, the Kremlin made its opposition loud and clear. President George W. Bush nevertheless supported the request. However, Washington curiously did no lobbying with other NATO members on Kyiv’s behalf. Only when alliance leaders gathered in Bucharest in April did Bush urge his counterparts to approve a MAP for Ukraine, but having heard nothing from Washington, positions had set against the idea in key European capitals, including Berlin and Paris. Ukraine did not get a MAP, though NATO leaders stated “NATO welcomes Ukraine’s and Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations for membership in NATO.  We agreed today that these countries will become members of NATO.”

The language about “becoming” members seemed a concession to Bush, who failed in his MAP goal since, 13 years later, Ukraine continues to wait.

NATO has no fixed checklist of what countries must do to qualify for a MAP, that is, an aspirant for a MAP cannot present a fully checked scorecard and automatically claim one. The decision to bestow one ultimately is a political call by alliance members. What is unfair is that Ukraine today arguably has made as much progress toward meeting the criteria for membership as had other countries when they received their MAPs, for example, Bulgaria and Romania in 1999 or Albania in 2007. Indeed, Ukraine has probably done more.

The reason why Ukraine waits is also unfair. NATO’s 1995 enlargement study said, “No country outside the alliance should be given a veto or droit de regard over the process and decisions.” Yet the Kremlin has, in effect, exercised such a veto. Allies appear unenthusiastic about a MAP now, particularly because there is no good answer to the question “if Ukraine joins NATO tomorrow, does the alliance then find itself at war with Russia?”

Unfortunately, life sometimes is not fair. That is the reality for Ukraine. If the alliance could not reach a consensus on giving Kyiv a MAP in 2008, it will not do so now, when Ukraine remains mired in the low-intensity military conflict that Russia has inflicted on it since 2014. Indeed, one reason why the Kremlin keeps that conflict simmering undoubtedly is to obstruct Ukraine’s efforts to forge stronger links with the West.

There should be candor between NATO and Ukrainian officials about the state of play with MAP, as there should be on Washington’s part. True, corruption remains a problem that Ukrainians must deal more effectively with, but it does not block a MAP.

What should Kyiv do? Here are three recommendations.

First, stop asking for a MAP, especially in public. In the current circumstances, the answer will either be silence or no. Neither helps NATO-Ukraine relations.

Second, load up Ukraine’s annual national program with the substance of a MAP — U.S., British, Polish, Lithuanian and Canadian diplomats at NATO can advise on this — but, critically, do not call it a MAP. By all appearances, the negative reactions — both from Moscow and from within the alliance — are to the title, not the contents.

Third, having agreed a program with NATO, implement, implement and implement more. Implementation has not always been Kyiv’s strong suit. The more Ukraine does to strengthen interoperability with NATO military forces, meet alliance standards, and complete democratic, economic, military and security sector reforms, the better it will prepare itself for membership.

That should be Kyiv’s goal now. It should seek, without a formal MAP, to do everything it can so that Ukraine is ready, when the political circumstances change, to take advantage and advance its membership bid.