This opinion was originally published in Ukrainian.

Although the NATO summit in Bucharest did not deliver what the Ukrainian government had hoped for, a membership action plan, the summit outcome was still very good for Kyiv. NATO leaders said Ukraine will become a member of the Alliance, something that NATO has never said about a country that had not already received an invitation to join. The Ukrainian government now must do its homework. If it does, Kyiv should expect a membership action plan when NATO leaders meet in 2009 to mark the 60th anniversary of the Alliance, if not at the NATO foreign ministers meeting this December.

What Happened and Why. In mid-January, the Ukrainian government asked NATO to agree to a membership action plan (MAP) for Ukraine at the April Bucharest summit. In the end, a number of European members blocked consensus for three reasons: (1) the low level of public support in Ukraine for joining NATO; (2) the strained cohabitation between President Yushchenko and the presidential administration, on the one hand, and Prime Minister Tymoshenko and the cabinet, on the other; and (3) the possible Russian reaction.

Germany, France and the other countries that were not ready at Bucharest to support a MAP shared one or more of these concerns. While some critics of the German stance blame it solely on “caving to Russian interests,” that is an oversimplification and not correct. The reluctant Europeans also had concerns about the situation within Ukraine.

Some in Washington also hesitated about supporting a MAP for Ukraine, primarily due to the public squabbling between the presidential administration and the cabinet. This prompted questions about the longevity of the cabinet and Rada coalition. President Bush decided the issue in March and personally engaged to urge allied leaders to agree to the MAP request.

The United States has major influence within NATO, but it does not run the Alliance. The U.S. government’s failure to achieve a consensus in favor of a MAP is attributable to several factors. First, the United States engaged relatively late in the diplomatic game, less than a month before the Bucharest meeting. Second, Washington had several goals for the summit. In addition to getting MAPs for Ukraine and Georgia, the United States also supported membership invitations for Albania, Croatia and Macedonia; sought NATO agreement on missile defense; and wanted additional troop contributions for Afghanistan. Third, in his final year in office, the president’s influence with his European counterparts was not as strong as it might have been.

New Circumstances. Ukraine has reasons to be optimistic that, if it does its part, it will receive a MAP before too long. The NATO communiqué sets up the earliest possibility for a decision in December when NATO foreign ministers meet. Alliance leaders have empowered their ministers to make the decision on a MAP.

If the issue remains undecided following December, it will be a key question at the NATO summit in 2009. Ukraine can count on the continued support of those Central European states that strongly advocated a MAP at Bucharest. The 2009 summit, moreover, will take place in the first year of the new American president’s term in office. Hillary Clinton, John McCain and Barack Obama have each supported granting Ukraine a MAP. At the start of his (or her) administration, the new American president will have greater influence with allied leaders than was the case at Bucharest, and the U.S. agenda for the summit should be less complicated.

The Russia factor may figure in a different way than was the case before Bucharest. Those countries that did not agree to a MAP will not want to be seen as bowing to Moscow. Russia’s behavior of late – threatening to target nuclear missiles on Ukraine, calling into question Ukraine’s statehood and territorial integrity, and embracing the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia – is not building goodwill for Moscow in European capitals. Moreover, Russian tactics may have an impact in Ukraine, where many understandably have been offended by the rhetoric. For its part, the Ukrainian government should continue to make clear to Moscow that its motivation for seeking to draw closer to NATO is Euro-Atlantic integration, not anti-Russian.

Ukraine’s Homework. While the circumstances will improve for a positive NATO decision on a MAP, Ukraine must do its homework. Three suggestions:

First, the Bucharest communiqué refers to “questions still outstanding” pertaining to Kyiv’s MAP aspirations. What does this mean? Ukraine has accomplished as much in terms of political, economic and military reform as had Albania, Romania and Bulgaria when they received their MAPs in 1999, if not more. Ukraine’s representative in Brussels should ask NATO ambassadors to state exactly what the outstanding questions are, and Kyiv should then address them as a matter of priority.

Second, the Ukrainian government – the presidential administration together with the cabinet – should now launch a public information campaign on the advantages and disadvantages of NATO membership that will get beyond the myths about NATO. A series of public opinion polls showing a steady increase in the number of Ukrainians who support joining NATO would have a significant impact in European capitals.

Third, the presidential administration and cabinet should smooth their relations and work together. Politics are politics, and happily the Ukrainian political scene is largely democratic. But Ukraine is weaker, not just on securing a MAP but on a whole range of questions, when the president and prime minister are undermining each other. The current turmoil and immature politics create for some a justification to say that Ukraine is not ready for a MAP.

Kyiv’s goal should be to eliminate any pretext related to Ukraine for NATO to say “not yet” on a MAP. With strong and mature political leadership, Ukraine can do this.