Ukraine’s parliament voted on December 23 to overturn Ukraine’s non-bloc status, an understandable action given Russia’s aggression over the past year. Kyiv now needs to think carefully about how to proceed with NATO, particularly as there is no sentiment in the Alliance to put Ukraine on a membership track.
Victor Yanukovych pushed through the 2010 law on non-bloc status as a means to improve his relations with Vladimir Putin. Senior officials in Kyiv noted at the time, however, that the law barred a move to join NATO but would not block a push to draw closer to or join the European Union. As Ukraine grimly learned in 2014, Moscow decidedly opposes either.
The Rada overturned the non-bloc status law by an overwhelming vote of 303 to eight. That came as no surprise. Russia has used its military to seize Crimea, supported the separatists in Donetsk and Luhansk, and sent regular army units into the Donbas when it appeared the Ukrainian military was on the verge of defeating the separatists in August.
Ukraine’s non-bloc status did little to protect the country’s territorial integrity from Russia.
How should Kyiv now proceed with NATO?
NATO’s “open door” policy says any European state that can meet the standards of the Alliance and contribute to trans-Atlantic security is eligible to apply for membership. But it is not just a matter of Ukraine asking. A decision to take in new members is a weighty one and requires a consensus vote, as Article 5 of the NATO treaty commits allies to consider an attack against one as an attack against all.
The Ukrainian government and Rada should consider several things. First, as President Poroshenko recently stated, Ukraine has much to do to prepare itself for any membership bid.
Second, NATO’s 1995 enlargement study noted that prospective members should resolve territorial disputes. The Alliance does not want to face an Article 5 contingency immediately upon bringing in a new member. Crimea’s annexation and the situation in eastern Ukraine would affect consideration of any Ukrainian bid to join or get a membership action plan (MAP).
Third, in general, there is no sentiment within NATO at present to put Ukraine on a membership track. In Bucharest in 2008, President Bush pressed for MAPs for Ukraine and Georgia. The German, French and other leaders resisted and blocked consensus.
If anything, a Ukrainian bid to secure a MAP now would receive more critical scrutiny. During previous enlargement rounds, NATO faced a Russia that it believed wished to be a partner with the West. Alliance members saw, at most, a very low prospect that Russian aggression would cause an Article 5 contingency.
Russian actions over the past year have changed that. NATO members have to weigh a greater prospect that they might actually have to meet their Article 5 commitments.
This is not to say that Ukraine can never hope to join NATO. But it often is wise not to ask a question unless one already knows the answer. A push would not make sense unless/until Kyiv ascertained through quiet diplomacy that its request for a membership or a MAP would meet with a “yes” from NATO.
What should Ukraine do in the meantime? Kyiv should continue an active program of practical cooperation with the Alliance, including in the military-to-military area; take advantage of the trust funds that NATO has created to help modernize its defense establishment; and consult actively with NATO on the range of issues set out in the NATO-Ukraine charter. Such practical actions would strengthen Ukraine’s case, should Kyiv later decide to seek membership.
Since a membership path is not on offer for the foreseeable future, the Ukrainian government should consider whether taking NATO off the table could help resolve the crisis with Russia. President Poroshenko has said Ukraine would need at least six years before it could consider applying to join the Alliance. Kyiv could offer—as part of an arrangement that brought peace to eastern Ukraine and restored full Ukrainian sovereignty there—that it would not seek to join NATO for a certain period of time. Moreover, any membership bid or request for a MAP would come only after a national referendum, as President Poroshenko has suggested.
Kyiv should not offer this unilaterally but as part of an overall settlement to the crisis in eastern Ukraine (with the status of Crimea put off to a later date). At this point, it is not apparent that Moscow is interested in a settlement; it seems instead to aim at creating a frozen conflict in the Donbas as a means to pressure Kyiv. But, were Russia’s approach to change, taking NATO off the table for some years could help secure peace—and given current views within the Alliance, it would be a concession that Ukraine could readily afford to make.
This piece was originally published in the Kyiv Post.