May 14, 2023

Contribution to European Security: The Only Prerequisite to NATO Membership

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg was welcomed by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky at the Mariinskyi Palace on 20 April 2023 in Kyiv.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg was welcomed by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky at the Mariinskyi Palace on 20 April 2023 in Kyiv.

The year of Russian aggression against Ukraine changed the security configuration in Europe. What did not change was a perception of the enlargement by NATO itself – the self-restrains and myths cultivated for decades. Yet Finland and Sweden’s acceptance has started a tectonic shift.

The open-door policy that NATO still propagated became vague and obscure – a safeguard from the next steps rather than a roadmap for future policies. The concept of neutrality became shadowing. NATO, indeed, demonstrated that it could act quickly and resolutely when needed. Sweden’s path to membership is, nonetheless, a cautionary tale: one ally may put its domestic political interest ahead of European security.

Action vs Membership Action Plan

Sweden and Finland’s case demonstrates that certain prerequisites for newcomers like the Membership Action Plans (MAPs) are not a must. However, one condition remains a deal breaker – that is, one’s contribution to the North Atlantic Security.

In 1949, Article 10 of the Washington Treaty, NATO’s main signpost, made a short but essential list of conditions:

“The Parties may, by unanimous agreement, invite any other European State in a position to further the principles of this Treaty and to contribute to the security of the North Atlantic area to accede to this Treaty.”

The key norms and principles were further elaborated upon in the Study on Enlargement (1995) that became a reference point for all future documents, with two articles to which we need to pay attention. First, Article 6 says:

“States which have ethnic disputes or external territorial disputes, including irredentist claims, or internal jurisdictional disputes must settle those disputes by peaceful means in accordance with OSCE principles. Resolution of such disputes would be a factor in determining whether to invite a state to join the Alliance.”

Second, Article 7 writes:

“Enlargement will occur through a gradual, deliberate, and transparent process, encompassing dialogue with all interested parties. There is no fixed or rigid list of criteria for inviting new member states to join the Alliance. Enlargement will be decided on a case-by-case basis […] Ultimately, Allies will decide by consensus whether to invite each new member to join according to their judgment of whether doing so will contribute to security and stability in the North Atlantic area at the time such a decision is to be made […] No country outside the Alliance should be given a veto or droit de regard over the process and decisions.”

More important was the question of MAPs. Previously imposed on aspirants and never given to Ukraine or Georgia, it was not on the table this time. The two Nordic states thus prove that MAP has always been a political excuse rather than a procedural necessity or a legally binding instrument.

With the Vilnius Summit approaching, Ukraine managed to persuade most allies that the MAP precondition should be finally dropped, given that Ukraine’s Annual National Programme (ANP) essentially had the same functions just under another title.

What Makes a Difference?

In 2022, Article 18 of the Madrid Summit Declaration said:

“Today, we have decided to invite Finland and Sweden to become members of NATO, and agreed to sign the Accession Protocols […] The accession of Finland and Sweden will make them safer, NATO stronger, and the Euro-Atlantic area more secure. The security of Finland and Sweden is of direct importance to the Alliance, including during the accession process.”

Between announcing the decision to join NATO and signing the Accession Protocols, only three months passed; the ratification was completed shortly thereafter. For many years before that, however, neutral Sweden and Finland had been developing strong interoperability with the Alliance and its individual members through, for example, Partnership for Peace (PfP) and Enhanced Opportunities Partner” (EOP).

Ukraine, too, has participated in both the PfP and the EOP, while its armed forces’ interoperability with the Alliance has improved exponentially over this year. Joint logistical chains for arms delivery, personnel training in the NATO countries, and transitioning the Western-made weapons brought noticeable results on a practical level. And yet, the doubts about whether Ukraine contributes to North-Atlantic security have not been dispelled.

Bear on the Border

Ukraine’s case is not identical to that of Sweden and Finland. However, their experience offers some valuable lessons. While bordering Russia has always been presented as an obstacle to Ukraine’s accession, it has not been an issue for Finland.

The narrative about NATO enlargement provoking Russia was dominant post-2014. The February invasion of Ukraine and the Russian rhetoric around it should have proven that Russia started a full-fledged war not because of a threat from NATO. Finland’s accession did not lead to any further aggression either. Russia’s reaction to Finland’s accession also reveals that it has always been a false “red line.”

In 2022, Russia’s aggression against Ukraine made the fear of “escalation” the key topic. In Ukraine’s case, it was, again, the reason to reject further integration, while it became the main argument to accept Sweden and Finland as quickly as possible. The explanatory notes to the ratification protocols presented to the member states’ national parliaments talked about the additional value and capabilities that these two countries could provide to protect the Alliance from Russian aggression and enhance European security.

The issue is as much political as it is dichotomous. On the one hand, all political statements say that Ukraine is de facto defending the whole of Europe and its values, which is an objective contribution to the security against the Russian threat. On the other hand, the ongoing war is named as the main risk that prevents Ukraine from further integration. The unsettled dispute – mentioned by Article 6 of the Study on Enlargement – has long been cited in the case of Crimea, despite the precedent of divided Germany in NATO’s history.

Setting the Precedents

The Vilnius Summit should see NATO members finally acknowledge Ukraine’s contribution to European security. It should also end the habit of self-censorship provoked by the myths that Russia has been cultivating for decades. The unreadiness of some Allies to protect European security should not be confused with the absence of contribution to collective security by the newcomers.

Views expressed in ICDS publications are those of the author(s). This article was written for the Lennart Meri Conference 2023 special edition of the ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.

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