April 22, 2019

Ukraine’s Thorny Path to NATO Membership: Mission (im)possible?

A Ukrainian MI-8 helicopter practicing evacuation last year during a joint exercise with NATO members. Ukraine cooperates with NATO in several areas, but its membership in the Alliance is a thing of the distant future.
A Ukrainian MI-8 helicopter practicing evacuation last year during a joint exercise with NATO members. Ukraine cooperates with NATO in several areas, but its membership in the Alliance is a thing of the distant future.

The fact that Donbas turned into a frozen conflict zone killed Ukraine’s NATO aspirations.

On NATO’s emblematic 70th anniversary, one could be forgiven for reflecting on the prospects of Europe’s largest country (in terms of area) joining the organisation within the next 5–10 years. The issue of Ukraine’s prospective membership has gained particular importance since 2014, which brought about a debacle in political relations between the Euro-Atlantic alliance and Russia in many ways triggered by the outbreak of the Euromaidan in Kyiv in late 2013 and the ensuing action by the Kremlin. This article analyses the question from three angles: Ukrainian, Russian and Euro-Atlantic.

Ukraine–NATO Relations: A Retrospective

Among the post-Soviet states, Ukraine became a “pioneer” in developing ties with NATO. In 1994, the country joined the Partnership for Peace, followed in 2002 by the Individual Partnership Action Plan . Later, President Leonid Kuchma, with his multi-vectoral foreign policy (in effect, “geopolitical swings”), managed to change Ukraine’s strategy on NATO membership twice within a month (between 15 June and 15 July 2004), from a “key objective” of Ukraine’s foreign policy to de facto no-longer-a-goal at all.1

The next historic milestone was the Orange Revolution of 2004–5. Aside from strengthening positive rhetoric in both Kyiv and Brussels, this period underscored Russia’s staunch opposition to the idea, linked to the Kremlin’s “military-political concerns.”2 NATO’s Bucharest Summit in 2008 exposed continuing sharp divisions among NATO member states on the matter. In effect, the Membership Action Plan was not offered to Kyiv due to unyielding opposition from Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Portugal and Spain. At the same time, it also became clear who supported Ukrainian membership: the three Baltic states, the Visegrád Four (with Poland playing a key role), Bulgaria, Romania and Slovenia, plus Canada and the US.

With the arrival of Viktor Yanukovych in 2010 and his “non-bloc status”, Ukraine’s convergence with NATO was frozen. The trajectory, however, was dramatically altered in the changed political milieu after 2014. In December that year, the Verkhovna Rada (Ukrainian parliament) adopted a bill abrogating the non-bloc status of Ukraine, and in June 2017 NATO membership was proclaimed as one of the country’s strategic foreign-policy priorities.3 This was further corroborated in the autumn of 2018,4 and in February 2019, when Ukraine’s Constitution was modified to prioritise membership of the EU and NATO as a “strategic goal”.5 With these changes in place, Ukraine’s bid for NATO membership now seems stronger than ever.

The Ukrainian Perspective: Excessive Optimism, or Daydreaming?

The mainstream of Ukraine’s intellectuals and military-political establishment are exhibiting overarching optimism. A military expert, Lieutenant-general Vasyl Bohdan, has pointed to allegedly existing “agreement” to grant Ukraine membership in spite of the ongoing conflict in south-eastern Ukraine and occupation of Crimea.6 The chair of the Parliamentary Committee on National Security and Defense, Ivan Vinnik, has also dismissed the idea that the ongoing conflict on Ukrainian territory should be an obstacle, calling such arguments “Russian propaganda myths”. The head of the NATO-Ukraine Civic League, Serhiy Dzherdzh, has referred to the existing “legal foundation that has stressed growing cooperation with NATO”, primarily reflected in “joint military exercises” and growing attention to the Black Sea region and the Sea of Azov. He highlighted that, even though “Russia is planning subversion and provocations”, it is worried about NATO. According to Dzherdzh, if an all-Ukrainian referendum was to take place today, 74% would cast their votes in favour of NATO membership. Finally, the leader of the Crimean Tatar national movement, Refat Chubarov, has noted that “While strengthening its pace towards NATO and the EU, Ukraine is advancing towards a return of Crimea … When conditions for the Russian troops to leave Crimea are ripe, the Ukrainian government should be ready for it in every sense.7

These arguments/suppositions seem quite optimistic—if not excessively so (the reasons for this judgement will be discussed later)—and demonstrates wishful thinking, not objective reality. At this juncture, it is worth recalling a comment by Ukrainian journalist and thinker Dmitry Gordon, who, while defining the path to NATO membership as “the only choice Ukraine has”, pointed out in 2017 that “the Russian Federation is categorically at odds with the prospect of Ukrainian membership … Russia will fight to the death not to let this happen.” At the same time, Gordon reasonably, and perhaps most importantly, posed another key question: “Does NATO need Ukraine?”8 Leaving Russia aside for the time being, this issue should be tackled separately.

The NATO Perspective: Ukraine—A Problematic Customer

For the past ten years, the main message emanating from NATO officials has boiled down to the following formula: “NATO’s doors are open to Ukraine”. The rhetoric has not changed dramatically since 2014, but the tone has. In an interview, Alejandro Alvargonzález (Assistant Secretary General for Political Affairs and Security Policy, and the de facto number three in the NATO hierarchy) said that “one day Ukraine will be granted membership” but this “is not a matter of one, two, or four years”. Aside from other must-do tasks indispensable for membership to happen, he noted that existing issues between Ukraine (“a partner”) and Hungary (“a valuable member of NATO”) could become one of the main obstacles on the road towards membership.9 An even more critical assessment was made by Lt Gen Jan Broeks, Director General of the NATO International Military Staff, who pointed out that achieving “technical and operational compatibility between NATO and Ukrainian armed forces might take decades”.10 In other words, a critical look at the rhetoric of NATO’s leadership paints an anything but optimistic picture of Ukrainian prospects for joining the bloc in the short or even medium term.

That said, it would be quite difficult to blame NATO for having misgivings. After all, apart from previous challenges, Ukraine has now accumulated new, and in many ways much more serious, problems, including:

  1. Endemic corruption, which has not declined, and arguably even increased since 2014. Russian sources enjoy quoting Transparency International (in whose Corruption Perceptions Index Ukraine slipped from 118th to 120th of 180 countries in 2018) and Ernst & Young (bottom place out of 41 countries in Europe, Asia and Africa).11 A side from these (perhaps overrated) indicators, the most recent corruption-related scandal in the Ukrainian defence industry is, perhaps, the most worrying and outrageous episode, especially given the state of virtual war the country has been in since 2014. In the light of this scandal it seems unlikely that Ukraine has scored any points to help change its image in the Alliance in general and some of its members in particular. Indeed, one could presume that misgivings, even among Ukraine’s staunchest supporters, have increased. In any case, Ukraine’s ability to deal with corruption effectively and efficiently, irrespective of the results of the presidential elections, is, to say the least, doubtful. Unfortunately, given specific traits of the post-Soviet mentality (which is still firmly in place), referring to examples of fighting corruption in other countries is nothing but rhetoric.
  2. Incompatibility of military technology. In effect, despite some progress by the Ukrainian military-industrial complex (and significant potential that still exists),12 what can currently be seen is a “hybrid” between Soviet patterns and some (rapidly made) post-2014 modifications. In this respect, Ukraine has two options:
  • Follow the Russian path, requiring almost complete restructuring of the whole sector, which would take at least two decades. Even if successful, this will not eliminate the compatibility problem.
  • A “Buy from NATO” policy, which could eliminate the gap much more quickly. However, given the lack of economic means, this option does not appear realistic.
  1. The “Donbas factor”. With the Donbas becoming a “frozen conflict”, it seems doubtful that NATO would—despite optimistic rhetoric in Kyiv and Brussels—be willing to accept a country in which military hostilities could start at any time. This is just one side of the coin. With Russia’s sway over Crimea, the Sea of Azov area (and the entire northern part of the Black Sea region) has de facto become a zone of perpetual risk. The most recent episode in the Kerch Strait vividly demonstrated that the Western response to Russia’s assertive behaviour does not go beyond rhetoric and moral support, and Moscow is now clearly aware of this. That said, the Sea of Azov has become a multinational “safe haven” for smuggling, with the active involvement of some EU and NATO member states13—an unpleasant reality that, even though hushed up, seems to suit all parties involved.
  2. The “Hungarian factor”, which, in fact, reaches well beyond Hungary itself. The notorious language issue, aggravated by disputes over the national memory, and minority rights are drumming up anti-Ukraine forces not merely in Hungary (which has been by far the most vocal) but also in Poland, Slovakia and some other countries, playing straight into the hands of the Kremlin, whose main propaganda anthem hangs on assumed “radicalism and suppression of ethnic minorities” in Ukraine. As argued earlier, this issue has gained a great deal of importance and could be used effectively as an argument or pretext to hinder Ukraine’s integration into Euro-Atlantic structures.

Lastly, as noted by Jens Stoltenberg, Secretary General of NATO, Ukraine could count on full membership once it has dealt effectively with modernisation of its armed forces and corruption14—issues of an ongoing nature that are unlikely to be resolved in the foreseeable future. In effect this means an extremely polite, but rather firm, “no”.

In the Shadow of the Double-headed Eagle: the “Russian Factor”

Despite treaties (for example, the Treaty on Friendship, Cooperation and Partnership between Ukraine and the Russian Federation) and declarations, Russia has never come to terms with Ukrainian independence. This was made clear by Vladimir Putin in 2008 when attending the NATO Bucharest Summit,15 and reiterated in 2014 in much more ruthless terms. Russia’s antagonism towards Ukrainian sovereignty has been best expressed by Sergei Karaganov, head of Russia’s Council on Foreign and Defence Policy, who defined Ukraine as “the only dysfunctional country in the post-Soviet area”16—an overtly biased and ideologically charged statement that nonetheless fully reflects Russia’s perception of the country.

Russia’s annexation of Crimea, the subsequent outbreak of hostilities in south-eastern Ukraine and—most importantly—the reaction of the Western community saw a dramatic transformation of Russia’s posture from cautious optimism (with, nonetheless, a visible degree of dismay over the potential Western response) to barely concealed gloating. An authoritative Russian information outlet quoted a NATO communiqué that drew on “continued support of Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity” and “condemnation of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and Kremlin-backed separatist forces”. The Russian tabloid then posed a rhetorical question: “so what?”.17 In effect, Russian propaganda (which wields tremendous power and appeal, both domestically and beyond) construes the Ukraine crisis as “Russia’s success in hindering NATO’s eastward advance”, which has “decreased the prospect of European war in the medium term”.18 Unfortunately for Ukraine and its Euro-Atlantic aspirations, Moscow has understood that, beyond rhetoric and sanctions (incidentally, increasingly disputed within the EU), the West will not risk further escalating relations with Russia over Ukraine. Indeed, as the most recent episode in the Kerch Strait vividly demonstrated, Russia’s estimates are not without a kernel of truth.

The Prospects: pardon impossible… to be sent to Siberia

Under current circumstances, Ukraine’s prospects of joining NATO seem much bleaker than a decade ago. For now, it should be admitted that the period (1991–2004) when its membership would have caused nothing but fighting talk on the part of Moscow has passed. Theoretically, Ukraine could (and in some ways should) still be granted NATO membership, which, of course, requires reaching some definitive decision on the issue of the Donbas and Crimea, as well as other issues. However, given current trends in NATO, the lack of real progress in Ukraine and Russia’s non-committal position, the prospect will largely remain a subject of theoretical debate among academics and policy-makers. In the foreseeable future (10–15 years), Ukraine’s hopes of joining NATO are unlikely to be realised.


1 http://news.bbc.co.uk/hi/russian/news/newsid_3927000/3927721.stm (in Russian)

2 https://ria.ru/20170603/1495765340.html  (in Russian)

3 https://lenta.ru/news/2017/06/08/ku_ku/ (in Russian)

4 https://iz.ru/815410/2018-11-22/rada-podderzhala-v-i-chtenii-izmeneniia-v-konstitutciiu-o-kurse-ukrainy-na-es-i-nato (in Russian)

5 https://ru.krymr.com/a/kurs-ukrainy-na-vstuplenie-v-nato-i-krym/29757759.html (in Russian)

6 https://primechaniya.ru/home/news/fevral-2019/general-ukrainskoj-razvedki-est-chetkaya-dogovorennost-o-vstuplenii-ukrainy-v-nato-bez-kryma-i-donbassa/ (in Russian)

7 https://ru.krymr.com/a/kurs-ukrainy-na-vstuplenie-v-nato-i-krym/29757759.html  (in Russian)

8 https://inosmi.ru/video/20170608/239544441.html (in Russian)

9 https://www.eurointegration.com.ua/rus/interview/2018/09/17/7086974/ (in Russian)

10 https://strana.ua/news/137393-v-nato-nazvali-shahi-kotorye-dolzhna-sdelat-ukraina-stremjas-vstupit-v-aljans.html (in Ukrainian)

11 https://lenta.ru/articles/2018/07/13/nado_v_nato/ (in Russian)

12 https://jamestown.org/program/ukraine-showcases-advanced-new-air-ground-rocket-munition/

13 https://jamestown.org/program/russias-hybrid-strategy-in-the-sea-of-azov-divide-and-antagonize-part-one/; https://jamestown.org/program/russias-hybrid-strategy-in-the-sea-of-azov-divide-and-antagonize-part-two/

14 https://www.unn.com.ua/ru/news/1779639-u-nato-nazvali-golovni-pereponi-ukrayini-na-shlyakhu-chlenstva (in Russian)

15 https://www.kommersant.ru/doc/877224 (in Russian)

16 https://ukraina.ru/exclusive/20180511/1020326885.html (in Russian)

17 https://ria.ru/20170523/1494865188.html (in Russian)

18 https://lv.sputniknews.ru/opinion/20160713/2336202.html (in Russian)


This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.

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