Photo Source: Ministry of Defense of Ukraine
Red Tape and Red Square: Barriers to Entry into NATO for Ukraine
by Gregory Arcuri
June 30th, 2021
Ukraine has made significant progress towards joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) since its independence in 1991. However, significant barriers to Ukraine’s membership prevent it from realizing its Western-facing security aspirations. This essay will assess the main obstacles for Ukrainian entry into NATO. Ukraine suffers from a lack of internal stability and durable institutions which prevent it from meeting membership criteria and degrades its reputation among alliance members. Russian diplomatic, military and informational efforts however, remain the key factors in sabotaging Ukraine’s NATO ambitions.
As the famous Ukrainian-American historian Serhii Plokhy remarked: Ukraine sits at the ‘gates of Europe’. As a borderland and as a battlefield, Ukraine has been the object of countless struggles for regional and continental dominance by European and Eurasian great powers throughout history. Consequently, its place in the fabric of a European, Western, Russian, or Eurasian order has never been assured, enduring, or concrete for a majority of the nation’s existence.
With the fall of the Soviet Union and the dawn of the 21st century, Ukraine may finally be on track to solidifying its status as a European state and as part of a Western-democratic order. By all reputable accounts, most Ukrainian citizens are poised to integrate with Western multilateral economic, political, and security organizations. In a 2019 International Republican Institute poll, 53% of Ukrainians answered in the affirmative when asked if they would vote ‘yes’ in a referendum to join the North American Treaty Organization (NATO). Likewise, in a 2020 poll conducted by the Ilko Kucheriv Democratic Initiatives Foundation, 64% of Ukrainians supported accession to the European Union (EU). While these numbers have occasionally waxed and waned over the past decade, they have generally trended positively. Among Western leaders, strengthening ties with Ukraine is a stated policy goal and a policy reality. As recent as early April 2021, NATO’s Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg met with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba to “enhance cooperation with Ukraine … on Black Sea security,” and to “advance its Euro-Atlantic aspirations.” This comes as the two sides have announced their intentions to hold joint military exercises later this year to improve interoperability. In its relations with the EU, Ukraine held its 7th Association Council meeting with European representatives in February, where Ukraine’s “political association and economic integration” were “reaffirmed.” While sometimes restricted to rhetoric, Western efforts to cooperate with Ukraine are intensifying.
But the fact remains: Ukraine is not in NATO. In fact, most expert assessments of Ukraine’s prospects for joining the organization, even in the medium-term, are pessimistic. Significant barriers to entry still exist for Ukraine in its pursuit of membership in this critical Western organization. This paper will assess the major obstacles for Ukraine’s entry into NATO. It will begin with a history of NATO expansion to establish context on NATO’s current position vis-à-vis Ukraine, followed by a review of Ukraine’s relations with NATO since independence, and concluding with the external and domestic barriers to entry for membership.
NATO has undergone eight rounds of enlargement since its founding in April of 1949, expanding from 12 original members to 30 members as of 2021. The organization explicitly adheres to an “open door policy,” in the spirit of Article 10 of the Washington Treaty, which stipulates that any “European state in a position to further the principles of this Treaty and to contribute to the security of the North Atlantic area” may join NATO. In 1995, the organization conducted a study on how it should go about further expansion.
NATO Members and Dates of Accession (North Macedonia formally acceded in March of 2020)
Source: Congressional Research Service
In this “Study on Enlargement,” NATO enumerated five broad criteria to which prospective new members will be held: (1) a functioning democratic political system based on a market economy; (2) the fair treatment of minority populations; (3) a commitment to the peaceful resolution of conflicts; (4) the ability and willingness to make a military contribution to NATO operations; and (5) a commitment to democratic civil-military relations and institutional structures. Furthermore (and relevant to Ukraine’s case), the study places heavy emphasis on the condition that aspirant members resolve any “ethnic” or “external territorial disputes” before being admitted to the alliance. However, while NATO values settling preexisting disputes, the study also expresses that “there is no fixed or rigid list of criteria for inviting new member states.”
In 1999, NATO welcomed the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland to the alliance. Their accession to NATO was significant not only because these were three former Warsaw Pact states, but also because it compelled alliance members to further optimize and standardize the accession process. From the 1999 Washington Summit emerged the Membership Action Plan, or MAP. While a MAP is not a guaranteed “ticket to entry,” countries that receive one are on a clearly delineated path to membership, and receive a significant amount of NATO support.
“States which have ethnic disputes or external territorial disputes, including irredentist claims, or internal jurisdictional disputes must settle these 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.”
-1995 Study on NATO Enlargement, Chapter 1, Paragraph 6
The period of time that a state spends under a MAP varies greatly. While some only took a few years, North Macedonia, which acceded to NATO in 2020, had been participating in a MAP since 1999. Thus far, 11 countries have joined NATO via a MAP, with Bosnia and Herzegovina being the only MAP recipient who has not yet acceded.
The details surrounding NATO accession are complex. The criteria are intentionally vague to account for the political and strategic circumstances of aspirant countries and how their membership might affect the alliance. The process appears even less coherent when considering recent disputes between NATO members like Greece and Turkey, who both dispatched warships to the Mediterranean during the height of tensions regarding maritime claims. If two long-time members are willing to engage in naval brinksmanship, how can NATO accession principles be used to discriminate against prospective members? Inconsistencies will become more apparent as this paper discusses Ukraine’s relations with NATO and its quest for a MAP.
Ukraine’s Path Towards NATO Accession
Friendly relations between Ukraine and the West did not come immediately upon independence. During a speech in Kyiv in August of 1991, US President George H.W. Bush famously threw cold water on the idea of a fully independent Ukraine just weeks before it broke off from the Soviet Union. Bush warned of replacing a “far-off tyranny with a local despotism,” and “suicidal nationalism based on ethnic hatred.” His administration and the succeeding Clinton administration would spend the next several years disarming Ukraine (and several other former-Soviet states) of their nuclear weapons in exchange for implicit security assurances which have since proved hollow. While American policies and statements towards Ukraine during the early 1990’s were likely informed by the recent disintegration of Yugoslavia along ethnic lines and greater concerns about nuclear proliferation, they also reflected a pessimism about Ukraine’s prospects as a democracy and as an independent state.
“Being located at a European crossroad, in a complicated system of international axes, being at the same time pivotal for central, western, and southeast Europe, our country cannot afford not to have tight relations with these countries.”
-Leonid Kuchma, 1999
Nevertheless, Ukraine’s Western trajectory intensified as the millennium concluded. With the beginning of the Vladimir Putin presidency, post-Soviet states like Ukraine and Belarus had to rethink their relations vis a vis Russia. In Belarus, President Aleksandr Lukashenko paused the implementation of the Union-State agreement (the merging of Russia and Belarus into a federal union) with Russia, likely sensing that Putin would use it as a means of de-facto annexation of Belarus. In Ukraine, President Leonid Kuchma sought a “middle-way” between East and West as Russia became more assertive. While cooperation with Russia continued and tensions with the West lingered, Ukraine made overtures to NATO in symbolic but significant ways. To reconcile relations after Kuchma’s alleged sale of military technology to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, Ukraine sent troops to support NATO efforts there. By the time they were ordered home in January of 2005, the Ukrainian contingent was the fourth-largest among all peacekeeping forces in Iraq.
Then-President of Ukraine Viktor Yushchenko addresses the UN General Assembly, September 2009
Source: United Nations
With the Orange Revolution and the ascension of Viktor Yushchenko to the presidency, Ukraine had an explicitly Europeanizing foreign policy. Almost immediately upon Yushchenko’s arrival, NATO and Ukraine began an “intensified dialogue” in Spring of 2005, the precursor to a Membership Action Plan. By 2006, Ukraine was making serious progress towards obtaining a MAP. However, political machinations within the Yushchenko government led to the appointment of pro-”non-aligned” (although effectively pro-Russian) Viktor Yanukovych as prime minister. Yanukovych then represented Ukraine during negotiations with NATO, and expressed during a meeting in Brussels that they had no interest in a MAP. Despite subsequent attempts by the Yushchenko government to repair the damage from Yanukovych’s term as PM, NATO allies had been sufficiently offput by Ukraine’s inconsistency at the negotiating table and were unwilling to provide them with a MAP. However, at the 2008 NATO Summit in Bucharest, the alliance formally agreed that Georgia and Ukraine would become members at some indefinite point in the future.
Yushchenko’s administration ended in political bickering and disorder, paving the way for Yanukovych’s successful bid for president against Yulia Tymoshenko in 2010. Upon taking office, Yanukovych reinstated Ukraine’s “non-bloc status,” making him the only president of the previous four who did not support eventual NATO membership. However, in contradiction of this “non-bloc status,” Ukraine extended the Russian Black Sea Fleet’s lease in Sevastopol to 2042-47, much to the dismay of NATO leaders. Vladimir Socor with the Jamestown Foundation wrote at the time that Yanukovych’s non-bloc policies seemed to coincide with Russian definitions of “non-bloc,” rather than a neutral interpretation of the term.
Yanukovych was forced out of office and into exile in 2014 during widespread protests following his refusal to sign an Association Agreement with the European Union. Russia subsequently invaded, occupied, and annexed the Crimean Peninsula. Russian-backed agents in Ukraine’s eastern regions of Luhansk and Donetsk took control of much of Donbas, and have been waging a war with government forces there for over seven years.
Under President Petro Poroshenko, Ukraine renounced its non-bloc status and recommitted to eventual NATO membership. Importantly, he began the process of integration with the EU by signing the Ukraine-European Union Association Agreement. As President, he even helped pass an amendment to the Ukrainian Constitution in February of 2019 which enshrined NATO and EU membership into Ukraine’s founding documents, representing a practical and powerfully symbolic gesture towards the West.
Independence Square after response by security forces to Euromaidan Protests in Kyiv, 2014
Current President Volodymyr Zelensky has emphasized that accession into NATO is critical for Ukraine’s security, and has committed to following a “strategic course” towards membership. This strategic course included joining NATO’s group of “enhanced opportunity” partners in June 2020, opening the door to “regular political consultations on security matters,” “enhanced interoperability programs” and “closer association in times of crisis.” Zelensky was particularly adamant in his pleas to NATO leaders during the run-up to the US-NATO and US-Russia summits in the Summer of 2021. To the dismay of US and Western allies, he released a triumphant (yet vague) tweet just before President Joe Biden’s meeting with Vladimir Putin, claiming that NATO “confirmed [Ukraine] will become a member of the Alliance.” Evidently, Zelensky had overstated what had been discussed.
Corruption, Instability, and Weak Institutions
While most explanations of Ukraine’s difficulties in joining NATO tend to focus on the barriers from outside Ukraine, there are still many obstacles from within Ukraine that prevent its accession. Ukraine has made significant progress towards democratization since the era of Kuchma, but problems still persist regarding political stability, the functioning of its institutions, and the power of its oligarch class.
“Entire clusters of high-level civil servants receive lucrative illicit incomes for their cooperation with oligarchs.”
-Serhiy Verlanov, Atlantic Council
The election of Volodymyr Zelensky in 2019 was the first peaceful transition of power in Ukraine since Yanukovych’s victory in 2010. In the 21st century, Ukraine’s presidents have routinely entered office with resounding popularity before being thrown out in either electoral routs or popular revolutions. This trend did not stop with Euromaidan, as Petro Poroshenko, who won the presidency by 43 points in 2014, lost by 49 points in 2019. Zelensky similarly entered office with a commanding popular mandate, but recent local election results have shown a significant erosion in his
party’s popularity. Consistent turnover of power is generally a sign of a vibrant democracy, and in many ways this is the case in Ukraine. However, these radical swings in the populace’s attitude are also signs that political institutions do not enable popularly elected leaders to fulfill the promises that won them their mandate.
“Ukraine has enacted a number of positive reforms since the protest-driven ouster of Viktor Yanukovych in 2014. However, corruption remains endemic, and initiative to combat it are only partially implemented.”
-Freedom House, Ukraine: Country Profile
Progress in the fight to dislodge the immensely powerful oligarch class in Ukraine has been slow at best. A 2018 report by the Wilson Center concluded that roughly 275 to 305 MP’s in the Verkhovna Rada could be considered “stooges of the Ukrainian oligarchy,” and that “parliamentary coalitions” are better understood “as agreements between oligarchs rather than as a manifestation of political struggle.” During President Zelensky’s campaign, critics raised concerns over his connections with prominent Ukrainian oligarch Igor Kolomoisky. Kolomoisky’s 1+1 TV channel, was the primary broadcaster for Zelensky’s film and television studio, Kvartal 95.
During Zelensky’s presidency, Kolomoisky ended his self-imposed exile in Israel and has since met with Zelensky, signaling that he may have the President’s ear on certain matters. Oligarchs continue to exert significant control over the Ukrainian media sphere as well. The aforementioned Wilson Center report explained that 80.5% of the TV audience share in Ukraine is controlled by oligarch-owned channels. For comparison, state-owned networks account for less than a percent of audience share.
Finally, Ukraine’s institutional structures struggle to meet even the vaguest of NATO standards. In a report by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) on Ukraine’s local elections in October of 2020, observers concluded that while the elections were conducted competitively and transparently, there were “widespread allegations of vote-buying” and the “misuse of state resources.” Furthermore, Ukraine’s recent constitutional crisis has highlighted how much work must be done to strengthen the integrity of the judiciary. Last October, the Ukrainian Constitutional Court declared the National Agency for Preventing Corruption (NAPC) to be unconstitutional. The NAPC was a critical mechanism for fighting corruption, as it facilitated asset declarations among Ukrainian politicians, judges, and bureaucrats and enumerated penalties for false reporting. However, Constitutional Court rulings are constitutionally irreversible and unappealable. President Zelensky, in circumvention of the Ukrainian Constitution, drafted a bill to dismiss all of the judges and annul their decision. Just after the ruling, the State Bureau of Investigation opened a probe into Chief Justice Oleksandr Tupytsky and his alleged ownership of undeclared property in occupied Crimea. Although Ukraine has come a long way from the assassinations of journalists during the Kuchma Era, many of its institutions are in dire need of reform.
Hesitancy Among Alliance Members and Russia’s Long Shadow
Beyond Ukraine’s borders, attitudes among prominent NATO members impede progress towards Ukraine’s accession. While some of these perceptions are driven by concerned assessments of Ukraine’s institutions, most are influenced by Ukraine’s eastern neighbor and perennial invader: Russia.
From a Russian military-geographical perspective, Ukraine is a critical link in a strategic chain which includes Moldova. The geography of Southeastern Europe is characterized by vast steppes occasionally interrupted by forest. This region extends from the Carpathian Mountains in the West, through Moldova and Ukraine, and into the heart of southern Russia. This type of biome is conducive for mobile warfare operations. Russia has an interest in exerting control over Ukraine and Moldova to act as a buffer against any hypothetical invasion from the West. Conversely, a NATO presence on Russia’s border with Ukraine would significantly limit the distance NATO forces would need to travel to reach major industrial centers within Russia during an invasion.
Physical Map of Eastern Europe
Source: San Jose
From a socio-political point of view, Ukraine holds powerful symbolism for President Putin in his domestic and foreign policy. According to Russian political sociologist Igor Klyamkin, Putin’s domestic popularity is dependent upon “militarized patriotism in peacetime.” By this, he means that Putin counteracts domestic disapproval about economic slowdown by reclaiming lost territories of the Soviet empire. He has repeated this cycle several times: finishing the War in Chechnya, carving territory out of Georgia in 2008, and annexing Crimea in 2014. Each time, Putin’s domestic approval reached new heights. As the 2024 presidential election edges closer, Putin
likely wants to have the option of seizing another piece of Ukraine (or the Baltics, or Moldova, or Georgia) to ensure he has the popular support heading into his “presidency for life.” Should Ukraine join NATO, such a military feat would be exponentially riskier and more difficult.
To prevent Ukraine from making progress towards accession, Russia has employed several strategies. First, it has conveniently made Ukraine statutorily ineligible for NATO membership via occupying Crimea and helping to manufacture the conflict in Donbas. Second, it has waged an intimidation campaign against Ukraine and its Western partners, threatening the outbreak of conflict if Ukraine or Georgia should receive a MAP or achieve membership. During a meeting in Moscow with President Yushchenko in 2008, Putin famously expressed regret that Russia would have to direct its nuclear weapons towards Kyiv should Ukraine join the alliance. On numerous occasions over the past decade, Russia has threatened “unspecified consequences” if NATO cultivates stronger ties with Ukraine.
“Moscow plainly does not want to allow Kyiv the the right to choose whether or not to be a party to NATO.”
-Steven Pifer, "Ukraine's NATO Challenge"
Third, Putin has coordinated a widespread disinformation campaign to alter the global narrative surrounding its conflict with Ukraine. This strategy is two-pronged: (1) convince Russian-speakers of the malevolence of NATO and Ukraine, and (2) convince non-Russian speakers that Ukraine is too backwards, corrupt, unstable or extremist to be a reliable ally within NATO. Russia wants to reduce support for NATO within Ukraine while making Ukraine “appear an unattractive partner for the West.” Finally, Russia has made efforts to expand its role as a chief energy exporter to most of Central and Western Europe. As of 2019, Russia was the source of 75-100% of all natural gas imports for eight NATO members. The construction of the Nordstream 2 pipeline from Russia to Germany through the Baltic Sea is a critical piece of Russia’s strategy to gain leverage over a key NATO ally.
To a large extent, Putin’s plan has worked. Even since the 2008 NATO summit in Bucharest, French and German leaders have been the most hesitant within NATO to support Ukraine’s accession, precisely because it would be unnecessarily offensive to Russia. Politicians in Europe have their domestic constituencies to worry about, and for many, cheaper gas seems more attractive than a military commitment to a country that has a long way to go in terms of institutional reform.
Ambiguity over commitments is another reason why Russia has been able to filibuster Ukraine’s entry. Alliance members fully understand that a MAP is usually an acknowledgement that a country is on the path to becoming a NATO country. However, what would happen if Putin decided to launch an invasion during the MAP process? There is no provision in the Washington Treaty that binds members to coming to the defense of an aspirant country. But, failure to protect Ukraine would seem like a diplomatic abandonment of a critical soon-to-be ally. Europeans prefer the flexibility of having no implicit or explicit military obligations to Ukraine in the case of a hypothetical Russian invasion.
The prospects for Ukraine in NATO are less “grim” than they are distant. With each day that passes, the Ukrainian military becomes a more effective fighting force which could be interoperable with NATO forces. With time, Ukraine will make important steps towards political and institutional stability consistent with both NATO and European standards. At some point in the future, the last barrier to entry for Ukraine will be the looming threat of Russia and its leverage over alliance members in terms of intimidation and energy resources. This is likely the most difficult to overcome, as Ukraine’s Western partners have shown little sign that they have the political will to follow through with a MAP for Ukraine in the face of Putin’s Russia. From a broader perspective, it seems that the “political moment” in Europe is not quite here yet for Ukraine to join NATO. The West in many ways is still recovering from the disarray and lack of leadership that came as a result of the Donald Trump presidency in the US. Progress must be made in reuniting NATO as a body with shared purpose before taking bold steps vis-à-vis its Eastern neighbors.
For Ukrainians, this is an unfortunate and painful reality. Roughly 14,000 of their servicemen, women, and citizens have died in its de-facto war with Russia in its east. They live in constant fear of full scale invasion by a superior military force with the prospect of only token assistance arriving from the West. The inherent risks of provoking Russia by entering NATO do not appear much worse than the current reality for Ukrainians. In early April, as President Putin delivered his state-of-the-nation address while his troops amassed on Ukraine’s border, President Zelensky visited the frontlines of the conflict in Donbas. When an interviewer asked if he understood the consequences of angering Russia, Zelensky replied, “maybe you are right … but what now is going on? What [do] we do here? What do our people do here? They fight.”
Acknowledgements: I would like to thank Andrew Ma and Ivana d'Argence for their suggestions and guidance during the editing process. I am also very grateful to Elad Raymond and the Onero Institute for giving young people like me a platform for publishing research.
About the Author: Gregory Arcuri is a recent graduate of The George Washington University, where he studied International Affairs with a concentration in Security Policy, and a minor Russian Language and Literature. He is a consultant for The Delta, a foreign affairs newsletter curated by Onero and Delta Phi Epsilon for which he perviously served as Chief Editor. He is from Duxbury, Massachusetts.
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