Has Ukraine come closer to NATO membership in the last few years?

28 December 2021, 08:06 PM

In early December Russia released a list of contentious demands for the United States and NATO, including a demand for a veto on Ukraine’s NATO membership. At the same time, the Kremlin has deployed over 100,000 Russian troops, tanks and artillery on Ukraine’s eastern border and in Russian-occupied parts of Ukraine.  

A number of U.S. and EU officials have voiced concerns over the situation in Ukraine. Western media reported that a Russian invasion of Ukraine could happen in early 2022 and could involve almost 200,000 Russian troops.

NV explores whether Russia is indeed concerned with Ukraine’s imminent NATO membership.

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 Russian demands vs. NATO and US response

 On Dec. 17 Russia released a list of “security guarantees'' it demanded from the United States and NATO. Russia’s key demand is for a veto on Ukraine’s membership of the alliance.

Apart from that, Russia insists NATO should not carry out any military activity in Ukraine, Eastern Europe, the Caucasus or Central Asia. The United States should not establish military bases in post-Soviet states, use their military infrastructure or engage in military cooperation with them.

On Dec. 20 Russia’s foreign ministry said they were expecting an “urgent” response from the United States

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said earlier that a veto on NATO membership for Ukraine and other states was a non-starter. However, NATO still decided to summon a NATO-Russia council on Jan. 12, for the first time in two-and-a-half years, to address Russia’s concerns.

The United States, in turn, agreed to hold talks with Russia on Jan. 10. The White House had said on a number of previous occasions Russia would face “unprecedented” sanctions in the event of its invading Ukraine.

The Russian President Vladimir Putin said he would seek counsel from military experts on how to proceed if the United States and NATO failed to provide him with the required “security guarantees.”

Russia’s foreign office also announced that Ukraine’s closer ties with NATO posed a threat of a large-scale conflict in Europe.

 Is Ukraine about to join NATO?

Back in 2008 Ukraine and Georgia asked to be given a roadmap for NATO membership. However, no membership plan was offered to the two aspiring states. The alliance did state that Ukraine and Georgia would become NATO members in the future, but did not give any specific timeframe.

This achievement by Ukraine was “shrugged aside” during pro-Russian Viktor Yanukovych’s presidency. In 2010 Kyiv crossed out all NATO membership references in official documents. The Ukrainian parliament passed a law declaring Ukraine’s neutrality. After that Ukraine lost its NATO aspiring state status.

But after the 2014 Revolution of Dignity Ukraine informed Brussels it was overturning its non-bloc status. Stoltenberg in return confirmed NATO stood by its earlier commitment given in Bucharest.

However, it took Ukraine another three years to recover its aspiring NATO member status. The 2016 National Security strategy and the 2017 law declaring NATO membership a strategic goal, did little to speed things up.

On March 9, 2018 Ukraine finally recovered its aspiring member status. However, only two days later an alliance spokesperson announced that NATO’s policy towards Ukraine remained unchanged.

“NATO’s policy has not changed,” the alliance spokesperson said. “Ukraine’s policy has and that has been (noted).”

NATO’s policy towards Ukraine has remained unchanged despite numerous statements from Ukrainian officials about the vital importance of Ukraine’s NATO membership. Ukraine even amended its constitution in 2019 to include the state’s aspirations for NATO membership.

On Dec. 16 2021 after Zelensky-Stoltenberg talks, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said Ukraine had still not been given a firm date for NATO membership despite numerous requests.

What’s in the way of Ukraine’s NATO membership?

In September 2021 White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said Ukraine would have to take a number of steps in order to join NATO.

“These are efforts to advance rule of law reforms, modernize its defense sector, and expand economic growth,” added Psaki.

Ukraine’s NATO membership should be backed by all 30 NATO member countries. Even following a membership roadmap does not guarantee membership. The final decision can sometimes depend on long-held grievances between neighboring states. For instance, Greece blocked FYR Macedonia’s NATO membership for 10 years. The country even had to change its name to North Macedonia to resolve the conflict.

Germany is one of the countries opposed to Ukraine’s NATO membership. Although there has recently been a change of government, there are still no indicators that Berlin’s stance might change.

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In June 2021 U.S. President Joe Biden said Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the war in Donbas were not obstacles blocking Ukraine’s way to NATO membership.

At the same time, Ukraine’s NATO ambassador Natalia Galibarenko has said that Russia annexed Crimea and invaded the Donbas to stop Ukraine from joining NATO, among other reasons.

What does the Ukraine-NATO relationship look like at the moment? 

In June 2020 Ukraine was granted the status of an enhanced opportunities partner. This status enables Ukraine to conduct joint military drills and exchange intelligence data with NATO members more extensively.

The enhanced partnership also provided new possibilities for cooperation with the NATO secretariat. Ukrainian citizens can now be appointed to NATO’s governing body.

Can the US and other NATO states defend Ukraine from Russia before the former joins the alliance?

In all likelihood in the event of Russian military aggression NATO members will respond with severe sanctions and military aid to Ukraine. At the same time, the chances of any NATO member deploying its troops to engage in a war with Russia are quite low.

On Dec. 8 President Biden said Washington did not envisage deploying U.S. troops in Ukraine.

And on Dec. 18 UK Defense Secretary Ben Wallace said Ukraine was not a NATO member, so it was highly unlikely a NATO member state would send troops into Ukraine to challenge Russia.

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