Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

Ukraine Needs a Clear Path to NATO Membership

Russia’s recent aggression along its border shows why Kyiv needs decisive action from the alliance.

By , the deputy prime minister of Ukraine for European and Euro-Atlantic integration.
Ukrainian soldiers on the front line in Donetsk.
Ukrainian soldiers stand in position on the front line with Russian-backed separatists in the Donetsk region on Feb. 16. ANATOLII STEPANOV/AFP via Getty Images

Thirteen years ago, NATO leaders decided at their summit in Bucharest that Ukraine and Georgia should at some point in the future become members of the alliance. It was the first time the alliance had formally recognized the membership prospects of the two post-Soviet countries, which had shown their willingness to assume the responsibilities of NATO allies. The Bucharest summit was undoubtedly a historic event, but the allies stopped short of granting Ukraine and Georgia membership action plans, used previously in NATO’s enlargement in Central and Eastern Europe.

NATO membership action plans represent a commitment from the countries aspiring to join to make comprehensive reforms. They also reflect the alliance’s promise that these reforms will actually open the door to membership. Fears of antagonizing Moscow and destabilizing the region stopped the allies from creating a formal path for Ukraine and Georgia’s membership in Bucharest. During these heated discussions, Russian President Vladimir Putin openly questioned Ukrainian statehood for the first time—a warning sign underestimated by the allies. A few months later, Moscow started a war in Georgia, a scenario repeated in 2014 in Ukraine.

Analysts have debated what might have happed if the NATO allies had taken a different route in Bucharest, but in the intervening years the geopolitical reality has changed. The prospect of a post-West global order has recently featured in international debates, and global actors with different values are gaining strength. In the post-Soviet space, the struggle between two value systems—democratic and autocratic—has intensified across all sectors. The outcome of this struggle will shape international security.

Thirteen years ago, NATO leaders decided at their summit in Bucharest that Ukraine and Georgia should at some point in the future become members of the alliance. It was the first time the alliance had formally recognized the membership prospects of the two post-Soviet countries, which had shown their willingness to assume the responsibilities of NATO allies. The Bucharest summit was undoubtedly a historic event, but the allies stopped short of granting Ukraine and Georgia membership action plans, used previously in NATO’s enlargement in Central and Eastern Europe.

NATO membership action plans represent a commitment from the countries aspiring to join to make comprehensive reforms. They also reflect the alliance’s promise that these reforms will actually open the door to membership. Fears of antagonizing Moscow and destabilizing the region stopped the allies from creating a formal path for Ukraine and Georgia’s membership in Bucharest. During these heated discussions, Russian President Vladimir Putin openly questioned Ukrainian statehood for the first time—a warning sign underestimated by the allies. A few months later, Moscow started a war in Georgia, a scenario repeated in 2014 in Ukraine.

Analysts have debated what might have happed if the NATO allies had taken a different route in Bucharest, but in the intervening years the geopolitical reality has changed. The prospect of a post-West global order has recently featured in international debates, and global actors with different values are gaining strength. In the post-Soviet space, the struggle between two value systems—democratic and autocratic—has intensified across all sectors. The outcome of this struggle will shape international security.

Russia is now building up its military presence close to the Ukrainian border on a scale that has forced Ukraine and international observers to consider the possibility of another Russian offensive. Key governments have made strong statements in support of Ukraine, calling on the Kremlin to stop the aggression. But statements are not enough; Ukraine needs decisive action from the states committed to democratic principles and rules-based order.

Democracies’ coordinated efforts may represent the only way for them to prevail over aggressive politics. As Ukraine’s deputy prime minister for European and Euro-Atlantic integration, I welcome U.S. President Joe Biden’s initiative to hold a Summit of Democracies, as well as his commitment to restore and strengthen cooperation across the Atlantic. Now is the moment that democracies can determine the trajectory of the future, just as it was at the Bucharest summit in 2008.

To avoid the mistakes of the past, NATO should change its geopolitical grammar.

To avoid the mistakes of the past, NATO should change its geopolitical grammar. The alliance must shape its Russia strategy not toward Ukraine and Georgia but with them. Likewise, Kyiv should be at the table when NATO updates its vision of Euro-Atlantic cooperation for the next decade. Accelerating Ukraine’s integration into the alliance should be one of the key elements of this renewed strategy, which will hasten the victory of the Western democratic system in the post-Soviet space.

NATO’s current approach to Ukraine, premised upon deeper integration in exchange for more reform, is insufficient and ignores the Kremlin’s gravitational force. How NATO members view the future of its eastern neighborhood is a critical question, and the alliance is already lagging behind. Moscow has its own geopolitical master plan for the region and beyond, and it has been systematically implementing it since 1991.

For our part, Ukraine has no doubts about its future. In 2008, NATO leaders hesitated to agree to a membership action plan in part because Ukrainian citizens were ambivalent about such a step. Back then, the prejudices about NATO nurtured by the Soviet regime and cultivated by Russia were ever-present. But Russia’s aggression in the years since forced Ukrainians to rethink principles of collective security. Today the majority of Ukrainians support NATO integration, and the government will implement the will of the people.

Moreover, since 2008 Ukraine has become irreversibly democratic and delivered on reforms in strategic spheres. The country has built strong anti-corruption institutions, made its energy market compatible with the European Union, launched a transparent public procurement system, and conducted military, police, medical, and educational reforms, among others. Kyiv’s partners have recognized the progress, including NATO. This democratic change is what irritates the Kremlin the most. Russia does not fear a common border with NATO, but it fears a common border with democracy—the real threat to its authoritarian and kleptocratic regime.

Ukrainians may be disappointed in NATO’s indecisiveness, especially in the face of their determination. After all, Euro-Atlantic integration is not a reward for the right reforms. It is the only way for Ukraine to succeed as a state that can protect its citizens and its territory. There are no illusions in Ukraine that someone else will fight for us. At the same time, a clear path to NATO membership will become a key factor in transforming the post-Soviet space into a secure, democratic one.

It is past time for NATO leaders to begin consultations to chart a path to membership for Ukraine, as they pledged in 2008.

In light of Ukraine’s institutional and political transformation, it is past time for NATO leaders to begin consultations to chart a path to membership, as they pledged in 2008. Our common goal is to confront our opponents in the region: authoritarianism and aggression. There is no better place to start than supporting Ukraine’s efforts to strengthen NATO’s eastern flank by moving forward with its road map to membership. If NATO doesn’t want to concede its play on the chessboard to Russia, the alliance must act. Moscow, after all, will not skip its turn.

The world has changed radically and new threats have emerged since NATO was founded over 70 years ago. But the main frontier that the alliance defends—democracy—has not changed, and it is shared between Ukraine and NATO. Launching negotiations to grant Ukraine a membership action plan will strengthen it.

We must be determined and strive for Europe to truly be able to say that it is whole, prosperous, free, and at peace. As the last 13 years have shown, geopolitics does not tolerate a vacuum of ideas and decisions. If we do not offer them, our opponents will.

Olga Stefanishyna is the deputy prime minister of Ukraine for European and Euro-Atlantic integration. Twitter: @StefanishynaO

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