Since the day the Soviet Union no longer existed, December 31, 1991, the question of what to do with Ukraine has been an issue. While other former Soviet Bloc nations declared non-aligned independence, others sought to join alliances. Many feeling the remnants of the heavy Kremlin boot, joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) seeking the safety of the “attack on one is an attack on all” mutual defense measure. Most recently, Sweden and Finland have sought membership. Finland has joined, and Sweden’s club card is pending. But NATO membership for Ukraine has been a tug of war.
A little background on Ukraine and its desire for NATO inclusion is helpful. In 2008 at the NATO Bucharest Summit, a declaration was signed by the attending heads of state declaring: “NATO welcomes Ukraine’s and Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations for membership in NATO. We agreed today that these countries will become members of NATO.” Seems straightforward. Not much fuzz on those words. But the declaration went further, saying, “MAP (Membership Action Plan) is the next step for Ukraine and Georgia on their direct way to membership. Today we make clear that we support these countries’ applications for MAP.” So, it would be just a matter of time before Ukraine and Georgia would be proud NATO members. The process, after all, had begun, right? Wrong. After 15 years and some change, there’s no membership for Ukraine. What is the problem? It is now as it was then: Russia. Then NATO nations did not want to annoy Russian President Vladimir Putin. Look at how well that appeasement strategy worked. Within months after the Bucharest Summit, Russia invaded Georgia. And in 2014, Russia illegally invaded and annexed Crimea and occupied eastern Ukraine.
Ukraine Membership in NATO Now Doubtful
Of course, now, the prospects of NATO inclusion for Ukraine are dimmed and complicated by the unprovoked and brutal invasion by Russian forces over 470 days ago. Hope springs eternal, however. Again, Ukraine’s membership in the North Atlantic Alliance will be a topic of a July NATO summit, this time in Vilnius, Lithuania. There are those current NATO members steadfastly in favor of Ukraine’s membership or association in some way. But some detractors believe the current conflict establishes a barrier to membership.
Nonetheless, there is strong support for Ukraine within NATO and the US among those who see membership for the Kyiv government in the Alliance as inevitable. “I am here today with a simple message: NATO stands with Ukraine…Let me be clear: Ukraine’s rightful place is in the Euro-Atlantic family. Ukraine’s rightful place is in NATO, and over time, our support will help you make this possible,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg told Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky during a recent visit to Kyiv, The New York Times reported. On Tuesday, June 6, the secretary general provided some insight into his conviction. Barons reported that during talks in Slovakia with leaders from NATO’s eastern members – a group known as the Bucharest Nine: Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, and the Slovak Republic – Stoltenberg said:
“All allies agree that NATO’s door remains open, that Ukraine will become a member of the Alliance and that Russia does not have a veto. We will strengthen our support for Ukraine with a multi-year package of assistance to help them transition from Soviet era to NATO standards and bring Ukraine closer to NATO.”
Additionally, the Bucharest Nine countries, all of whom suffered under the Soviet Union repression, put out a joint affirmation reinforcing the secretary general’s strong advocacy. “(W)e expect that in Vilnius, we will upgrade our political relations with Ukraine to a new level, and launch a new political track that will lead to Ukraine’s membership in NATO, once conditions allow,” the statement published on the President of Poland’s website said.
Vilnius Summit Will Fall Short of Ukraine Membership in NATO
Despite strong advocacy, the July discussions in Vilnius will not result in an invitation to Ukraine for NATO membership. The other side of the debate on Ukraine’s membership in NATO has a voice. Primarily, the critics of membership invoke the words of a 1995 Study on NATO Enlargement, stating:
“New members, at the time that they join, must commit themselves, as all current Allies do on the basis of the Washington Treaty, to: unite their efforts for collective defense and for the preservation of peace and security; settle any international disputes in which they may be involved by peaceful means in such a manner that international peace and security and justice are not endangered…”
The study words are an adaptation of Article 1 of The North Atlantic Treaty signed in Washington, DC, on April 4, 1949. Since Ukraine is involved in an international dispute, NATO membership must be on hold until the hostilities are over. Of course, the other prominent argument against membership is the persistent Kremlin threat of escalating the violence if Ukraine were made a member of the Alliance.
What the optimists for Ukraine’s accession to NATO hope for from the Vilnius meeting is an agreement on a roadmap to membership and some middle ground for additional military support for Kyiv. However, military support must make a decisive impact as the fighting rages in eastern and southeastern Ukraine where devastating missile and drone attacks on civilians, their homes, and businesses are persistent. The current dribbling out of increasingly more effective weapons does nothing more than prolong the fighting. Vilnius could be a turning point favoring Ukraine but short of membership.
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