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Ukrainian NATO membership: Realistic or a diplomatic tool?

Ukraine is aware of the unrealistic path to NATO membership. The Zelenskyy and Biden administrations will not refrain from keeping the issue on the agenda, as it benefits both of them regionally and internally.

June 25, 2021 - Maryna Parfenchuk - All Quiet on the Eastern Flank?Articles and Commentary

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg speaks to Ukrianian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy after the Ukraine-NATO Commission meeting in Kyiv, October 2019 Photo: Sergei Chuzavkov / Shutterstock

The ‘NATO 2030’ summit in Brussels has once again shown that promising non-NATO countries membership is purely a diplomatic tool designed to spread the ‘European narrative’. This year’s event simply served as a space to discuss external threats without much of a concrete strategy. Ukraine, in particular, found itself no further along in its membership negotiations as it decried the lack of progress in NATO’s “open-door” policy. Despite this, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg clearly stated that Ukraine lacks the reforms needed for consensus among all 30 member states. 

Ukraine is undoubtedly frustrated and unhappy with the results of this year’s NATO Summit in Brussels. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy took to Twitter to state that the country “will become a member of the Alliance”. This message was even supported by President Biden. Despite this, the tweet simply appears to be a populist talking point, with membership a clearly unattainable dream for Ukraine. The country does not yet meet NATO membership criteria and requires further work on its reforms in order to become eligible for a decision to be made by the countries of the Alliance. However, it is worth noting that Ukraine has accelerated changes at a domestic level. For example, in January the parliament passed a first reading of reforms regarding the Ukrainian Security Service in accordance with NATO recommendations. Additionally, there has been enhanced cooperation between Ukrainian and NATO forces in the Black Sea. This has demonstrated the growing trust and increasing interoperability that now exists between the two sides. The Zelenskyy administration is trying hard to create a ‘European’ image of the country even though long-standing issues related to corruption and government transparency remain unresolved. At the same time, it is important to remember the continued issues related to the territorial disputes in Donbas and Crimea. For the last seven years, Ukraine’s elite have adopted a ‘declarative Europeanisation’ approach when dealing with the West. These figures continue to frame Russia as a threat and this strategy has proven successful when asking for financial aid. These declarations may now prove to be increasingly ineffective given the events of last year, in which a constitutional crisis and pause on IMF funding seemingly damaged the country’s image. Of course, the Trump-Ukraine scandal also played a key role in this development.

Even amongst the Ukrainian public it is clear that the country still has a long way to go if it is to improve its domestic mechanisms in order to join NATO. According to a recent poll conducted by the Ukrainian Institute for the Future (UIF), the majority of Ukrainian citizens do not see the country joining NATO anytime soon. The study shows that only seven per cent of respondents are fully convinced that Ukraine will join NATO in the near future (up to a year), whilst 28 per cent believe that accession may be possible in a similar time frame. Around 37 per cent of the population believe that accession is possible but not in the coming years. Furthermore, 14 per cent believe that accession to NATO is unlikely and another 14 per cent do not agree with Ukraine’s accession to NATO at all. This clear contrast in public and government opinion reflects the fact that Kyiv is pushing a narrative totally different to its actual domestic realities.

A proper assessment of the Ukraine crisis overall requires not only a national viewpoint but also a larger picture of international relations in the region. The regional (Russia) and international (the EU) dimensions are important here, as they both play roles as vital and inseparable players regarding the country’s security situation. Narrative and perception building are crucial here too because the images and perceptions of other nations are important when it comes to any attempt at conflict resolution.[1] Ukraine is particularly affected by issues related to the narratives of actors. While Russia has been aggressively involved in the country during the Donbas conflict and annexation of Crimea, it appears that “the conflict in Ukraine was fundamentally about the EU”. Indeed, the organisation continues to be involved as a mediator, nudging Ukraine towards the EU’s philosophy and the idea of “Ukraine’s European choice” when it comes to NATO membership.[2]

While this narrative has served Ukrainian elites well, NATO continuously uses it as a diplomatic tool to stress and highlight its support for Ukraine without properly committing to a presence in the region. NATO wants to be passively present in the region, keeping the door open to countries like Ukraine while ignoring any demands to treat the state as an equal partner that could realistically gain membership in the near future. NATO will most certainly continue to promote rhetoric related to joint cooperation and assistance. This is due to the fact that normative European beliefs have seemingly been challenged in Ukraine by Russian aggression.

While Russian aggression has been and remains high on NATO’s agenda, there is little real help that it can offer to countries such as Georgia or Ukraine. This is largely due to a vicious circle of dependency between NATO and Ukraine, as well as a structural impasse when it comes to NATO requirements on membership conditions for Ukraine. The organisation requires all conflicts to be settled before the country can join NATO. At the same time, the country’s leaders remain heavily reliant on NATO’s toolkit to resolve the consequences of Russian aggression (i.e. annexation of Crimea and separatism in Donbas). It makes Ukraine dependent and reliant on NATO for its territorial integrity, which is simply outside of the framework and capabilities of the transatlantic alliance. Such a vicious cycle of dependency and ‘false hopes’ keeps Ukraine vulnerable and fosters persistent Russian influence.

There are also a few other reasons for NATO’s inability to provide the support that Ukraine needs in the current circumstances:

  1. It is simply not the task of NATO to manage internal conflicts because the Alliance focuses on inter-state security. This means that the organisation has no ability to address the structural, political, and historical causes of post-Soviet conflict that are so closely tied to the history and identity of Ukraine.
  1. NATO stands for Western values and interests that are directly opposed to Russian interests. During the Biden-Putin Summit in Geneva, Moscow clearly and openly stated once again that Ukrainian NATO membership is a “red line”. Vladimir Putin has warned the West not to push forward with integration, as it would trigger an “asymmetrical, rapid and harsh” response. As a result, it is very clear where the borders lie in the case of the region’s different spheres of influence. Any stronger NATO involvement in Ukraine will create a backlash that could possibly see the region descend into conflict.
  1. NATO’s military capabilities would not be enough to defend Ukraine in the case of direct confrontation with Russia-backed separatist forces. Controversy surrounding Russian military training near the Ukrainian border in April has once again proven how quickly Moscow can act in the area. It has also shown that Russia is able to promote a real image of power in just a matter of days. This incident once again proves that NATO is still only able to offer rhetoric-oriented solutions when it comes to Ukraine. After these worrying developments on the border, Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba travelled to Brussels and met with Jens Stoltenberg. The outcome of the meeting was purely symbolic and resulted in simple political statements such as “NATO stands with Ukraine”. The meeting also resulted in yet another call for Russia “to end its support for the militants in eastern Ukraine and withdraw its forces from Ukrainian territory”.

Overall, Ukraine’s NATO membership remains a diplomatic tool that allows the organisation to reaffirm its European values and secure influence in the region. However, it also means that Ukraine has no realistic chance of joining the Alliance any time soon. This has left Ukraine pretty much on its own when it comes to dealing with both internal conflicts and its Eastern neighbour. As a result, it will be interesting to see if Ukraine will start to look for other, more capable allies in the region and beyond. At the same time, it is increasingly likely that Ukraine may start to suffer from ‘membership fatigue’ regarding NATO. Such developments could result in new dynamics emerging in the region.

Maryna Parfenchuk is a young graduate in European and Global Affairs, an activist, and a researcher of the Eastern European region. She used to work at the Eastern Partnership Civil Society Forum and German Marshall Fund in Brussels before conducting a Black Sea Security Fellowship at the Middle East Institute in Washington D.C. Maryna is currently working in the sphere of European youth entrepreneurship education while continuing to research, analyse and write about politics and society in Ukraine.

[1] Movahedi, S. (1985). The social psychology of foreign policy and the politics of international images. Human affairs, 8(19), 18-37.

[2] Chaban, N., & O’Loughlin, B. (2018). The EU’s crisis diplomacy in Ukraine: The matrix of possibilities. Journal of International Affairs, 71(1.5), 61-68.

This article is part of a special project titled “All Quiet on the Eastern Flank” funded by NATO Public Diplomacy.

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