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What is the final destination for Ukraine’s NATO/EU path?

Prior to President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s visit to the White House, there were a number of statements, innuendos and high hopes. Lots of efforts were taken by the Ukrainian side to have this long-awaited meeting happen despite current geopolitical challenges. But how is Ukraine prepared to access NATO/EU structures now? Will this meeting have a positive impact for Ukraine on its Euro-Atlantic integration path?

September 23, 2021 - Christine Karelska Pavlo Vugelman - Analysis

Photo: The Presidential Office of Ukraine (CC)

Before his visit to Washington DC, the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, approved a new Communication Strategy for Ukraine’s Euro-Atlantic integration until 2025. The rationale behind its adoption is to establish a systematic information approach for government agencies and Ukrainian citizens in order to convey to every Ukrainian the content and practical value of Ukraine’s membership in NATO, the need for implementing appropriate reforms and their connection with the country’s Euro-Atlantic integration. Moreover, a systemic foreign policy strategy was approved for the first time in Ukraine’s independent history. This strategy sets the Ukrainian course for full Euro-Atlantic membership.

Yet the major question still lies on the surface. When and how will Ukraine exactly become a full member of NATO and the European Union? What has Ukraine done and what can it do further in order to make its Euro-Atlantic aspirations come true?

Turning points

According to recent polls 69 per cent of Ukrainians support Ukraine joining the EU, while 57 per cent are ready for the country to join NATO.  The history of co-operation between NATO/EU and Ukraine is quite rich and seems to be promising for all parties. However, in all ambitious documents that have already been signed, there is no final date for Ukraine joining either structure. The turning point of co-operation was undoubtedly Russia’s incursion into eastern Ukraine and the illegal annexation of Crimea back in 2014, which took all international actors by surprise. Russia’s aggressive behaviour definitely changed the rules-based international order and compelled Ukrainian international partners to revamp their strategies to not only Ukraine but also to its policy in the region. Since then, Ukraine has become a crucial element in the whole Euro-Atlantic security architecture against Russian hybrid warfare on the eastern flank. 

During the 2019 presidential elections there was a fear of a possible U-turn towards warming relations with Russia. Nevertheless, these fears were unfounded. Prior to elections in 2019 the Ukrainian parliament amended the constitution, having cemented the final goal – joining NATO/EU. With the change of elites and Zelenskyy taking the Office, Ukraine continued its tedious work on domestic reforms. 

During the 2008 NATO Bucharest Summit, Ukraine and Georgia were promised that, in time, they would become members of NATO. Ten years later, the Alliance acknowledged Ukraine’s aspirations to become a full member. In 2020 Ukraine was further recognised as an Enhanced Opportunities Partner. Finally, during the Brussels Summit this year, NATO members reiterated their support for the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine, Georgia and the Republic of Moldova within their internationally recognised borders. NATO’s Open Door Policy under Article 10 of the Washington Treaty means that for those countries which aspire to join the Alliance should continue to implement necessary reforms and decisions to prepare themselves for membership.  

Reform process

Ukraine has already implemented several ambitious reforms in the framework of its co-operation with NATO. Moreover, the Ukraine-EU Association Agreement and the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (DCFTA) signed with the European Union provide greater impetus for the Ukrainian authorities. The association agreement is by far the most wide-ranging document the EU has ever signed with a third country. It serves as a roadmap for gradual implementation of various reforms by Ukraine in compliance with EU standards.

Yet the major stumble blocks are the same: corruption and the judiciary system. The Ukrainian anti-corruption system is complicated but as Zelenskyy argued, there is no similar anti-corruption infrastructure in other countries. The creation of the High Anti-Corruption Court is a successful example and set a positive precedent for the Ukrainian judicial system – the judges were chosen by the independent international experts. The open electronic public procurement system ProZorro and electronic system e-declarations have worked successfully despite inner resistance by old elites. However, there are no serious convictions among high-level policymakers yet. Zelenskyy’s administration has also managed to launch one of the most radical reforms – the land one, which was frozen for 20 years by the previous elite. The perks of the decentralisation reform are felt by Ukrainians in newly formed united communities.

Nonetheless, Ukraine is still denied a NATO Membership Action Plan, a caused some turmoil in expert and government circles. According to the Ukrainian think tank New Europe it would be a win-win situation for both NATO and Ukraine to reach Ukraine’s compatibility plan with NATO including a concrete set of all needed reforms and a timeline with the regular monitoring and exact date of Ukraine’s long-expected entry into the Alliance. 

Meanwhile in the framework of the Eastern Partnership (EaP) initiative Ukraine also asks for more together with Moldova and Georgia in a new EaP Plus format. The initiative itself does not provide its members with the golden carrot – accession to the EU. Moreover, the Eastern Partnership is not a security instrument itself to ward off Russian assertive behaviour. Rather it is about pursuing and promoting democracy. The EaP still lacks a comprehensive security set of tools while focusing on four main policy areas: economy, governance, connectivity and society. However, the EaP initiative together with the EU’s European Neighbourhood Policy apply very important mechanisms to its members that are set to boost democratic reforms – positive and negative conditionality (more for more, or less for less). The visa liberalisation regime and the IMF assistance are positive cases for Ukraine regarding the conditionality approach.

Divided opinions

The Estonia’s president, Kersti Kaljula, claimed that Ukraine needs 20 years of work to become a full-fledged member of the EU. Without any clear-cut roadmap and date of entry into EU or NATO, the Ukrainian national authorities could lose their will to implement ambitious reforms. Moreover, there is a potential threat of domestic pro-Russian forces in the country that could exploit this window of opportunity for their own benefit. Western caution and slowness towards Ukraine will further weaken and undermine Euro-Atlantic security as it did in 2014, and emboldening Russian aspirations in the region.

Claims about the military conflict in eastern Ukraine as an obstacle for Ukraine’s accession into NATO has divided opinions. Some state firmly that there is no chance to enter the Alliance due to the military conflict. Yet, according to Alexander Vinnikov, Head of the NATO Office in Ukraine, there is no article in the Washington Treaty that would prohibit admitting Ukraine to NATO because of the war. The conflict itself is not a classical example of conventional warfare. It is a hybrid war that can strike at any time. Moreover, the rhetoric about the inability to accept Ukraine due to the military conflict is baseless and often coming from the Kremlin. 

During Zelenskyy’s long-awaited visit to Washington, all messages reiterated once again Ukraine’s high and ambitious hopes. It is clear that one visit will not lead to Ukraine becoming a member of NATO. But, the visit was not a complete failure. In fact, it was rather promising. The US will continue its unwavering and steadfast support of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity together with its Euro-Atlantic aspirations and remains a major strategic partner in military co-operation. The Biden administration promised to provide 60 million US dollars in military aid to Ukraine. Zelesnkyy’s priority issues – the NordStream 2 gas pipeline and Ukraine’s MAP (or any other document close to this one) – are off the diplomatic table for now. But, overall, the Joint Statement of Strategic Partnership together with the Strategic Defence Framework between two countries promises new opportunities for US-Ukraine bilateral relations and could serve as a basis for future Ukraine’s accession.

It is a reassuring political signal that “Ukraine’s success is central to the global struggle between democracy and autocracy”. For the Ukrainian military staff, it is crucial to continue to take part in NATO missions and operations to gain experience and valuable knowledge, which would also help counter Russian hybrid activities. However, Nord Stream 2 remains the Kremlin’s geopolitical trump card up. There are no prospects or any clear-cut statements to stop this project completely, but anything can still happen. It is necessary for the Biden administration to act proactively and impose sanctions now rather than after the launch of this project which could negatively affect Ukraine and European energy systems and leading to a severe energy crisis.


Russian overt and covert hybrid activities will take place regardless of Ukraine’s entry into the Euro-Atlantic family or not. Each step into either structure will be seen by Russia as an incursion into its historic post-Soviet space. Further Ukraine rapprochement with NATO and the EU could lead to a possible escalation in eastern or southern Ukraine, more aggressive disinformation campaigns, and an increase of pro-Russian forces. Possible NATO enlargement on the eastern flank will certainly strain US-Russia bilateral relations and pit them against each other on the geopolitical arena.

The policy of appeasement did not and will not work either. Russia attacked Ukraine when the latter was officially non-aligned and Viktor Yanukovych blocked the signing of the association agreement at the Vilnius Summit in 2013. Some experts convey a message that inviting Ukraine into the Alliance would be a strategic mistake and undermine the Euro-Atlantic security architecture. And it is still questionable whether the Alliance would agree to showcase a military posture in the case Russia launches an open military attack on Ukraine being a full-fledged member of NATO and/or the EU.

While the US continues to remain the main strategic partner for Ukraine in the security domain, a slow distancing of the Biden administration from the whole Ukrainian case is visible. It is clear that Ukraine has to ramp up its reform track on its own and root out corruption in its political system. This would become an added value to NATO/EU, instead of a liability. It will be more effective than constantly putting pressure on international partners to embrace Ukraine by all means.

In order to halt Russian hybrid warfare, the EU has to revise its own security policy and revamp the Eastern Partnership initiative instead of waiting for another game changer (e.g. an open military attack by Russia or worse). Currently, new and radical approaches are needed both by NATO and the EU in the context of the mounting crisis in Afghanistan and severe pandemic repercussions. The attention has drastically shifted from the undeclared war against Ukraine to those aforementioned issues. Yet Ukraine remains one of many US foreign policy priorities and could itself at the core of a new Biden Doctrine, despite the complex geopolitical challenges. The Biden administration clearly understands that democratic values are in danger around the globe. In order to secure its strategic interests and save its face as the world’s democracy promoter, NATO should build a stronger outpost on its Eastern flank against Russia being a “disruptor” and Belarus seeking to get closer to the Kremlin orbit of influence.

Ultimately, if NATO/EU do not change their approaches to Ukraine’s Euro-Atlantic future into proactive ones, the debate “Why Ukraine is still not in NATO/EU” could last forever and turn into a rhetorical one. Apart from all this, Russia can always strike unexpectedly. With the Ukraine case not being solved and mounting geopolitical crises on the horizon, it is high time to start reviewing NATO/EU security approaches and returning Ukraine back to its foreign policy priorities. Otherwise, Ukraine risks turning into a geopolitical rabbit hole. 

Pavlo Vugelman is the Deputy Mayor of the city of Odesa and creator of the Odesa Investment Office 5T (technology and innovation, trade, transportation, trust and tourism). He is interested in international relations, economics, technology, innovation and start-ups.

Christine Karelska is a College of Europe alumna and assistant to a Deputy of Odesa City Council. She is interested in EU-Ukraine relations, international relations and security studies.

Listen to the latest “Talk Eastern Europe” podcast episode on Ukraine here:

Listen to “Episode 79: Ukraine’s foreign policy blitz” on Spreaker.

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