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Ukraine wants to see NATO helping, not amending documents

Ukraine’s path towards membership in the EU is beginning to take shape, but how about the country’s relationship with NATO?

August 5, 2022 - Vladyslav Faraponov - Articles and Commentary

Turkish frigate Barbaros in the port of Odesa in 2021. Photo: Volodymyr Vorobiov / Shutterstock

According to Ukrainian foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba, Ukraine had a much higher chance of becoming a NATO member than of joining the EU before Russia launched its full-scale war in February 2022. In mid-summer 2022, precisely the opposite seems to be true. The EU has granted Ukraine candidate status while NATO has failed to grant Ukraine a clear path to membership. This despite Ukraine’s monumental defence against the Russia army, which many previously considered to be the second most capable in the world.

Ukrainian citizens and public officials alike see a paradox in NATO member states providing Ukraine with substantial and diverse military and financial support, while NATO as an organisation offers a minimum of help. The US has allocated 7.6 billion US dollars as direct security assistance, and has provided or organised the delivery of equipment including anti-armour systems, anti-air missiles, radars, night vision devices, small arms and ammunition from third countries. Likewise, the UK has committed 2.3 billion pounds to Ukraine and has provided training for Ukrainian military personnel. But while individual NATO members have acted on their own initiative, it is widely thought that NATO has not provided much. This will likely have an impact on support for the organisation in Ukraine.

Interest in Ukraine’s path to NATO and EU membership has undoubtedly increased on the Ukrainian political scene since the 2014 Revolution of Dignity. Today, it is unlikely any party could win seats in the Verkhovna Rada (the Ukrainian Parliament) unless it supports Euro-Atlantic integration. Ukrainians, however, expect reciprocation from NATO, as well as from those member states that have so far been less supportive.

There is no doubt that Putin’s war in Ukraine is a test for NATO — particularly for its unity and resilience. However, Europe cannot afford to turn a blind eye to Putin’s war, as it rages on just in the middle of the continent. One of Putin’s claims before the war, used to justify the full-scale aggression, was directly related to NATO’s enlargement. Founded in April 1949, NATO was designed to counter the Soviet Union and to prevent the spread of communism throughout Europe. Putin would have NATO return to its 1997 form, before it incorporated several former Warsaw Pact countries.

Ukraine has no illusions about NATO’s involvement in the war. Article 5 of the Washington Treaty states that an attack on a NATO member means an attack on the alliance as a whole. Kyiv does not expect NATO to offer Ukraine membership during a full-scale war, nor for it to join the war on Ukraine’s side — an action which could lead to World War III. Instead, Kyiv is looking for more military support, technical guidance and training of military personnel, as exemplified by that offered by the United Kingdom.

No time to repeat mistakes

Former NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen has acknowledged that NATO leaders were wrong in 2008 not to provide Ukraine and Georgia with a membership action plan, something that has been blamed on internal disagreements. Putin’s war of choice on Ukraine in 2022 has led to rapid changes of heart in long-neutral Sweden and Finland on NATO membership. The organisation’s positive response to the two Scandinavian countries’ new-found desire for membership has shown that NATO is in fact able to act swiftly and decisively.

A clearly articulated intention to help Ukraine will also ensure that NATO members are protected. Russia threatens not only Ukraine, but the whole of Europe — this will be the case for decades, whether Putin remains in power or not, as the Russian elite supports his militarism. This threat is borne out by the call from the presidents of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia for the US to increase its military presence on NATO’s Eastern flank. Ukraine can play a unique role in helping protect NATO. It soldiers, who are now some of the best equipped and trained in the world, are able to share important expertise and experience with NATO, whether in collective exercises or as a future member.

Strategic importance of NATO has grown, but its popularity in Ukraine may decline

While NATO seeks to deal with internal differences, Ukraine sees the organisation as failing to help. The Ukrainian Armed Forces are preparing to liberate the country’s South and they need more weapons and equipment. In addition, the US lend-lease program, which was ultimately designed also for Eastern European states, has not started yet, so Ukraine desperately needs more involvement from NATO member states. 

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg’s announcement of over 300,000 troops being put on high alert as a response to Russia’s aggression is considered in Ukraine as the minimum that could have been done. This, and the four additional multinational battle groups that NATO is establishing in Eastern Europe, are seen as more about protecting NATO rather than stopping the war’s enlargement. It is important that NATO’s recognition of Russia as the most significant and direct threat to its members’ security, peace, and stability in the Euro-Atlantic area lead it to not just make changes on paper. NATO leaders have mentioned a more strategic approach towards Ukraine, as part of capacity-building assistance to vulnerable partners in the neighbourhood and beyond, but Putin’s war on Ukraine needs an approach centred on crisis management. The lack of public communication and action in that regard will lead to a decline of public support for NATO membership within Ukraine.

Another paradox of the war is that support for Ukraine’s membership in NATO has grown among European countries and the US too, but Ukraine’s integration will definitely not happen until its internationally recognised 1991 borders are restored. Even if Ukraine manages to liberate the territories lost this year, Crimea and parts of Donbas would still be left occupied by Russian forces, with some form of ongoing conflict likely.

NATO’s doors therefore appear to be closed to Ukraine for the foreseeable future. Ukraine does not expect NATO to welcome it as a member for now, but it very much needs support to win the war, a war which poses an existential threat to the whole of Europe.

Vladyslav Faraponov is an analyst and journalist at the Kyiv-based Internews-Ukraine and UkraineWorld.

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