Ukraine’s move to apply for NATO membership on September 30 was met with a lot of surprise in Brussels.
Very few saw it coming and while there is a lot of sympathy for Kyiv there, don’t expect the country to join the military alliance in an accelerated fashion, as President Volodymyr Zelenskiy promised when he announced the latest move. In fact, don’t expect much on this issue anytime soon.
The most common reading I hear when talking to NATO officials is the timing of Zelenskiy’s announcement – just hours after Vladimir Putin’s big show in Moscow, where the Russian leader confirmed the intention to annex additional Ukrainian territory and again threatened the West with nuclear weapons. saber rattling. The media-savvy Zelenskiy needed to “steal Putin’s thunder,” one official told me, speaking on condition of anonymity. Judging by the press coverage, it worked – to a certain extent.
It reminded me of another move Kyiv made earlier in the war: the push for the West to create and enforce a no fly zone over Ukraine. For several days, Ukrainian officials pressed this, and experts debated its pros and cons. But the practical impossibility of it soon quieted all talk, and there has been no serious talk of it since the beginning of March.
The same fate is likely to befall Ukrainian NATO membership and for the same reason: the West, broadly represented by NATO here, does not want to be drawn into this conflict in any way. To understand why, look no further than NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg’s press conference in Brussels later on September 30 following Ukraine’s surprise announcement.
Yes, he said when asked about Ukraine’s NATO bid that “every democracy in Europe has the right to apply for NATO membership, and NATO allies respect that right.” And we have said again and again that NATO’s door remains open.’
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That has essentially been NATO’s line against Ukraine (as well as other NATO aspirants such as Bosnia-Herzegovina and Georgia) ever since it was decided at the 2008 NATO summit in Bucharest that it would one day be welcome to join the club. Nothing has changed there. What was more important from that press conference were two other sentences that Stoltenberg said.
The first was that “NATO is not a party to the conflict.” He repeated that very line on two more occasions during his 18 minutes in front of the press.
NATO is ready to defend every inch of its own territory and alliance members are still very keen to help Kyiv with weapons and ammunition to defeat Russia. But don’t expect NATO to come to the rescue in any other way. Military confrontation with Russia is something that should be avoided no matter what. So as long as there is a Russian presence on Ukrainian territory, the whole idea of Ukraine even getting closer to membership is pretty moot. And the same goes for Georgia with its frozen conflicts.
Stoltenberg’s second sentence perhaps makes Ukraine’s potential entry into NATO even more theoretical: “We support Ukraine’s right to choose its own path, to decide what kind of security arrangement it wants to be a part of. Then, of course, a decision on membership must be made by all 30 allies and we make these decisions by consensus.’
Ukraine’s best effort
The need for consensus is the real killer of Ukrainian hopes. And that will prolong the wait no matter how much Kyiv pushes. Look no further than Finland and Sweden here. Their Nato bid was warmly welcomed when they applied in May. It was a expedient process, just like the one Zelenskiy is looking for with some steps skipped or decided very quickly. And for a while there was even talk that the Nordic couple would join at the end of the summer. We are now in October and there is no sign that Turkey’s parliament or president will give the green light until Stockholm has made the concessions Ankara has asked for. And on top of that, Hungary’s legislators are also in no rush to vote for right now.
Ukraine’s membership plans have been approved by nine presidents of Central and Eastern European countries and going forward there could potentially be a few more sympathizers depending on how the war effort goes and how the geopolitical landscape in Europe changes in the coming months. But we are still far from consensus on 30 (or 32 when Finland and Sweden finally join.)
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What can change is that NATO updates its way of dealing with aspiring countries. So far this has been done via the Membership Action Plan (MAP), a NATO pre-accession program of advice, assistance and practical support tailored to a prospective member, although a MAP does not automatically mean future membership. Finland and Sweden skipped this stage entirely, while Bosnia-Herzegovina has had one since 2010 and still hasn’t progressed that far. For both Ukraine and Georgia, obtaining a MAP has so far proved difficult.
For the upcoming NATO summit in Vilnius, scheduled for the summer of 2023, a MAP may be given to Kyiv or Tbilisi – or both. But MAP has become a politically sensitive word in NATO circles, especially when mentioned in the context of eastern aspirants. Maybe it could be a “MAP in all but name”, something disguised as a “roadmap” or “membership consultation”?
In any case, any step forward would require consensus, and the same unanimity is needed for the next step: the signing of an Accession Protocol and its ratification. A tall order, in other words, and one that will take time.
Perhaps Ukraine’s best bet when it comes to its NATO membership is that much will change for the better, both on the battlefield and among the alliance’s political elites in the nine-month run-up to the next summit.
Copyright (c) 2018. RFE/RL, Inc. Republished by permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Washington DC 20036