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Ukraine and NATO: A Love-Hate Relationship That Deserves a Happy Ending

Staff writer Mehmet Temur examines Ukraine’s tumultuous relationship with NATO.

In the contemporary era, Ukraine faces the unprecedented challenge of addressing the consequences of its ongoing conflict with Russia while seeking NATO membership. The topic of Ukraine’s accession into the military alliance has been a hotly debated issue, with NATO members divided over the right approach. The recent NATO summit in Vilnius left Ukraine without a concrete timetable for joining, prompting President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to criticise the “absurd” delay. This raises the question: will Ukraine ever join NATO? Or, more crucially, should it?

The History of Ukraine-NATO Relations

Ukraine’s relationship with NATO has been marked by fluctuations over time, influenced by changes in political leadership and regional dynamics. In its early years of independence, Ukraine exhibited pro-NATO sentiments under President Leonid Kravchuk. Despite that, as political leadership shifted, sentiments towards the military alliance became more ambivalent, particularly under President Leonid Kuchma.

However, with the advent of the Orange Revolution, Ukraine renewed its pro-European and pro-NATO stance under President Viktor Yushchenko. It was during this period that Ukraine officially requested a membership action plan. As expected, this request was met with cautiousness from some NATO members, who feared provoking Russia. The alliance ended up adopting a vague stance on the issue, stating that Ukraine and Georgia would eventually become members but without providing concrete criteria.

Under subsequent administrations, Ukraine’s NATO aspirations oscillated. Victor Yanukovych’s presidency saw a distancing from NATO, while Petro Poroshenko and Zelensky’s governments renewed focus on gaining membership, especially in the context of Russian aggression.

Division within the alliance

Nowadays, NATO’s hesitation in providing Ukraine with a concrete path to membership stems from divisions among member states. Some countries, including France, Poland, and the Baltic states, advocate for a membership action plan or specific criteria for accession. They argue that such clarity would reward Ukraine’s commitment to defending the European continent and act as a deterrent against further Russian aggression.

On the other side, countries like the United States and Germany are wary of providing a clear timetable. They fear that doing so might escalate tensions with Russia and undermine NATO’s flexibility in responding to geopolitical challenges, particularly concerning China and the Indo-Pacific region.

NATO remains noncommittal at recent summit

At the recent NATO summit in Vilnius, the alliance issued a joint communiqué that fell short of providing a concrete path to membership for Ukraine. Instead, the statement maintained that Ukraine could join the alliance “when allies agree and conditions are met.” This ambiguous language disappointed President Zelenskyy, who although later expressed gratitude, had hoped for a more clear path to membership.

Zelenskyy’s reaction reflects Ukraine’s frustration at the lack of a definitive timeline for NATO accession. Some critics argue that the recent NATO statement risked repeating the mistakes made during the 2008 NATO Summit in Bucharest when Ukraine and Georgia were promised eventual membership without receiving a membership action plan. They argue that this could provoke Russia without providing a credible deterrence.

Some NATO members, including France, Poland, and the Baltic countries, advocated providing Ukraine with a concrete path to NATO membership. They proposed offering Ukraine a series of criteria and steps to fulfill, such as reaching a peace agreement with Russia, resolving internal conflicts, and addressing corruption in the armed forces. Fulfilling these criteria would imply automatic membership in NATO. Proponents argued that such a promise was fair to Ukraine, given its efforts to defend Europe from Russian aggression and that it would act as a strong deterrent to any further aggression from Russia. They believed that offering a clear path to membership would provide Ukraine with the reassurance and motivation to undertake necessary reforms and commit to the alliance’s values.

Another key argument supporting a clear path to NATO membership for Ukraine is the belief that the alliance’s credibility is at stake. Some members argued that failure to provide Ukraine with a concrete path to membership would damage NATO’s reputation and undermine its commitment to support and defend democratic countries facing external threats. They stressed the importance of standing by Ukraine, a country that has been at the forefront of resisting Russian aggression.

On the other side of the debate, NATO members such as Germany and the United States were cautious about providing a concrete path to membership for Ukraine. They feared that such a promise could provoke Russia into further aggressive actions, including military escalation. Instead, they preferred to maintain a more ambiguous stance, stating that Ukraine would become a NATO member in the future without offering specific criteria for accession. This approach allowed for more flexibility and could help NATO manage the delicate balance between supporting Ukraine’s aspirations and not provoking further tensions with Russia.

Furthermore, the United States and its allies proposed an Israel-style relationship with Ukraine as an alternative to full NATO membership after the war. In this scenario, Ukraine would remain outside the formal NATO structure but would establish a bilateral alliance with the United States. This arrangement would involve significant military aid and security guarantees to deter Russia from any potential future aggression against Ukraine. Proponents of this approach argued that it would provide substantial and guaranteed support to Ukraine without triggering a direct confrontation with Russia.

However, critics of the Israel-style relationship believe it would be more expensive than granting full NATO membership to Ukraine in the long run. Under such a relationship, the United States would need to continuously provide military aid and support to Ukraine, similar to its commitments to Israel. This could strain U.S. resources and potentially create tensions with other NATO members, especially those already struggling to meet their defence spending commitments.

Looking Ahead

It’s probable that the question of NATO membership for Ukraine will be tabled until the ongoing war comes to an end. It is clear that both sides want to protect Ukraine from any future aggression and only have disagreements on the method. However, this ambiguity only serves to benefit the Kremlin. Regardless of NATO’s eventual decision, arguments on critical foreign and security policies in the midst of a war are far from ideal, much less so if they are done so publicly. Already, public support in western countries for providing arms and economic aid to Ukraine is declining. While this is not yet a majority view, a prolonged conflict and perceived disunity could change that.

Moreover, leaders must convince the public that this unprovoked invasion is part of a much larger conflict to defend democratic values and international law. If lost it could have devastating consequences directly impacting them. It would result in the erosion of the rule-based international order, immediately triggering many more military conflicts. Not to mention it would cause the resurgence of pro-Russian extremist parties in the West, harming democratic institutions and societal cohesion. As such, it is crucial for NATO take necessary measures to protect Ukraine, both during and after the war. This will not take the mistakes of the past back but it would at least ensure security for a nation that has gone through centuries of unimaginable hardship.

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