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For many officials, this is a subject they will not discuss. When pressed, politicians give memorized, concise, and robotic answers.
The subject verboten? Ukraine’s potential NATO membership.
It’s such a potentially explosive issue that many NATO allies try to avoid even discussing it. When Ukraine in September asked for an accelerated process to join the military alliance, NATO publicly reiterated its open-door policy but did not give a concrete answer. And last week, when NATO foreign ministers met, their final statement simply underlined a wave 2008 promise that Ukraine would one day join the club.
Not mentioned: Ukraine’s recent request, any concrete steps towards membership or any timetable.
The reasons are many. NATO is divided on how, when (and in some cases even if) Ukraine should join. The big capitals also do not want to provoke the Kremlin further, aware of Vladimir Putin’s hypersensitivity to NATO’s eastward expansion. Most notably, NATO membership would legally oblige allies to come to the aid of Ukraine in the event of an attack – a prospect that many will not address.
The upshot is that while Europe and the United States have walked through taboo after taboo since Russia invaded Ukraine in February – funneling mountains of deadly military equipment to Kyiv, imposing sanctions once unthinkable in Moscow, defecting from Russian energy – the prospect of Ukraine joining NATO remains the third rail of international politics.
Touching the problem can burn you.
French President Emmanuel Macron sparked an uproar over the weekend when he said the West must consider security guarantees for Russia if it returns to the negotiating table – a move that enraged Kyiv and appeared to be going to contrary to NATO’s open door policy. And behind the scenes, Ukrainian officials themselves faced annoyed colleagues after making their public call for quick membership.
“Some very good friends of Ukraine are more afraid of a positive response to Ukraine’s application for NATO membership than of supplying Ukraine with the most sophisticated weapons,” said Dmytro Kuleba, Ukrainian Foreign Minister.
“There are still many psychological obstacles that we have to overcome,” he told POLITICO in a recent interview. “The idea of membership is one.”
“de facto” ally
Ukraine’s leaders have argued that for all intents and purposes they are already members of the Western military alliance – and therefore deserve a fast track to formal NATO membership.
“We are de facto allies,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in September when announcing his country’s application for NATO membership “under an accelerated procedure.”
“De facto, we have already completed our path to NATO. De facto, we have already proven interoperability with alliance standards,” he added. “Ukraine is asking to return it de jure.”
The Ukrainian leader’s statement surprised many of Kyiv’s closest partners – and left many grumbling.
The overture threatened to derail a plan that the alliance’s most influential capitals had essentially agreed upon: weapons now, membership talks later. It was an approach, they believed, that would deprive Moscow of a pretext to drag NATO directly into the conflict.
In their statement last week, ministers pledged to step up political and practical assistance to Ukraine while avoiding concrete plans for Kyiv’s future status.
Ultimately, however, few allies question Ukraine’s long-term membership prospects – at least in theory. The divisions are more about how and when Kyiv’s membership issue should be addressed.
A number of Eastern allies are advocating for a closer political relationship between Ukraine and NATO, and they want a more concrete plan that paves the way for membership.
“I think it’s basically unavoidable,” Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis said, “that NATO will have to find a way to accept Ukraine.”
At the other end of the spectrum, Frenchman Macron wants to take Moscow’s perspective into account.
“One of the key points that we have to address – as President [Vladimir] Putin has always said – it is the fear of NATO coming to his doorstep and the deployment of weapons that could threaten Russia,” Macron told French television channel TF1 in an interview published on Saturday.
Most other allies essentially evade the subject – not dismissing Ukraine’s dreams of NATO, but repeating a carefully crafted line about focusing on the current war.
Here is NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg’s version offered last week: “The most immediate and urgent task is to ensure that Ukraine prevails as a sovereign and independent democratic nation in Europe.
And here is the view of Dutch Foreign Minister Wopke Hoekstra from the same week: “The task here is to ensure that the main thing continues to be the main thing – and that is to help Ukraine on the battlefield.”
US Ambassador to NATO Julianne Smith echoed this point in an interview: “The current focus is on practical support to Ukraine.
Analysts say the fault line is mainly between western European capitals such as Berlin and Paris – which view membership as an ultra-sensitive issue to be avoided for the time being – and some eastern capitals which see the accession of Ukraine as a goal towards which the alliance can begin to work. .
Since the start of the war, this divide has only been “exacerbated”, said Ben Schreer, executive director for Europe at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. “Some countries just don’t even want to have a conversation about it because they think it could further harden Russian responses.”
Ukrainian officials acknowledge that NATO membership is not imminent, but they still want a gesture from the alliance.
“The ideal scenario would, of course, be a very simple phrase from NATO: ‘OK, we get your application, we start the review process.’ This would already be an important step,” Kuleba, Ukraine’s foreign minister, said ahead of last week’s meeting.
Smith, the US ambassador, said Ukrainians realize they need to do more before they can become members.
Ukraine formally adopted a constitutional amendment in 2019 pledging to continue NATO membership. But even though the country has pursued some reforms in recent years, experts and partner governments say Ukraine needs to do more to integrate Kyiv into Western institutions.
“There’s still work to be done, I don’t think it’s a mystery,” Smith said, adding, “I think they would be the first to tell you.”
As an interim solution, Kyiv presented what it calls a pragmatic proposal to Western countries to help protect Ukraine.
“Russia was able to start this war precisely because Ukraine remained in the gray zone – between the Euro-Atlantic world and Russian imperialism,” Zelensky said when presenting a 10-point peace plan in November.
“So how can we prevent the repetition of such Russian aggression against us? We need effective security guarantees,” he said, calling for an international conference to sign the so-called Kyiv Security Pact, a new set of security guarantees for Ukraine.
But it remains unclear whether Ukraine’s Western partners would be willing to give legally binding guarantees – or whether anything outside of NATO’s Article 5 collective defense clause would prove sufficient. deterrent all the way.
“Some of these countries,” said the IISS’ Schreer, “would be very reluctant.” Any written security guarantees, he noted, “from their perspective would likely invite a strong Russian response, but it would also at this stage make them part of this conflict.”
A Ukrainian victory, of course, could change the calculus.
“If Ukraine is stuck in an impasse, then NATO membership will not happen,” said Max Bergmann, director of the Europe program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “But if he takes back his territory and accepts his borders – whatever those borders are, whether they include Crimea or not, because that’s the fundamental issue for Ukraine – then I think things can move very rapidly.”
When asked if he was frustrated with his Western partners, Kuleba was candid.
“I know them too well to be frustrated with them – they are good friends,” he said. “It would be almost impossible for us to maintain Russian pressure and prevail on the battlefield without them.”
But, added the foreign minister, the “psychological barriers” of the West must be “overcome by changing the perspective”.
Kyiv’s partners, he said, “must start seeing Ukraine’s membership as an opportunity – not a threat.”