WASHINGTON — Ukraine remains hopeful it can join NATO in the near future, and it’s putting in a coordinated effort to facilitate the accession process when that time comes, according to a top Ukrainian official.
In December, Dmytro Kuleba, Ukraine’s deputy prime minister on European and Euro-Atlantic integration, became the first official from the government of Volodymyr Zelenskiy to visit Washington. Speaking at the German Marshall Fund on Dec. 13, Kuleba said joining NATO and the European Union is vital amid his country’s ongoing conflict with Russia.
“We are moving [our country] West, to full member in the EU and NATO. We do it in a discouraging environment because EU is not even giving us a promise of European membership. NATO says, ‘doors are open,’ and one day we’ll become members, but that day is not specified or marked in red anywhere on the calendar,” Kuleba said. “But we are still doing it, because we are not doing it either for EU or for NATO — we are doing it for our country.”
Ukraine signed a partnership agreement with NATO in 1997 and launched talks on full membership in 2005. But those talks never progressed far, and the situation was dramatically complicated when Russia invaded Ukrainian territory in 2014, annexing Crimea and launching irregular warfare in other parts of the country.
Kay Bailey Hutchison, America’s ambassador to NATO, told Defense News in 2018 that she was open to both Ukraine and Georgia joining NATO if they can figure out the details.
“I think, by and large, every one of us [allies] wants to have more members that are in our sphere because we don’t want them to go into the Russian sphere and cause more problems and more disruptions,” she said.
Kuleba, in his comments, described a “very simple ambition” to make NATO members view Ukraine as a desirable asset. And Ukraine’s plan to convince the alliance to accept it as a member is a simple one: Just keep showing up.
For its part, Ukraine spent 3.8 percent of its gross domestic product on defense in 2018, according to the World Bank, meaning the country surpassed the 2 percent target that is a major focus for U.S. President Donald Trump and a goal set by NATO.
In addition, Kuleba explained, “we integrate Ukraine in as many fields and markets when it comes to the EU, or fields of cooperation with NATO, as possible, so one day the guys in Brussels in NATO and EU look around and say: ‘Oh, these Ukrainians are already everywhere, so why shouldn’t we make this next step?’ And that’s what we’ve been doing in the last three months [since the new government took over]. We adopted laws, we intensified political dialogue, we adopted bylaws, we engaged in very ambitious conversations with both EU and NATO.”
“We do not only want to receive support from NATO. We are also contributing to NATO security, to NATO operations,” including in Afghanistan, he added. “What we want to hear from NATO is: ‘Guys, we are ready to let you here, we want you to be there, we can help you with the following reforms so that you introduce those famous NATO standards in your life.’ ”
Ian Brzezinski, of the Atlantic Council, sees Kuleba’s comments as “a clear commitment to trans-Atlantic ambition, a clear expression of determination and a clear sense of realism.” The strategy of acting as “de-facto ally” is a solid one that, if executed properly over time, should help enable Ukraine to build up political support among NATO members, the analyst told Defense News.
But NATO politics can be tricky. Internal politics can scuttle agreements, as exemplified by Greece’s longstanding hold on Macedonia’s path to membership, which eventually led the latter nation to rename itself to appease Athens. Ukraine is currently embroiled in a political fight with Hungary, a NATO member who would have a vote. Other nations, such as France, have a history of skepticism about enlargement. In addition, Ukraine’s involvement in the Trump impeachment saga could have political repercussions.
Then there is the reality that Ukraine is itself still embroiled in conflict, and nations would likely be concerned about letting in a country that could immediately invoke Article 5, requiring military aid from the allied nations.
Georgian ‘brothers and sisters’
Ukraine is also eyeing another pathway through Georgia — who Kuleba described as “brothers and sisters” to Ukraine — in the form of a joint push for membership.
In many ways, the situation is the same between the two nations; like Ukraine, Georgia has dealt with ongoing Russian military incursions into its territory, dating back to 2008. And like Ukraine, Georgia abuts Russia on the Black Sea, a key strategic area for Moscow.
That last point is another argument made by Kyiv, said Kuleba. “If you [NATO] really want to create strategic balance against Russia in the Black Sea, you cannot achieve that without aligning with Ukraine and Georgia," he said. "You are strong, but having us on board will make you even stronger.”
Brzezinski is skeptical that either Georgia or Ukraine would have a significant impact on the naval balance of power in the Black Sea anytime soon, but he noted that generating a more robust regional presence is something for NATO members to consider. And while there is precedent for countries joining NATO as a bloc, he warned that there are risks associated with that approach.
“If one nation does a reversal in terms of its democratic stability, its reforms, it could impede the other’s integration. The two countries have to both be making demonstrable and substantive progress in meeting the alliance’s political, economic and military standards,” Brzezinski said.
On the broader question of whether Ukraine and Georgia, currently embroiled in conflict as they are, should be able to join the alliance, Brzezinski espouses a view that “if you say we’ll never let a country into NATO that’s being attacked by Russia, that’s just an invitation to Russia to initiate hostilities.”
But the analyst acknowledges those ongoing conflicts are a “factor” that NATO members should consider.
Kuleba acknowledged the problem, saying that Zelenskiy is “committed” to ending the conflict in Ukraine. But, Kuleba noted, “until Russia changes its approach, its position, we can jump out of our skin; but we cannot do it on our own.”
Rachel Ellehuus, a former principal director for European and NATO policy in the U.S. Office of the Secretary of Defense, is skeptical that NATO will invite in two nations embroiled in conflict with Russia. But she sees another model that could apply to both Ukraine and Georgia, where the two nations are tied closely to European institutions without formally joining them.
“The obvious models to follow here are the Nordics. In the case of Sweden and Finland, neither is a member of NATO, but it is hard to envision a conflict in Northern Europe that does not involve them and/or where their immediate neighbors would not come to their aid,” said Ellehuus, who now works as the deputy director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“The Nordics have even taken steps recently to enhance these heretofore informal arrangements, such as establishing emergency hotlines among them and concluding formal access agreements. Likewise, Norway and Iceland are not members of the EU but are, with a few exceptions, very much aligned with EU standards, laws, etc.”
Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.