North Atlantic Treaty of 1949 and Ukraine’s NATO Membership

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy delivered a passionate and emotional speech to the European Parliament on 1 March 2022 and received a standing ovation from the Members of the European Parliament (MEPs). Ukraine had also formally applied for European Union (EU) membership, a move that preceded President Zelenskyy’s speech by a few hours.

However, given the current circumstances, it is neither the standing ovation nor the EU membership that Ukraine needs at the moment. It is the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation’s (NATO) membership that it requires, which, if possessed, could have helped Ukraine deter the Russian aggression “more” effectively.

In hindsight, if the future threat assessment vis-à-vis Russia had been made correctly,  Ukraine would have been a NATO member by now. However, the process was mainly distracted by other pressing international issues such as the global financial crisis and war on terrorism, along with the collective interests of the region falling victim to individual state interests back in 2008 during the Bucharest Summit.

Since NATO membership is the talk of the town these days for multiple reasons, mainly due to the Ukraine crisis, combined with many non-member states pushing for joining the alliance now, it is pertinent to discuss what is required to become a member? Is Ukraine’s membership even a possibility in the near future? What are the impediments to Ukraine’s membership, and what can be done to avoid hostilities (by all concerned stakeholders) surrounding this issue in order to halt any future confrontation?

NATO was founded on 4 April 1949 in Washington DC after its 12 founding members (Germany was not a part of this) signed the North Atlantic Treaty (NAT), also known as the Washington Treaty. Today, there are total 30 members of this politico-military alliance. It reached its current membership count after 6 rounds of enlargement from 1952 till 2009.

Even though there is a political consensus among NATO members for Ukraine’s membership at the moment, there are a lot of legal, political, military and economic prerequisites that need to be fulfilled by any aspiring applicant.

Created primarily to provide collective security to the Euro-Atlantic region against Soviet expansionism and compliment European political integration after World War 2, the alliance continues to exist and is looking for further expansion after the disintegration of the Union of the Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR).

For Russia, regardless of NATO’s claim of having a defensive orientation, it is an alliance that manifests the West’s quest for eastward expansion towards Russia, thus creating a security dilemma. A point, that Russia justifies by identifying the inclusion of fourteen states in NATO’s fold after 1997.

NATO, however, defends this expansion under the pretext of enhancing comprehensive Euro-Atlantic security and stability via implementing democratic reforms to ensure civilian supremacy over military forces, transparency in political affairs and bolstering neighbourly inter-state relations among the alliance members (as highlighted in the 1995 Study on Enlargement).

Moreover, there are 14 Articles in total that make up the North Atlantic Treaty. Each article deals with a unique and specific commitment that all parties have to undertake as members of the alliance.

The most important of the 14 Articles is “Article 5” which deals with the collective defence and response if a member or multiple members of the alliance are attacked. Meaning an attack on one member will be considered an attack against all and warrant a collective response against the aggressor. Article 5 is viewed as the cornerstone of the entire NAT and is probably the main attraction for countries to join it, especially the smaller states of the Euro-Atlantic.

The other most important Article of NAT is “Article 10”, which deals with an “open-door policy”, which stipulates that any European country is in a position to complement NATO’s principles and contribute to the security of the North Atlantic area can join the alliance. Besides Article 5, this article is another irritant for Russia as it sees it as NATO’s excuse to include more former Warsaw Pact countries into its fold to manifest Russia’s encirclement.

But, having said that, if Article 5 is NAT’s strength which Ukraine wants to avail to its advantage vis-à-vis Russia, it can also be termed as its biggest weakness. If Article 10 affords Ukraine the luxury to apply for NATO’s membership, Article 5 is the biggest hurdle for it to become a member. Here’s how:

Acquiring NATO’s membership is an uphill task, and easier said than done. Even though there is a political consensus among NATO members for Ukraine’s membership at the moment, there are a lot of legal, political, military and economic prerequisites that need to be fulfilled by any aspiring applicant.

But before anything else, Ukraine will need to initiate an intensified dialogue with the alliance regarding its aspirations and related reforms. The success of this dialogue will lead to the country acquiring the Membership Action Plan (MAP), which still does not guarantee membership. In addition, Ukraine would have to show respect for the values of NAT to meet the criteria that are highlighted in the 1995 Study on Enlargement, such as:

  • Ukraine would need to uphold democracy, including tolerating diversity in the society.
  • Make considerable progress towards a market economy.
  • The military will need to be brought under civilian control.
  • Contribute towards NATO operations and
  • manifest compatibility with NATO’s institutions, to name a few.

Implementation of MAP, a program that gives a roadmap to prepare nations for future membership, is an arduous and time-consuming process that actually take years to implement and fulfil. And given Ukraine’s prevailing situation, it seems that it might never be able to fulfil certain criteria, thanks to Russian opposition and manoeuvres.

Despite considerable progress in terms of democracy since 2000, Ukraine is far from being a functional democracy and a market economy. Factors like dealing with diversity and ensuring minority rights are issues continue to be pressing concerns that will keep NATO out of Ukraine’s reach for years to come.

Furthermore, before inducting a new member into its fold, the alliance ensures that there are no pre-existing territorial disputes or immediate security threats to a newly inducted member, which would invoke Article 5 contingency as soon as a member joins the bloc.

Besides having a long list of prerequisites to fulfil, for even initiating a membership bid, Ukraine also has territorial disputes in the form of Crimea and Donbas, which definitely impact its membership consideration.

It is important to note that during the 2008 Bucharest Summit, when Ukraine and Georgia were hoping for their MAP’s acquisition, their bids were resisted and opposed by countries like Germany, France and the United Kingdom. This was Europe’s attitude when Russia was comparatively in a much weaker position. Its military was drained, economy flushed (the global financial crisis wiped $1 trillion of its international shares), and was left internally weak and diplomatically on the back foot.

The only way Ukraine can help itself is through internally balancing itself. It is the only way it will be in a better position to stand up to Russia, exert its foreign policy and manifest it in a realistic manner.

Now, after 14 years, when Russia is in a much better state (militarily, politically and economically) to bargain from a position of strength, Ukraine’s bid to secure MAP, let alone become a member, would be more critically and cautiously scrutinised. And there would be a serious inclination for obvious reasons among the Alliance members, not to include Ukraine in NATO (again, for the foreseeable future) since the cost would be too high and not worth engaging in trouble with Russia.

Considering Russia’s current position in the world and given its policy posture, NATO members are sure that if they make Ukraine a NATO member, they will soon be faced with a situation where they would have to fulfil their commitment as per Article 5. It is something for which the NATO members are not ready at the moment, regardless of the chest-thumping, military and financial support by some of its members against Russia during the ongoing Ukraine Crisis.

Now in the current scenario, what are the available options for Ukraine?

Ever since the crisis began in November last year, the Ukrainian economy has suffered losses worth billions each month. Life in Ukraine has stagnated completely, besides the tragic loss of precious human lives.

In addition, Ukraine should:

– engage Russia directly and resolve the issue via dialogue to pave the way for de-escalation

– as a strong CBM, remove the point of joining NATO from the Ukrainian Constitution

– continue its active cooperation with NATO

– use NATO trust funds to slowly modernise its defence establishment

– consult NATO actively on a range of issues in order to strengthen its case for membership in future (NATO-Ukraine charter)

– commence dialogue to establish peace in the restive Donbas region and establish its sovereignty over the territory (it can offer not to join NATO for a certain period of time, and later if it chooses to do so, it should only happen after a referendum as suggested by Poroshenko.

– put off its EU-candidate application bid for some time and gradually introduce and implement legal and political reforms to match EU and NATO criteria

The Ukrainian leadership needs to assess the situation pragmatically. It should realise that odds are stacked against it at this point in time. NATO members cannot come to its rescue right now even if they want to. Sanctions against the Russian economy, military, and financial assistance to Ukraine are there, but substantial action is still missing (kinetically) that is required to genuinely deter Russian hostilities.

Munich Security Conference was another example of hollow promises and no action despite several calls for practical steps against Russia to stop coercing Ukraine. Moreover, Russia is in no mood for a settlement at the moment and is looking for creating a frozen conflict in the Donbas region that will automatically put Ukraine’s NATO membership or even a MAP on hold for an indefinite period of time. This, again, will not serve Ukraine’s interest in any way if such a situation persists.

The only way Ukraine can help itself is through internally balancing itself. It is the only way it will be in a better position to stand up to Russia, exert its foreign policy and manifest it in a realistic manner. If the country is internally strong, only then will it become more attractive for alliances like NATO and its case for their membership more strengthened, naturally increasing the chances for acceptance as well.

Russia’s total appeasement will also bear no fruit and only lead to embarrassment and further aggression by rival states. For instance, in 2010, Viktor Yanukovych pushed the non-bloc status to improve relations with Russia, but despite that, the latter annexed Crimea in 2014. Russia continues to challenge Ukraine’s territorial integrity and threaten its national security via backing separatists in Donbas.

Ukraine has to maintain a delicate balance between its rapprochement with Russia and its inclination towards the EU and NATO. At a time when the EU is considering a separate comprehensive framework for European Security and was deliberating on an independent dialogue mechanism with Russia, Ukraine can not ignore it and keep pressing Kremlin’s buttons on issues that it considers red lines for its national security and territorial integrity. It has to adopt a careful policy that does not raise Russian apprehensions while also securing its long-term interest of integrating with the EU and NATO.

There is no way for Ukraine to ever attain NATO’s membership with active hostilities and conflicts. Despite the political will, NATO members’ hands will always be tied due to the technicalities of the NAT’s charter. It is something Russia has been using to its advantage all along. The only way forward for Ukraine is to take a few steps back and make compromises on several points to secure its long-term national interests, such as acquiring EU and NATO membership. Ukraine has to play by the Alliance rules; otherwise, it will always get the rulebook thrown at its face with NATO members claiming plausible constraints.

Taimur Fahad Khan

Taimur Khan is working as a Research Associate at the Institute of Strategic Studies Islamabad (ISSI). His research focuses on non-traditional security issues and foreign policy analysis.

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