Ukraine's NATO Membership Needs no Action Plan, We Have to Leave 2008 Mistakes Behind

Friday, 14 April 2023 — , , European Pravda, New Europe Center
Ukrainian politicians should stop paying attention to the "ghost of Bucharest" behind their backs in order to see the new format of relations between Ukraine and NATO. Diplomats are already doing it. Photo by AFP/East News

The authors are Ukrainian experts with a journalistic background who have been working for a long time on Ukraine-EU and Ukraine-NATO relations.

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In times of big War in Europe, Ukraine's NATO accession is finally being discussed as a real prospect. However, there is still no final decision. So it happens, both the Allies and Ukraine need to realise that the Euro-Atlantic space has a new reality. In particular, it means abandoning decisions whose fallacy has long been evident to both experts and politicians, but which have been repeated year after year in the decisions of the Alliance and the Ukrainian authorities.

Ukraine needs to take the lead and impose a taboo on mentioning the Membership Action Plan (MAP), previously considered a mandatory step for its NATO accession. This also means that we need to stop referring to the Bucharest Summit in 2008, based precisely on the idea of granting Ukraine a MAP.

We need a new vision, a new strategy for bringing Ukraine and the Alliance closer together. Details may differ, but the main element is when the time comes, Ukraine's accession to the Alliance must be swift and minimally bureaucratic.

The war has truly opened a historical window for possible rapid Ukraine's NATO accession, as openly stated by Ukrainian officials, our friends in the Alliance, and experts. There are several reasons for such optimistic expectations.

First, it is a change in perception of Ukraine in the West.

The heroic fight of the Armed Forces of Ukraine and the new image of Ukrainians created by our refugees in Europe have made the perception of Ukraine unprecedentedly positive. It sometimes even makes the West turn a blind eye to the problems in war-torn Ukraine that would otherwise be in the spotlight.

Such leniency of the West has not only positive consequences (for example, it does not push for complex democratic reforms). But when it comes to politically sensitive decisions, it sometimes saves us. We saw this last year when the EU made breakthrough decisions regarding our future EU accession. A breakthrough on our path to NATO now also has historically the highest chances.

Second, it is a security consideration.

NATO is primarily a security alliance and only then political. Following the Russian attack, the understanding of this in the West has grown again. Allies must be convinced that enlargement will increase security in the region and strengthen NATO. Ukraine is currently in the best position to prove that it meets this requirement. Surveys confirm the unprecedented trust of European voters in the combat readiness of the Ukrainian army, and European politicians understand that Ukraine NATO membership would not have unleashed the war.

Third, it is the weakness of Russia.

Ukraine's accession to NATO immediately after its victory or firm stabilisation of the front would mean that this would happen at a time when Russia is extremely weakened, and its reaction to this will be limited. We have already seen this after Finland's NATO accession. The event that became a geopolitical disaster for the Kremlin did not elicit any response other than a few unconvincing statements by Russian politicians.

This historical window may not remain open for long. Each of the three points listed above confirms this.

First, the level of empathy of Europeans and Americans towards Ukraine will decrease when Ukraine goes from the front pages of Western media. Together with it, Ukraine's unique ability to "push through" sensitive political decisions will also diminish.

Second, people naturally think about safety when the threat is urgent. Therefore, after the end of the war, the strength of the Ukrainian defence forces will seem increasingly attractive to fewer and fewer Western politicians and voters. Pacifists and supporters of the "do not provoke Russia" approach, who have almost disappeared from the political field of Europe, will regain influence.

Third, Russia will regain its strength and once again become a threat to its neighbours with time. All of this means that Ukraine is obligated to use the historic window of opportunity and do everything possible to join the Alliance as soon as possible when the hostilities end.

Under these conditions, NATO membership can be achieved in principle.

Western Europe and across the US have finally understood hat a rapid accession procedure is needed, the path for which was paved by Finland and Sweden. Official Kyiv generally adheres to this approach – as stated, for example, by the head of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Dmytro Kuleba, at a meeting of the Ukraine-NATO Commission in April.

Convincing those allies who do not yet support this approach is a difficult but real task. Unfortunately, not everyone in Ukraine understands that the reality has changed.

There are no opponents of NATO membership among the political forces. It is a unifying idea. But there are those who still plan to demand a Membership Action Plan (MAP) rather than membership itself. The argument sounds noble – to use the leverage of NATO membership to accelerate Ukraine's reforms.

But the price could be too high.

For Ukraine, a MAP means losing the opportunity to join the Alliance when it is ever possible - now. To advance this, Ukraine needs to categorically reject the ideas of mandatory MAP for Ukraine, including those fixed in old documents, such as the decision of the NATO Bucharest Summit in 2008.

Kyiv should also demand the Alliance to officially recognise that the world has changed. This ambitious task means a strategic review for NATO.

However, Ukraine is forced to pursue ambitious goals.

Some voices in NATO support this. Even NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has stopped mentioning Bucharest when confirming that Ukraine's future membership is NATO's official policy.

The parliament should abandon decisions such as its recent appeal to all Allies, asking them to "implement the decisions of the 2008 NATO Bucharest Summit regarding Ukraine's membership." However, the 2008 decision explicitly obliges NATO to take Ukraine through the MAP stage! We quote paragraph 23 of that document: "...(Ukraine and Georgia) will become members of NATO... MAP is the next step for Ukraine and Georgia on their direct way to membership."

We really hope that the MPs who knowingly advocate for MAP (if they exist) understand their mistake.

This story must teach them a lesson.

Ukraine and NATO need a NEW concept of relations and Ukraine's path to membership, which the summit in Vilnius in July 2023 should establish. Diplomats, politicians, experts - all those who sincerely want to see Ukraine in the Euro-Atlantic family should concentrate their efforts on developing this concept. We must abandon the burden of the past, including the 2008 decision.

Those who have been dealing with NATO for many years remember that the MAP principle was formally made up for "better preparation," but also for slowing down the accession of new NATO members. And now geopolitical reality requires accelerating this process. In the case of Sweden and Finland, the Alliance found an understanding of this. Now it must also be found for Ukraine.

Both sides should use the unique historical moment, for which many Ukrainians and the Ukrainian people as a whole continue to pay the highest price.


Sergiy Sydorenko, Editor-in-chief "European Pravda"
Alona Hetmanchuk, Director, "New Europe Center"

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