NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization). A defense and security alliance of European states, together with Canada and the United States of America, created in 1949 as a means of deterring a Soviet attack on Western Europe. With the collapse of the USSR in 1991, the organization extended its membership and operations into Eastern Europe, over the objections of the Russian Federation, including establishing a relationship with Ukraine. The end of the Cold War and the dissolution of NATO’s principal adversary, the Warsaw Treaty Organization (aka Warsaw Pact), compelled NATO to search for a new raison d’être. It found this justification in becoming a security organization for all of Europe and a facilitator of democratization of ex-Communist countries. Since the 1991 Ukraine’s Declaration of Independence, Ukraine’s foreign policy posture towards NATO underwent a similarly profound change—from being non-aligned and outside of military blocs altogether to recognizing NATO as a security shield, co-operating with it in political as well as military spheres, and finally applying for membership albeit unsuccessfully. NATO’s relationship with Ukraine has been continually influenced by its concurrent desire for cooperation with the Russian Federation.

In February 1994, Ukraine became the first Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) state to sign onto the NATO Partnership for Peace (PfP) program designed to initiate the process of bringing Central European and Eurasian states under one security umbrella. On 9 July 1997, at the NATO summit in Madrid, President Leonid Kuchma together with the leaders of the sixteen member-countries, signed a charter providing for a distinctive (but not ‘special’) partnership between Ukraine and NATO. Similar to an agreement concluded by NATO with the Russian Federation, the charter provided for consultations and co-operation on a wide range of matters of mutual concern. But Ukraine was motivated more by a desire for increased Western integration, whereas the Russian Federation wished more to check NATO’s eastward expansion. In this way the NATO members promised to uphold the sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity of Ukraine as part of an overall scheme of stability and security in Eastern Europe; Ukraine in return gave its commitment to military reform. The charter did not guarantee the security of Ukraine. Nonetheless, a NATO-Ukraine Commission was established for regular consultations at various levels, including ministerial and ambassadorial, on a wide range of military and political subjects. A Ukrainian mission to NATO in Belgium was opened as well as a NATO information and documentation center in Kyiv. Ukraine’s strategy, therefore, of joining the network of security, political, and economic structures in Europe included rapprochement with NATO rather than resistance to its eastward expansion.

In November 1998, President Leonid Kuchma decreed a state program of co-operation with NATO to the end of the year 2001. Among its provisions were the creation of a quick-response crisis consultation mechanism, Ukraine’s incorporation into regional co-operation activities sponsored by NATO, and transition to a proper system of civilian control of the military in Ukraine. On the military side, the program included closer co-operation with NATO member-countries through consultations and visits to generate greater trust and partnership, military reform for Ukraine on the European model, participation in Combined Joint Task Forces, and training of Ukrainian military personnel in foreign languages.

NATO’s operations in the former Yugoslavia in 1999 stimulated parliamentary and public opposition in Ukraine to government policy aimed at increasingly close relations with NATO. Following Leonid Kuchma’s re-election, however, and the formation of a pro-government majority in the Supreme Council of Ukraine, Ukraine’s relations with NATO continued to improve with the conclusion of further landmark agreements between the two sides and with the NATO-Ukraine Commission commending the performance of Ukrainian peacekeeping forces in Bosnia and Kosovo. The Supreme Council of Ukraine also ratified several outstanding agreements. A naval, air, and amphibious exercise, the largest conducted by NATO forces in any post-Soviet country to date, took place in Odesa and adjacent waters of the Black Sea in June 2000, again confirming Ukraine’s priority standing with NATO among CIS states. This was followed in September by a land-based peacekeeping exercise in the Crimea involving troops from Ukraine, the United Kingdom, and Poland. Ukraine’s cooperation with NATO was strongly opposed by the Russian Federation and by communist politicians within Ukraine itself. The bugging of President Kuchma’s office revealed at the end of the year 2000 was blamed by some on NATO.

On behalf of Ukraine Leonid Kuchma applied for a NATO Membership Action Plan (MAP) in 2002 and 2004, but was turned down each time. In 2005, under President Viktor Yushchenko, Ukraine’s status was upgraded to an Intensified Dialogue on Membership, a step before MAP. Under him the government of Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych initiated a program envisioning a MAP for Ukraine in 2006 and NATO membership in 2008. But this was not to be. At the NATO summit in Bucharest, Ukraine along with Georgia was promised future membership without reference to a MAP or accession date. In the meantime, from 1994 on, Ukraine participated in the PfP program and benefitted from it in terms of military experience as well as peacekeeping reputation. Ukraine’s fulfillment of its particular obligations throughout 2003–9 were considered by Ukrainians as analogous to MAPs, hence acquiring the latter was not regarded with urgency.

Meantime, in a series of waves former Communist states of Eastern Europe applied for and were admitted into membership of NATO: the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland in 1999; Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia in 2004; and Albania and Croatia in 2009. Subsequently, Montenegro and North Macedonia joined in 2017 and 2020, respectively. The Russian Federation protested on every occasion claiming a promise made to Mikhail Gorbachev in 1990 at the time of Germany’s reunification had been broken. Russia’s anger at NATO’s eastward expansion was misguided. NATO’s ‘expansion’ was not deliberate or premeditated; ex-Communist states had to apply for membership. No one was coerced to join—they simply understood the real danger to their security was the Russian Federation.

The election of Viktor Yanukovych as president brought a shift in policy. In July 2010, the Supreme Council of Ukraine by a vote of 303 to 8 adopted a non-bloc, nonaligned foreign policy status, no longer interested in NATO membership or PfP participation. Yanukovych’s Party of Regions converted to an explicitly anti-NATO posture.

When in the climax of the Euromaidan Revolution Yanukovych fled Ukraine, the Russian Federation annexed the Crimea and invaded the Donbas region on the pretext of protecting its resident Russian-speakers. NATO reacted strongly by condemning the Russian actions and immediately took steps to reinforce its eastern flank militarily. The United States and NATO also provided increasing military assistance to Ukraine helping it shift away from Soviet equipment and practices.

Initially President Petro Poroshenko was also opposed to NATO membership for Ukraine, but following a surge in public support for NATO offered to hold a referendum on the matter. In reaction to the Russian Federation’s annexation of the Crimea and military incursion into Donbas, the Supreme Council of Ukraine on 23 December 2014 voted 303 to 9 to renounce Ukraine’s nonaligned status. Russia’s aggression revived and brought to the fore the question of NATO membership for Ukraine in both Brussels and Kyiv. NATO embarked on a training program of bringing Ukraine’s armed forces up to NATO standards, viewing Russia’s war on Ukraine as one on NATO itself. The Canadian contribution to this effort was called ‘Operation Unifier’ which trained 37,000 Ukrainian service personnel over the course of 2015–23.

When the Russian Federation launched its unprovoked full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, NATO responded with vociferous condemnation and by ramping up military preparedness for its members. The number of troops on its eastern flank was significantly increased and these forces together with their equipment were to be pre-positioned in anticipation of an attack by Russia, specifically on Poland and the Baltic states. NATO was, however, reluctant to become practically involved in the war insofar as Ukraine was not a member-state and any such wholesale involvement would entail war with the Russian Federation. Alliance members individually responded to Ukraine’s calls for military assistance while the organization itself offered only moral support.

Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, blamed NATO for precipitating the invasion by, according to his account, having turned Ukraine into an ‘anti-Russia,’ as he called it, a launching pad for the destruction of his own country. Thus he was compelled to destroy Ukraine, seen as an existential threat to Russia. He described the war as being in defence of Russia against NATO, yet complained that NATO member-states were arming Ukraine. Because of this war, Finland and Sweden applied for membership in NATO; Finland was admitted in 2023 and Sweden in 2024; Russia did not object.

As the war dragged on policy-makers turned their attention to the postwar situation. In order to avert a repetition Ukraine would need security guarantees. Several countries stepped forward to offer such guarantees, but even collectively these could never be adequate in face of the constant Russian threat. The optimal available arrangement would be the ever-elusive goal of membership for Ukraine in NATO, which would provide coverage under the alliance’s article five. While there was little doubt that Ukraine had already met the key prerequisites—interoperability with NATO forces, transparency of procurement processes (Pro-Zorro), and civilian control of the military—NATO again dodged the issue at its summit in July 2023. Ukraine’s membership of NATO would put that body directly at war with the Russian Federation, a confrontation for which the alliance as a whole, and its directing force the United States of America, is not prepared and may never be. Instead of NATO standing up for a Europe ‘strong, free, and at peace,’ according to its Charter, it was left for Ukraine to defend Europe against a continuation of the First World War and the Second World War.

‘Charter on a Distinctive Partnership between the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and Ukraine,’ Appendix I in Ukraine in the World: Studies in the International Relations and Security Structure of a Newly-Independent State, ed L. A. Hajda (Cambridge, Mass. 1998)
Bilinsky, Yaroslav. Endgame in NATO's enlargement: The Baltic States and Ukraine (Westport, Conn 1999)
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Voitenko, Yu. ‘Osoblyvosti Yevroatlantychnoho kursu Ukraïny (2014–2018 rr.),’ Hileia vyp. 144 (2019)
Popko, S. ‘Spivpratsia Ukraïny z NATO v umovakh rosiisko-ukraïns'koi viiny: Osoblyvosti, stratehichni prioritety,’ Hileia vyp. 160 (2021)
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De Leonardis, M. (ed). NATO in the Post-Cold War Era: Continuity and Transformation (Cham, Switzerland 2023)

Bohdan Harasymiw

[This article was written in 2024.]

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