Not Germany or France but US main obstacle for Ukraine’s access to NATO

Fifteen years ago Germany and France refused Ukraine membership of NATO. Now the USA are the main obstacle. On the eve of the NATO-summit in Vilnius (11-12 July) the stakes are high. Ukraine will not accept promises about ‘deepening the partnership’ but will ask for a clear invitation. An analysis by Sergiy Sydorenko, editor of the European Pravda.

From left to right: Victor Yuschenko, President of Ukraine and NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer
NATO-summit, Bucharest 2008. Former president Viktor Yushchenko (left) and NATO secretary general Jaap de Hoop Scheffer. Picture NATO

by Sergiy Sydorenko

Ukraine is sure that the NATO summit in Vilnius will be crucial for its future membership. Kyiv is convinced even though the allies lack consensus two weeks before the leaders' meeting.

The main obstacle is Biden's personal position.

Ukraine earlier received a refusal from the Alliance at the 2008 Bucharest Summit, but since then the position of the allies has changed by 180 degrees. Now, France and President Macron advocate inviting Ukraine to NATO. Germany is also firmly in favour. However, the United States, the driving force behind Ukraine's movement towards the Alliance in 2008, is now hesitant to confirm any step forward.

But Kyiv reiterates that it will not accept compromises. Although President Zelenskyy's diplomatic advisor, Ihor Zhovkva, admitted that NATO membership during the war will not happen, he insists that nothing stops the Alliance from politically inviting Ukraine to membership right now.

Ukraine's second aim is security guarantees. Here are some open questions too.

What Ukraine Wants

Ukrainians will reject any decision from the Vilnius summit like ‘deepening the partnership’ between Ukraine and NATO, even if it is presented as ‘preparation for membership in the future,’ like the Membership Action Plan (MAP).

‘We do not want any plans, target programmes, and so on,’ explained Ihor Zhovkva, Deputy Head of the Office of the President and Diplomatic Adviser on Euro-Atlantic Integration, at a conference in Kyiv.

However, he acknowledged that Ukraine has accepted that the decision will not be ideal. President Zelenskyy's team understands that Ukraine's NATO accession cannot be completed until victory in the war. It must begin as soon as possible.

‘Membership invitation does not yet mean membership (and the activation of Article 5 on collective defence),’ Zhovkva explained. He added that Kyiv is counting on two decisions that will determine the historical success of the NATO summit in Vilnius: ‘This is a political decision to start the procedure of inviting Ukraine to membership and a decision regarding security guarantees.’ He also said that Ukraine will not compromise.

Ukraine in Vilnius wants to receive the so-called deliverables, that are on the table of the leaders of the NATO member states. Everyone knows about them. Everyone feels that Ukraine will insist on them until the last day before the summit,’ Zelenskyy's diplomatic advisor pointed out.

Detailed formulations are not disclosed, but the general outlines are known.

  1. Ukraine insists on the invitation algorithm used for Sweden and Finland. It means the Alliance officially recognises the Ukrainian ‘application for accession’ without intermediate stages like the MAP, as opposed to the standard NATO procedure.
  2. Kyiv agrees that the procedure will slow down after a quick start. As an option, NATO could announce a ‘political invitation’ in Vilnius, with its final confirmation at the Washington summit in 2024.
  3. The final decision on Ukraine's NATO membership is proposed to be made when ‘security conditions’ or ‘security considerations’ allow it. These two options are similar but have a fundamental difference. If Russia continues to intermittently shell Ukraine, 'security conditions' will remain challenging, but allies may change 'security considerations' to prevent Russia from having a hidden veto right regarding Ukraine's accession. 

Hesitant Biden

Zelenskyy's office acknowledges that there is still no consensus within the Alliance.

Numerous sources of the European Pravda report that Ukraine's main problem is the position of Biden and the White House. There is a lack of understanding there that Ukraine's rapid NATO accession is needed primarily for the Alliance itself.

In contrast, France under Macron's leadership actively supports Ukraine's accession to NATO.

‘Recently, Macron made it very clear at the GLOBSEC meeting that he is in favour of opening the path to NATO for Ukraine. Last week in Paris, all my interlocutors reiterated this,’ confirms Žygimantas Pavilionis, Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the Seimas of Lithuania.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz is still hesitating but his party and the absolute majority of Bundestag MPs are already siding with Ukraine. There are practically no opponents of inviting Ukraine to the summit in Vilnius. ‘Scholz will eventually say yes, even if he says no now,’ agrees Pavilionis, a former Lithuanian diplomat who attended the 2008 summit in Bucharest.

He sadly notes that now the United States are playing the role that the French and Germans played 15 years ago under Putin's influence. ‘In Bucharest, Germany and France isolated us (supporters of granting the MAP to Ukraine and Georgia – EP). Now Germany and France are with you, but where is America?’ he wonders.

However, negotiations with the United States are ongoing. 

What experts think

Ian Brzezinski, Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council, thinks Ukraine's plans to join NATO are feasible at next year's 2024 summit. ‘I consider it possible to invite Ukraine with a subsequent assessment that could lead to its accession at the Washington summit,’ he said at a conference organised by the GLOBSEC Kyiv Office and the Open Policy Foundation.

He added a separate option in case the complete de-occupation of the territory proves impossible: ‘Then Article 5 (on collective defence in NATO) will only apply to the territories controlled by Ukraine.’

However, if NATO adheres to the principle that Ukraine's accession is not possible until victory is achieved, the question arises: what should be considered a victory?

Security guarantees

The same applies to security guarantees for Ukraine.

Ihor Zhovkva stipulated that Ukraine needs security guarantees to prevent new Russian aggression. But from what moment will Russian aggression be considered ‘new’?

Even if the entire territory of Ukraine is liberated but Russia continues shelling, what would that be — a new war or a continuation of the current one? If there is a prolonged ceasefire with Russia until the liberation of all of Ukraine, will this trigger the mechanism of guarantees?

Therefore, these details still need to be agreed upon.

However, currently, Kyiv rejects the option of ‘partial liberation’ of the occupied territories. ‘The unequivocal demand of society and the position of the government is the restoration of territorial integrity, including Crimea and Donbas. With sufficient military assistance from the West this can be done as early as 2023. But even this does not automatically mean victory. I don't think Russia will be ready to sign a capitulation with reparations immediately after Ukraine regains its territories. Longer processes need to take place for that,’ acknowledges Alina Frolova, former Deputy Minister of Defence of Ukraine, who now works at the Centre for Defence Strategies.

About the author
Sergiy Sydorenko is editor in chief of the European Pravda, one of the online publications of the Ukrainska Pravda.
This essay was originally published here by the European Pravda.

Serhiy Sydorenko

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