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This summer, dozens of international leaders and defence representatives gathered in Lithuania for the 2023 NATO Summit. At the top of the agenda was Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine, and how the international community can help end the war.
To date, tens of thousands of Ukrainians have perished. A quarter of Ukraine’s population is displaced. Countless villages and cities have been destroyed. Despite these hardships, the Ukrainians have shown they are determined to defend their country. Over the summer, Ukrainian forces launched a new counteroffensive that saw them reclaim formerly Russian-occupied territory – following up on similar successes last year.
Some progress was made at this summer’s Summit. The Alliance reaffirmed its commitment to helping defend Ukraine, it removed Ukraine’s requirement to complete a membership action plan, and it established the NATO-Ukraine Council. But Ukraine was disappointed that it did not receive an official invitation to join NATO.
That this was even an option is a remarkable change in NATO-Ukraine relations. Before the Russian invasion in 2022, the prospects of Ukraine entering the Alliance seemed slim. During the 2008 NATO Bucharest Summit, NATO officials opened the doors for Ukraine’s and Georgia’s eventual membership. The discussions on future membership, however, were vague. Previous calls to admit Ukraine into the Alliance were delayed, and the Ukrainians wondered if membership would ever occur.
For example, the Study on NATO Enlargement states that candidate countries must “encourage and support democratic reforms.” For years, Ukraine has been fighting a war against corruption. Ukrainian politicians and officials often conducted shady business with their Russian counterparts, numerous parts of the government were outdated, and Westerners were hesitant to invest in Ukraine to help it reform and rebuild. NATO’s members stated that Ukraine needed to heavily address its corruption and vastly reform its government before being considered for potential membership.
Second, the Ukrainian military was outdated. When Russia launched its first invasion of Ukraine in 2014, only “20% of the country’s armed forces were combat-efficient.” The Ukrainians operated with old equipment, and they struggled during the initial stages of the war. Aside from these setbacks, the Ukrainian military in 2014 did not meet NATO defence standards.
Third, several NATO members argued that inviting Ukraine to NATO would aggravate Russia. These countries argued that Russia could escalate its hybrid warfare tactics in and around Ukraine, and that the consequences would be dire. Russia had previously conducted cyberattacks, such as shutting off Ukraine’s power grids, and some in the international community considered that Russia would escalate its various forms of attack on Ukraine. This opinion gained traction after the first Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2014, where Russia illegally annexed Crimea and occupied Ukrainian territory in the Donbas.
Now, this past reluctance for Ukraine’s potential membership into NATO is gone. Since the first Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2014, Ukraine has undergone numerous institutional reforms. Under the guidance of the European Union, the Ukrainians vastly improved their government, made critical changes to their judicial system, and they improved their security sector. These efforts, among others, gradually led to Ukraine signing an Association Agreement with the European Union. In addition, the Ukrainians were awarded visa-free travel to the European Union. Most recently, Ukraine was granted EU candidate status, and senior European officials have commended Ukraine’s work. These events suggest that Ukraine is serious about its anti-corruption initiative. EU officials will now be preparing potential accession talks with Ukraine during the upcoming European Council meeting this week.
In addition, Ukraine has vastly modernized its military. From 2014 to 2022, the Ukrainians have participated in numerous training exercises with NATO. For example, NATO military exercise Operation Rapid Trident “contributed to Ukraine’s continued defence modernization.” The Ukrainians have also implemented numerous defence reforms to enhance and bolster their military. Ukrainian armed forces have learned from their American and European counterparts, and this has formed invaluable partnerships between NATO and Ukraine.
Given these events, several NATO members are now calling for the Ukrainians to join their ranks. This year, Poland and the Baltic countries stated that their neighbour should be welcomed into the Alliance. Similarly, the United Kingdom supports creating a fast-track option plan for Ukraine. Even France, one of NATO’s more traditional members, has called for a NATO membership plan for Ukraine.
According to Ihor Zhovkva, the deputy head of the Office of the Ukrainian President, support for Ukraine’s membership in NATO has been gaining momentum. In an interview this summer, Zhovkva claimed that 20 of NATO’s 31 member states had agreed in writing that “they support Ukraine becoming a member of NATO.” Even NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has stated that “Ukraine’s rightful place is in NATO.” This was reiterated during the recent October 2023 NATO Defence Ministers’ Summit in Brussels, where Stoltenberg said that all 31 NATO members said that Ukraine will be part of NATO. It was also discussed during the inaugural NATO-Ukraine Council meeting on 29 November.
What has changed? Following the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2014, the Ukrainian government began to work closely with NATO, participating in numerous drills and exercises, and undergoing defence reforms to modernize their military. This allowed them to become interoperable with the West, and explains why Ukrainian forces are currently using Western weaponry with ease. This hard work saw Ukraine promoted to the status of NATO Enhanced Opportunities Partner, and it is only one of five non-NATO members to hold this title.
Ukraine has also made progress in its relationship with NATO. Over the past two decades, the Russians have used Ukraine as a cyber testing ground. This has forced the Ukrainians to learn how to combat these cyberattacks and become experts in cyber security. This knowledge and experience would be a significant benefit to the Alliance. This skill set has also not gone unnoticed. Ukraine was recently invited to join NATO’s Cooperative Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence (CCDCOE) as a full member. This suggests that the Alliance values Ukraine’s cyber expertise.
What about the scourge of corruption? According to the Study on NATO Enlargement, candidate countries must “encourage and support democratic reforms.” Critics argue that Ukraine must implement a series of anti-corruption reforms. But this is also something Ukraine has successfully addressed – and which has been sped up by the war.
As the Ukrainians continue to fight for their freedom, they realize that they cannot afford corruption in their government as it will delay any integration with the West. Over the past two years, Ukrainian officials have been working with their European counterparts to implement crucial reforms.
In its recent report, the European Council “acknowledged the considerable effort that Ukraine has made under very difficult circumstances.”
Former President Petro Poroshenko and current President Volodymyr Zelenskyy worked tirelessly to pursue their country’s Western aspirations. Under Poroshenko, the Ukrainian government rewrote the constitution to “specify their [country’s] desire to join Western institutions and organizations.” The work of the Poroshenko administration was highlighted in 2017 when Ukraine was awarded visa-free travel to the European Union. Similarly, Zelenskyy has worked hard to implement new reforms, resulting in being awarded EU candidate status. Zelenskyy most recently met with the heads of the European Union in Kyiv, where they praised Ukraine’s anti-corruption efforts and the progress made. Now, Ukraine’s full membership has been rumoured to be an agenda item during the December 2023 European Commission meeting.
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Despite these successes for Ukraine, there are Westerners who are still concerned about Russia. To these critics, admitting Ukraine into the Alliance would only escalate Russia’s war, and they are worried the conflict would worsen. But Zelenskyy believes that these arguments should be dismissed. In his speech this summer ahead of the NATO Summit, Zelenskyy addressed the topic of NATO membership and Ukraine’s place in the Alliance.
“We understand that [Ukraine] cannot be a member of NATO during the war,” Zelenskyy said in his address to Ukraine’s Parliament. “But we need to be sure that after the war we will be. That is the signal we want to get – that after the war, Ukraine will be a member of NATO.”
In the same address, Zelenskyy said: “Some states and world leaders still, unfortunately, look back at Russia when making their own decisions. This [is a] shameful self-limitation of sovereignty, because Ukrainians proved that Russia should not be feared.” Zelenskyy is right in this assessment.
Prior to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, there was a general belief that Russia had the second-strongest military in the world. Russia’s failures in Ukraine, however, have shown that the Russian military is not as strong as initially believed. For nearly two years, the Ukrainians have shown that Russia does not have the second strongest military in the world, but instead, the Russians have the second strongest military in Ukraine.
In addition, Russian aggression has encouraged other countries across Europe to co-operate with NATO more closely. For example, following the Russian invasion, Finland and Sweden submitted membership applications to join the Alliance. Finland became the organization’s thirty-first member, and Sweden will soon become the thirty-second member. Even historically neutral countries such as Switzerland are working more closely with NATO. These developments have shown that Russia’s unnecessary and unjust war have helped further unify the European continent.
Given these developments, presenting a clear path forward for Ukraine’s eventual membership should be next on the agenda at the NATO Summit next year. By then, NATO members will have an opportunity to make history. They should not squander this moment.