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Is Ukraine Part of NATO? Why Does This Matter?

Legal AssistantInternational Law

On February 24, 2022, the world watched Russia launch a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Russian troops bombed cities and military bases as innocent civilians began a mass exodus to flee the country. The attack sparked outrage from global leaders and citizens all over the world.

As attacks spilled over into the second day, Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy released a statement addressing other European leaders in an appeal for reinforcement. He stated in part that when bombs fall in Ukraine, it happens in every other part of Europe; that other European nations are equally at risk if they stand by and watch Ukrainian cities burn. He called for more protection, citing that Europe as a whole has enough resources and military might to step in and stop Russia’s aggression.

As the war rages on, the glaring question on most people’s minds is: Is Ukraine part of NATO, and why does this matter? This article explores the answers to this question and more.

Is Ukraine a Member of NATO?

The short answer is—no. Ukraine is not a North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) member. While it does cooperate closely as a partner country, it does not enjoy the same security guarantees that member states in NATO’s founding treaty have. To better understand why Ukraine isn’t a NATO member, it’s important to establish what the requirements for joining the alliance are in the first place.

The alliance has an “open-door policy” for membership, according to the NATO website. All countries in the EU that have what it takes to make a positive contribution to the security of the Euro-Atlantic region and promote the principles outlined in the Washington Treaty are eligible to join the alliance. That said, joining NATO can only be done at the invitation of the North Atlantic Council.

If a country chooses to join the alliance, it needs to follow specific procedures and criteria. Parts of these involve certain military, political, and economic objectives. As it stands, the NATO countries list consists of 30 member states, namely:

  • United States
  • United Kingdom
  • Croatia
  • Montenegro
  • Belgium
  • Norway
  • Estonia
  • France
  • Romania
  • Italy
  • North Macedonia
  • Latvia
  • Albania
  • Spain
  • Iceland
  • Bulgaria
  • Poland
  • Greece
  • Slovakia
  • Luxembourg
  • Portugal
  • Hungary
  • Canada
  • Netherlands
  • Lithuania
  • Slovenia
  • Turkey
  • Czech Republic
  • Germany
  • Denmark

NATO Membership Requirements

In 1995, NATO established requirements for countries seeking to become part of the alliance. To become a member, the country in question needs to:

  • Have a functional democratic political system that runs on a market economy
  • Ensure that its minority populations are treated fairly
  • Commit to peaceful conflict resolution
  • Be able and willing to make a significant military contribution to NATO’s operations
  • Commit to democratic institutional infrastructures and civil-military relationships

Now, while Ukraine may want to become a member of NATO and may even be able to meet all the membership requirements, from a practical standpoint, it may not be possible to do so at this point. It would be hard for NATO to absorb a country that already has unresolved territorial disputes with an already-simmering territorial conflict since that would mean that the other countries in the alliance would, in turn, absorb that conflict.

Why Wasn’t Ukraine Part of NATO Before?

One might then ask: Why didn’t Ukraine join NATO before the ongoing attacks began? The alliance felt (and likely steel feels) that Ukraine had not eradicated political corruption and that it was still, in many ways, a developing democracy. This meant that the country had not yet met some of the membership requirements set out by the North Atlantic treaty.

At the 2008 NATO summit held in Bucharest, the alliance welcomed Ukraine’s bid to join the coalition. The member countries agreed that they would approve the bid once it met all the criteria for membership.

Since the Bucharest summit, Ukraine appeared to be on a solid path toward meeting those requirements. However, with the current conflict plaguing the nation, NATO membership at this point and in the future seems a lot less likely.

On the flip side, there is an unwritten reason why NATO was reluctant to let Ukraine join the alliance. Given Russia’s historical interest in Ukraine and its relative proximity to it, most of the European leaders in the alliance were concerned about the repercussions Ukraine’s membership in NATO would have on their existing relationships.

Many European nations were dead set against Ukraine joining NATO simply because they wanted to strengthen their ties to Russia.

Why NATO Does Not Intervene in Ukraine?

As mentioned in an earlier section, Ukraine is not a member of NATO and, as such, does not enjoy the same security guarantees that other countries in the alliance have. It’s also worth noting that NATO cannot declare a no-fly zone over Ukrainian soil, nor can it send troops to quell the conflict. The actions the alliance can take are defensive. They are supposed to prevent conflict and not provoke it.

That said, will NATO defend Ukraine? It is unlikely not to do so as this would put NATO forces in a direct line of fire with Russia. It would then escalate the war and cause the other countries in the alliance to become targets of the attacks, making an already bad situation worse. If Ukraine were a member of NATO, the alliance would be left with no choice but to intervene.

NATO Response to Russian Invasion of Ukraine

Unfortunately, Russia’s most recent brutal assault on Ukraine isn’t the country’s first display of targeted aggression. In 2014, Russia launched an invasion of Eastern Ukraine that led to the annexing of Crimea, which is now part of Russia.

In response, NATO suspended cooperation with Russia and boosted Ukraine’s existing military power. It funded cyber-warfare defenses, deployed military personnel to the region, and held extensive training exercises to strengthen Ukraine’s defensive capabilities. Nonetheless, NATO’s troops did not actively participate in the fight.

As far as the February 24 invasion goes, NATO stated that it had no plans to deploy military troops to Ukraine. Instead, it would bolster its eastern flank to ensure that the existing conflict doesn’t spill over into the neighboring European nations that are part of the alliance.

In a statement released after Russia launched its attack, President Joe Biden confirmed that the US had no plans of getting involved in the conflict. He did, however, state that there were close to 90,000 troops stationed in Europe, most of whom were based in Germany, with an additional 7,000 to be deployed later that week.

As a precautionary measure, the alliance activated the combat-ready NATO response force for the first time in history. These highly specialized military forces were deployed to Eastern Europe to boost the security of the NATO allies that are in close proximity to the ongoing Russia-Ukraine conflict.

Why Does Russia Not Want Ukraine to Join NATO?

protestor holding placard of russian president vladimir putin

A lingering question on many people’s minds since the onset of the conflict is: Why does Russia want Ukraine in the first place? The answer to Russia’s tumultuous relationship with Ukraine has to do with NATO.

Ukraine broke away from the Soviet Union roughly three decades ago, becoming an independent nation. While the country has long since desired to join NATO, the treaty alliance has not extended an official invitation for several reasons, key among which has to do with the country’s shortcomings as far as fighting corruption, the lack of adequate control over its foreign borders, and the gaps in its defenses.

Perceived Security Threat to Russia

Nonetheless, Putin’s demands extend beyond Ukraine’s aspirations to become a NATO member. The root of all his issues has to do with the West inching closer to the communist country’s borders.

In his opinion, NATO’s expansion which has, in turn, bolstered the alliance’s security, has been at the expense of Russia. Putin has continually demanded a legal guarantee that Ukraine, which shares a 1,426 mile-long border to the South West, be denied membership into the alliance.

By principle, NATO’s doors are open to any European country that wishes to join the alliance, even Russia, if it so pleases. It cannot deny membership to any nation that desires to become part of the pact.

Withdrawal of NATO Military Presence in Europe

Since NATO cannot stop Ukraine from joining once it meets all the membership requirements, Putin believes this move poses a direct threat to Russia’s security. While Washington maintains that no country in the alliance threatens to use force against the communist country, Putin demands that NATO withdraw its military presence in Eastern Europe, including the periodic rotational exercises in former Soviet states such as Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia.

Although there are no American troops permanently based in these three countries, there were about 100 soldiers on rotational tours in Lithuania and 60 others in both Latvia and Estonia. Putin is also opposed to NATO’s presence of missile defense weapons in Romania, which is also a former Soviet state. A similar setup is currently ongoing in Poland, which Russia asserts could be converted into an offensive base that could be used to threaten Russia.

At the time of this publication, President Joe Biden approved an executive order to send more than 2,700 additional American soldiers to Germany, Romania, and Poland.

Historical Ties With Ukraine

Ukraine and Russia share deep cultural and historical ties. Putin has stated on several occasions that Ukrainians and Russians are “one people.” According to him, large tracts of Ukrainian soil are historically Russian. These regions were granted arbitrarily to Ukraine by Soviet Union leaders when it broke away to become an independent state.

By bringing Ukraine back into the fold, Putin asserts that this move will boost Ukrainian citizens’ sense of national identity. In 2014, Russia seized Crimea, which was initially part of Ukraine, instigating a rebellion in the country’s eastern region. This action only strengthened Ukraine’s desire to join NATO and align itself with the West.

In a recent address to the media, Putin expressed his concern that Ukraine could resort to using military force to reclaim Crimea and take back its territories in the east that were effectively under Russian control via armed insurgents.

According to him, if Ukraine joins NATO and launches military operations in the country, Russia would be left with no choice but to fight the alliance in a bid to protect itself, which would, in turn, mean that other member states would target Russia as well.

Is Ukraine in the EU?

Although Ukraine is in Europe, it has not joined the European Union despite strong support from several EU countries. Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, has stated that Ukraine belongs to the union.

However, it is not in her power to rule on matters concerning Ukraine EU membership admission. All 27 member states in the bloc have to agree on whether or not to admit Ukraine into the EU. Arriving at this decision is harder than it seems, given the recent struggles between various countries in the bloc about the EU expansion.

Central European countries are more open to Ukraine’s admission into the union. The presidents of Slovenia, Slovakia, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Bulgaria, and the Czech Republic have been quite vocal about granting the highest level of “political support” to the warring nation. Most of the other member states were opposed to Ukraine’s EU membership, citing that the move would directly threaten their own countries.

All the member states agree that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is unacceptable, with many leaders condemning Putin for his actions. Despite several EU leaders backing Ukraine’s bid for admission into the union, the process takes years.

While President Zelenskyy has been pushing for the process to be fast-tracked, the EU does not appear to be budging. It did, however, vow to grant protection to Ukrainian refugees and offer financial and economic assistance to help rebuild the country once the war stops.

The EU also states that it will apply economic pressure on Russia to get Putin to withdraw his troops immediately.

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