Ukraine's EU and NATO membership

For all the atrocities that this year brought to Ukraine, Kyiv has made mammoth progress in pursuing its euro-Atlantic aspirations, receiving long-awaited EU candidate status in June and filing an official NATO membership bid in September. 


As the year comes to a close, and with many actors speculating about the timeframes of Ukraine’s accession to both institutions, this article serves as a detailed reflection based on the input from officials, media representatives, and experts on what stopped Ukraine from joining both earlier, what has changed, and what Kyiv can do to speed up the accession process. 


Why is it taking so long?


The EU and NATO’s enlargement process in the post-Soviet era began in 1995 and 1999 respectively, with an array of ex-socialist camp countries including the Baltic States and Poland, among others, joining both in 1999 and 2004 respectively. 



Since 1991, NATO’s expansion has been more prolific, while the EU significantly slowed down its accession tempo following the 2008 economic meltdown, the growing number of net recipients, ill-controlled immigration in some areas, and the idea of the EU becoming the United States of Europe. The last country to become an official EU member state was Croatia in 2013; while North Macedonia, an EU aspirant, became the latest state to join NATO in 2020. 


Despite Ukraine declaring its ambition to join the EU in 1998 and signing the Charter on a Distinctive Partnership between NATO and Ukraine in 1997, Kyiv has mostly acted as an observer of that expansion, not a participant.

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Unlike Poland, for example, which already in 1989 had a clear vision of where it belonged geopolitically and culturally, in the 1990s, Ukraine hesitated to embark on a single path, with then President Leonid Kuchma (1994-2004) trying to pursue the multi-vector, non-alignment policy of balancing between the West and Russia. 


  • None of the post-Soviet countries in that period was in an excellent economic, social, or military condition, so it is well possible that had Ukraine back then settled on its EU and NATO aspirations underpinning them by broad public support, it would have become a member state of at least one of the organizations, if not both, in the time frame of 1999-2004 or later. 

But this did not happen. 



Ukraine’s support for the EU and, especially, NATO accession in those years was far from overwhelming. Communist apparatchiks still played a big role in the country’s political life, with the Communist Party leader Petro Symonenko, an ardent opponent of Ukraine’s NATO and EU integration, competing with Kuchma in the 1999 presidential elections second tour.


In 2008, when then-President Viktor Yushchenko, who rose to power after the 2004 Orange Revolution, traveled to the notorious NATO summit in Bucharest, then German Chancellor Angela Merkel, together with then French President Nicolas Sarkozy, opposed Ukraine’s accession to NATO and favored building relations with their Russian counterpart instead. Merkel also pointed out that only a third of Ukrainians at the time supported the membership  – a level at which it remained at the beginning of 2014, surpassing 50 percent only on several occasions before 2022.


The support for Ukraine’s accession to the EU, while higher from the outset, was likewise below impressive for many years. Even after the 2014 Revolution of Dignity, which started after President Viktor Yanukovych decided not to sign the EU Association Agreement, at times exceeded only 60 percent. 



A vicious circle was formed as a result, with the EU and NATO not fully understanding why they needed a member state this size -- keep in mind that Ukraine is the largest country in Europe -- 

which does not even like them that much, with at least some of its members states, like Germany, pursuing its own economic interests and cementing dependence on Russia for the sake of short-lived peace.


Ukraine had little incentive to change for the ephemeral goals of joining both one day in the future – the pre-war implementation of the Ukraine-EU Association Agreement was often labeled as sluggish, while still susceptible to Russia’s demonization of the EU and especially NATO, which is also why a good chunk of EU and NATO-funded projects in Ukraine have been aimed at promoting the role and essence of both institutions.


The art of not being too optimistic

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to launch a large-scale war on Ukraine in Feb. 2022, changed the situation overnight. This won over swathes of Ukrainians, many of whom, even if pro-Russian and not always EU or NATO friendly in some respects, had never wanted to be part of Russia. It also spurred a rethink among Europeans who woke up to a full-scale war on their doorstep, confronting them with their self-inflicted dependence on the aggressor’s exports. This was almost immediately reflected in the opinion polling.


According to the Rating group, the percentage of Ukrainians supporting the country’s EU membership skyrocketed to 91 percent in March 2022, settling at 86 percent in Oct. 2022. The respective numbers for NATO were 76 percent and 83 percent.  


These numbers matter as the EU Delegation in Ukraine, for example, keeps a close eye on public sentiment, with specialized actors in Ukraine providing it with media overviews and regular analyses. Together with the images of tanks, the public outcry, the sheer determination of Zelensky’s government, and the notion that the EU is foremost a peace project built after World War II, such a change has likely played a solid role in convincing EU member states and the EU institutions that Ukraine has made up its mind. 


  • And this is paramount, as while Ukraine rightly notes that the EU and NATO member states often pursued their interests at the expense of Kyiv, opting for excuses instead of opportunities to engage and integrate, seldom does anyone want to deal with an undecided country with a distinct corruption problem.


For all the positives, however, it is advisable to stay realistic, as many of the problems, including reform-related remain acute. They render the hope for fast-track EU membership questionable even though a hefty bureaucratic machine like the EU has made a tremendous effort to speed up its decision-making in 2022


Once the political aspect of this decision has fully faded and the real bureaucracy kicks in, the accession timeframe outlined by some Ukrainian officials such as 3-5 years is unlikely given the current dynamics and the fact that Ukraine is already significantly lagging in the fulfillment of the seven key demands.



Besides, some countries are simply not willing to give Ukraine an expedited membership. 


Among them first and foremost is Hungary, with the European Commissioner for Neighborhood and Enlargement Olivér Várhelyi, a Hungarian national and chief author of the seven key demands, openly saying that the accession negotiations will not start until 2024 in the best case scenario. 


But so, reportedly, is Germany. Speaking on conditions of anonymity, a Ukrainian official familiar with the Ukraine-EU talks said that Germany and France’s decision to grant Ukraine the EU candidate status was done for publicity reasons. The prospect of granting membership in a short timeframe, however, does not speak to Berlin, nor to French President Emmanuel Macron who made it clear that the process will likely take decades.


When it comes to NATO, the situation is equally complicated.


Holding off-record talks with multiple people familiar with the issue, it is almost certain that Kyiv's decision to file for expedited NATO membership in September was not a move that had been particularly welcome in the Alliance, which insists that it is not a party to the war and is thus ruling out the possibility of giving membership or the Membership Action Plan to Ukraine until Ukraine has won the war.



This was clearly spelled out by NATO’s Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg at the recent foreign ministers meeting in Bucharest.


It is for this reason that Ukraine’s Deputy Prime Minister Olha Stefanishyna's recent insistence that there is a consensus on Ukraine’s membership in NATO should be taken with a pinch of salt, especially since several independent figures familiar with the issue confirmed that her attempt to deliver the NATO membership bid in the early October directly to the Secretary-General had been effectively rejected.


Her recent remark that the fulfillment of the mentioned key demands is equally important for Ukraine’s membership in NATO is fair, since the Alliance is also concerned about corruption and window-dressing reforms. One NATO official expressed frustration at Ukrainian officials’ prewar attempt to promote the so-called integrity test for the judges, which Ukraine came up with, calling it “a joke.”


However, claiming that there is a consensus when there clearly is none, not least due to Hungary’s conduct and tangible hesitance from the U.S., is an overstatement. 


So, what’s next for Ukraine's EU and NATO aspirations?


Unless for the sake of a clickbait headline, no one is truly able to give a timeframe for Ukraine’s accession to the EU and NATO, other than that it is almost guaranteed to happen in the post-war era.


Any attempt to claim that either the EU or NATO will allow a country at war to join is self-deceit. 


While some developments are clearly beyond Ukraine’s control, for example the EU’s recurrent talk about the need to reform before taking in new members, power shifts in key states, and pro-Russian sentiment in some countries – there is a lot left in Kyiv’s hands, which could be summarized in three points.


  • First, Kyiv needs to understand that PR must not be overdone. Ukraine has done a great job communicating the war and appealing to the public in the EU, the U.S. and other parts of the world. While some have criticized the government’s decision to file the NATO membership bid in September, it must be remembered that this was done on the day Putin annexed even more Ukrainian territory as well as that Ukraine never filed an official membership bid.


However, PR moves like this are only effective when they are coupled with real actions. If before the war, the Ukrainian government could write off its dubious conduct on society’s overall passive attitude to mundane reforms, now this approach is unlikely to work.


Second, Ukrainian diplomacy needs to be even more vocal. While many Ukrainian diplomats have been active in their respective countries and organizations, some are simply not promoting Ukraine enough in their host countries. This is especially visible in France, Italy, and countries like Denmark, Sweden, and the Netherlands which, despite their support for Ukraine, had not been so keen on granting EU candidate status to Ukraine. 


The same need applies to those working in non-EU NATO member states, though progress is there.


Third, Ukrainian officials need to start planning long-term and stop taking their partners by surprise. The western bureaucratic machine’s distinct characteristic is that, as one Ukrainian official put it, those inside it know what they will be doing in one year. This is a notion that Ukrainian officials have a hard time understanding, often acting on a whim and demanding that others behave accordingly.


This will become especially necessary once Ukraine commences EU accession negotiations. The figures in charge of that process, and each area, must be determined in advance, especially since Ukraine has made a ministerial overhaul merging culture and euro-Atlantic integration, and is financially incentivized to continue both by Ukraine and EU-funded projects operating in Ukraine.


In 2018, for example, the EU-funded Association4U operating in Ukraine offered remuneration to highly-qualified professionals at a rate of around 25 euros a day (500 euros a month). Such conditions are unlikely to make most professionals stick to this path, resulting in constant change of negotiation members, which automatically extends the negotiation process. 


  • Ukraine’s chances of becoming a member state of both the EU and NATO – with some not even ruling out that NATO’s membership may in the end precede that of the EU as most EU aspirants first joined the Alliance – today are solid like never before. Ukrainians are showing to the world their might and determination, making it clear that they are prepared to endure the war for a European future and prosperity. 


EU and NATO member states and citizens, in particular, support them. It is important to make sure that this momentum is not lost.

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