Should Ukraine join NATO and the EU?

In 2004, the government-run Central Election Commission in Ukraine announced that the Russia-aligned candidate Viktor Yanukovych had received more votes than the pro-Western Viktor Yushchenko in the presidential election. However, widespread allegations of corruption and fraud provoked protests across the country, particularly at the Maidan in Kyiv; exit polls had predicted a victory for Yushchenko, and moreover, claims by the government were treated with extreme scepticism following the 2000 Cassette Scandal, in which the then-President Leonid Kuchma, a supporter of Yanukovych, was found to have ordered the kidnap of Georgiy Gongadze, a dissident journalist found decapitated in a wood earlier that year. 

The protests caused a re-vote, which Yushchenko won, gaining the support of 52% of those participating against Yanukovych’s 44%. What came to be known as the “Orange Revolution” – named after the colours of the ultimate winner’s campaign – led to Ukraine turning towards the EU and NATO, seeking membership of both.

At the 2005 NATO summit, Yushchenko thus expressed his clear support for Ukraine participating in a Membership Action Plan (MAP) – a clear precursor to joining the Alliance. Two years later, in a speech to the Munich Security Conference, Putin called NATO expansion broadly a “serious provocation” to Russia, and a year on, in comments that have been increasingly discussed since February 2022, he even stated that Russia would pre-emptively attack if Ukraine received NATO missiles. 

Putin called NATO expansion broadly a ‘serious provocation’ to Russia

Tensions accelerated still further later that year after NATO’s April 2008 Bucharest Summit, when Ukraine and Georgia were both promised eventual MAPs. In August, war broke out between Russia and Georgia; whilst the exact causes remain disputed – though many sources blame Russia, the EU’s report found that Georgia initiated hostilities – a causal link between the statements made at the Summit and the conflict is extremely probable. 

The famous 1997 open letter by 50 foreign policy experts, including the former US. Secretary of State Robert McNamara, warning that NATO enlargement would “unsettle European stability” appeared prophetic; however, over the coming years, the US Ambassador to Russia William Burns’s caution in his letter to Condoleezza Rice from months before the 2008 war that, “Ukrainian entry into NATO is the brightest of all redlines for the Russian elite”, would prove even more prescient.

Yanukovych replaced Yushchenko as President in 2010 and whilst he didn’t pursue Ukraine’s NATO aspirations any further, he continued to promote close ties with the EU and in particular to aim for an Association Agreement with them. However, at the Vilnius EU Summit in 2013, his government issued a decree to suspend preparations for such an arrangement; given that later that year Putin agreed to the lowering of Russian natural gas prices for Ukraine and to the purchase of $15 billion of Ukrainian Eurobonds, the cause of Yanukovych’s about-turn is easy to guess. But his retreat under pressure provoked protests at the Maidan in 2014, which grew when the activists were attacked by the police and grew further when the Ukrainian parliament passed legal restrictions on protest

The crisis culminated on the 18th February, when new levels of violence – from the protestors setting fire to the headquarters of the president’s party to the police shooting and using stun grenades on the government’s opponents – broke out. The events culminated with the Parliament voting to remove Yanukovych and pledging to sign an EU Association Agreement. Less than two weeks after the Revolution of Dignity, on the 27th February, Russian troops invaded Crimea and started the Russo-Ukrainian War.

The recent history clearly demonstrates the Russian government’s staunch opposition to Ukraine joining both NATO and the EU, viewing such moves as aggressive western expansion. Nonetheless, calls have increased since 2014, and especially since 2022, for Ukraine to join both – and indeed, the case for each is strong. The Ukrainian public largely supports their country’s entry into the groups – a 2022 survey found that 86% of Ukrainians support joining the EU, and 76% support joining NATO – and in 2019 the country’s constitution was amended to require each successive government to pursue both these ends. 

(Russia has expressed) staunch opposition to Ukraine joining both NATO and the EU, viewing such moves as aggressive western expansion

In 2013, Russia accounted for 24% of Ukraine’s exports and 30% of its imports, with natural gas comprising over half of the latter and metals and agricultural goods prominent amongst the former. Since 2014 however, the two countries’ economic cooperation has declined – in 2018, only 8% of Ukrainian exports went to Russia, and only 14% of their imports came from them; by contrast, the percentages of both with EU countries such as Poland, Italy and Germany has risen. Given the trend of greater economic unity, EU membership would be a logical step towards increased cooperation; indeed, this could benefit EU countries as Ukraine is one of the world’s biggest agricultural exporters, with over half of their territory comprising arable land. And whilst a country at war joining NATO would be unprecedented, Article 10 of the North Atlantic Treaty which specifies the conditions under which nations can join does not exclude this from occurring – the only requirement is that all the existing members agree to the accession.

Moreover, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was caused by a variety of factors unrelated to NATO and the EU – prominent among them Russian irredentism, as shown by Putin’s essay from 2021, widely criticised by experts, “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians”. However, given that the major conflicts between Russia and both Georgia and Ukraine in recent years followed moves towards greater integration into the two unions, it seems beyond doubt that Putin views the advancement of both into the two countries as non-negotiable – indeed, it is doubtful that he would be open to a peace agreement without the guarantee that the status quo regarding at least NATO would remain.

In 1999 Hungary, Poland, and the Czech Republic all joined the union, followed by the Baltic States, Bulgaria, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia in 2004; whilst some would argue that NATO expansion is necessary precisely because Russia poses a threat to its immediate neighbours, the union’s enlargement may in fact have caused a security dilemma, in which these states’ actions, intended to increase their own security, have been perceived as offensive by Russia, which in turn has acted to increase its own security; thus tensions have been escalated until outright war erupted. 

It is doubtful that (Putin) would be open to a peace agreement without the guarantee that the status quo regarding at least NATO would remain

To give a specific example, in 2020, NATO conducted live-fire rocket drills in Estonia, a state that had joined the organisation under 20 years before, around 70 miles away from Russia’s border. Whilst the purpose of this exercise was to increase the country’s security, given that the weapons being tested have ranges that would allow them to attack their neighbours, the Russian Foreign Ministry described the operation as “provocative” and “extremely dangerous for regional stability”, perceiving it as an offensive act. They even asked, “how would the Americans react if such shooting were carried out by our military near the US borders?” Given the US’ support for the Monroe Doctrine over the past 200 years, it is likely that their response would be intervention or even invasion.

Thus, ultimately support for Ukraine’s membership in NATO must hinge upon what the west chooses to prioritise: peace, even if it means appeasing Russia’s demands, or self-determination for Ukraine, even if it means causing further conflict and bloodshed. The possibility of Ukraine becoming part of the EU soon – it, like Moldova, has candidate status and formal negotiations planned – similarly poses a risk to the prospects of resolving the conflict. But Putin has not been as vocally opposed to such plans as he has been to those involving NATO, meaning that peace negotiations would likely still be possible were Ukraine to join. Moreover, the economic benefits to Ukraine and the EU could plausibly outweigh the risks that joining poses. However, given that negotiations for Turkey to join the EU began in 2005 and are frozen 18 years later, there is no certainty that Ukraine’s membership is imminent, or even that it will occur.

Image Credit: Meeting of the President of Ukraine with the President of the European Commission and the High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy 03 by TM, licensed under CC BY 4.0, cropped from original.

Image Description: Ursula von der Leyen and Volodymyr Zelenskyy, speaking in front of the flags of Ukraine and the EU.