Relations between Ukraine and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) started in 1994. Ukraine applied to begin a NATO Membership Action Plan (MAP) in 2008. Plans for NATO membership were shelved by Ukraine following the 2010 presidential election in which Viktor Yanukovych, who preferred to keep the country non-aligned, was elected President. Amid the Euromaidan unrest, Yanukovych fled Ukraine in February 2014. The interim Yatsenyuk Government which came to power initially said, with reference to the country’s non-aligned status, that it had no plans to join NATO. However, following the Russian military invasion in Ukraine and parliamentary elections in October 2014, the new government made joining NATO a priority.
Russia’s reaction to the 2008 plan of the then Ukrainian Government to start a MAP was hostile. Nevertheless, the following year, NATO spokesman said that despite Russian opposition to NATO’s eastward expansion the alliance’s door remained open to those who met the criteria.
According to polls conducted between 2005 and 2013, Ukrainian public support of NATO membership remained low. However, since Russian military intervention in Ukraine and Crimea, public support for Ukrainian membership in NATO has risen greatly. Since June 2014, polls showed that about 50% of those asked supported Ukrainian NATO membership. Some 69% of Ukrainians want to join NATO, according to a June 2017 poll by the Democratic Initiatives Foundation, compared to 28% support in 2012 when Yanukovich was in power.
History of relations
Relations officially began when Ukraine became the first CIS country to enter NATO’s Partnership for Peace program in February 1994. In the summer of 1995 NATO stepped up to help to mitigate the consequences of the Kharkiv Drinking Water Disaster. This was the first cooperation between NATO and Ukraine. On May 7, 1997, the first-ever official NATO Information and Documentation Center opened in Kyiv, aimed to foster transparency about the alliance. A Ukrainian public opinion poll of May 6 showed 37% in favor of joining NATO with 28% opposed and 34% undecided. On July 9, 1997, a NATO-Ukraine Commission was established. In 2002 relations with the government of the United States and other NATO countries deteriorated after one of the recordings made during the Cassette Scandal revealed an alleged transfer of a sophisticated Ukrainian defense system to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. At the NATO enlargement summit in November 2002, the NATO–Ukraine commission adopted a Ukraine–NATO Action Plan. President Kuchma’s declaration that Ukraine wanted to join NATO (also in 2002) and the sending of Ukrainian troops to Iraq in 2003 could not mend relations between Kuchma and NATO. Currently, the Ukrainian Armed Forces are working with NATO in Iraq.
After the Orange Revolution in 2004 Kuchma was replaced by President Viktor Yushchenko who is a keen supporter of Ukraine’s NATO membership. In January 2008 the second Yulia Tymoshenko cabinet’s proposal for Ukraine to join NATO’s Membership Action Plan was met with opposition. A petition of over 2 million signatures has called for a referendum on Ukraine’s membership proposal to join NATO. The opposition have called for a national referendum to be held on any steps towards further involvement with NATO. In February 2008 57.8% of Ukrainians supported the idea of a national referendum on joining NATO, against 38.6% in February 2007.
Ukrainian bid to join the NATO Membership Action Plan
In January 2008, US Senator Richard Lugar said: “Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko, Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, and Parliamentary Chairman Arseniy Yatsenyuk have signed the statement calling for consideration on Ukraine’s entry into the NATO membership action plan at the Bucharest summit.”
The Ukrainian parliament headed by Arseniy Yatsenyuk was unable to hold its regular parliamentary session following the decision of the Parliamentary Opposition to prevent the parliament from functioning in a protest against joining NATO. The parliament was blocked from January 25, 2008, till March 4, 2008 (on 29 February 2008 faction leaders agreed on a protocol of mutual understanding). US President George W. Bush and both nominees for President of the United States in the 2008 election, U.S. senator Barack Obama and U.S. Senator John McCain, did offer backing to Ukraine’s membership of NATO. Russian reactions were negative.
Bucharest summit: 2008–2009
At the NATO summit in Bucharest in April 2008, NATO decided it would not yet offer membership to Georgia and Ukraine; nevertheless, Nato Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said that Georgia and Ukraine would eventually become members Resistance was reportedly met from France and Germany.
In November 2008, Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel, Prime-Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, and former Ukrainian minister of defence Anatolii Hrytsenko doubted Ukraine would be granted membership of MAP in December 2008. In a Times of London interview in late November, President Yushchenko stated: “Ukraine has done everything it had to do. We are devoted to this pace. Everything else is an issue of political will of those allies who represent NATO.” Although NATO Deputy Assistant Secretary-General Aurelia Bouchez and NATO’s Secretary-General, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer still supported Ukraine’s NATO bid at the time the Bush administration seemed not to push for Georgian and Ukrainian membership of MAP in late November 2008. President of Russia Dmitry Medvedev responded that “reason has prevailed”. On December 3, 2008, NATO decided it will work out an Annual National Programme of providing assistance to Ukraine to implement reforms required to accede to the alliance without referring to MAP.
At the NATO-Ukraine consultations at the level of Defense Ministers held at the NATO headquarters in Brussels in November 2009, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen praised Ukraine’s first Annual National Program, which outlined the steps it intended to take to accelerate internal reform and alignment with Euro-Atlantic standards, as an important step on Ukraine’s path to becoming a member of the Alliance.
Yanukovych Presidency (2010–2014)
Candidate during the 2010 presidential election and Party of Regions leader Viktor Yanukovych stated during the 2010 presidential election campaign that the current level of Ukraine’s cooperation with NATO was sufficient and that the question of the country’s accession to the alliance was therefore not urgent.
Following the election, on 14 February 2010, the newly elected President Viktor Yanukovych said that Ukraine’s relations with NATO were currently “well-defined”, and that there was “no question of Ukraine joining NATO”. He said the issue of Ukrainian membership of NATO might “emerge at some point, but we will not see it in the immediate future.”
On 1 March 2010, during his visit to Brussels, Yanukovych said that there would be no change to Ukraine’s status as a member of the alliance’s outreach program. He later reiterated during a trip to Moscow that Ukraine would remain a “European, non-aligned state.”
As of May 2010, NATO and Ukraine continued to cooperate in the frame of the Annual National Program, including joint exercises. According to Ukraine the continuation of Ukraine-NATO cooperation does not exclude the development of a strategic partnership with Russia.
On 27 May 2010, Yanukovych stated that he considered Ukraine’s relations with NATO as a partnership, “And Ukraine can’t live without this [partnership], because Ukraine is a large country”.
On 3 June 2010, the Ukrainian parliament passed a bill proposed by the President that excluded the goal of “integration into Euro-Atlantic security and NATO membership” from the country’s national security strategy. The law precluded Ukraine’s membership of any military bloc but allowed for co-operation with alliances such as NATO. “European integration” is still part of Ukraine’s national security strategy.
On 24 June 2010, the Ukrainian Cabinet of Ministers approved an action plan to implement an annual national program of cooperation with NATO 2010. This included:
- Involvement of Ukrainian aviation and transport material in the transportation of cargo and personnel of the armed forces of NATO’s member states and partners participating in NATO-led peacekeeping missions and operations
- The continuation of Ukraine’s participation in a peacekeeping operation in Kosovo
- Possible reinforcing of Ukraine’s peacekeeping contingents in Afghanistan and Iraq
- Ukraine’s participation in a number of international events organized by NATO
- Training of Ukrainian troops in the structures of NATO members
Ukraine and NATO continued to hold joint seminars and joint tactical and strategical exercises and operations during Yanukovych Presidency.
Euromaidan and beyond
Yanukovych fled Ukraine amid the Euromaidan uprising in February 2014. As a result of this revolution, the interim Yatsenyuk Government came to power in Ukraine. The Yatsenyuk Government initially stated it did not have the intention of making Ukraine a member of NATO.
NATO officials vowed support for Ukraine and worked to downplay tensions between the bloc and Russia, which refused to recognize the impeachment of Yanukovych or the Yatsenyuk Government. In late February 2014, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, Secretary-General of NATO, reaffirmed that NATO membership is still an option for Ukraine.
On 29 August 2014, following reports that the Russian military was operating within Ukraine, Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk announced that he would ask the Ukrainian parliament to put Ukraine on a path towards NATO membership. The government has also signaled that it hopes for major non-NATO ally status with the United States, NATO’s largest military power and contributor. As part of these efforts, and to rule out future Ukrainian membership in the Eurasian Economic Union and other Russian-led supranational entities, Yatseniuk also submitted a draft law to repeal Ukraine’s non-bloc status previously instituted by Yanukovych. Following parliamentary elections in October 2014, the new government made joining NATO a priority.
On 23 December 2014, the Ukrainian parliament renounced Ukraine’s non-aligned status, a step harshly condemned by Russia. The new law states that Ukraine’s previous non-aligned status “proved to be ineffective in guaranteeing Ukraine’s security and protecting the country from external aggression and pressure” and also aims to deepen Ukrainian cooperation with NATO “in order to achieve the criteria which are required for membership in the alliance”. On 29 December 2014, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko (elected president on 25 May 2014) vowed to hold a referendum on joining NATO.
A number of military exercises were planned between NATO members and Ukraine in 2015. Among them were Operation Fearless Guardian (total of 2,200 participants, including 1,000 U.S. military). Initial personnel and equipment of the 173rd Airborne Brigade arrived in Yavoriv, Lviv Oblast, on 10 April 2015. Fearless Guardian would train Ukraine’s newly formed National Guard under the Congress-approved Global Contingency Security Fund. Under the program, the United States was to train three battalions of Ukrainian troops over a six-month period beginning in April 2015, Others exercises include Exercise Sea Breeze 2015 (total 2,500 personnel of which 1,000 US military and 500 military from NATO or “Partnership for Peace” countries), “Saber Guardian/Rapid Trident – 2015” (total 2,100 members, including 500 US military and 600 NATO/PfP personnel), as well as the Ukrainian-Polish air exercise “Safe Skies – 2015” (total 350 participants, including 100 Polish military) and military police “Law and Order – 2015” (total 100 participants, 50 of which are Polish military).
In September 2015, NATO launched five trust funds for €5.4 million for the Ukrainian army. €2 million are planned to be sent for the modernization of communication systems, €1.2 million – to reform the logistic and standardization systems, €845 thousand – for physical rehabilitation and prostheses, €815 thousand for cyber defense, and €410 thousand for retraining and resettlement.
In March 2016, President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker stated that it would take at least 20–25 years for Ukraine to join the EU and NATO. On 8 June 2017, Ukraine’s Verkhovna Rada passed a law making integration with NATO a foreign policy priority. In July 2017 Poroshenko announced that he would seek the opening of negotiations on a Membership Action Plan with NATO. In that same month, President Poroshenko began proposing a ‘patronage system’, tying individual regions with the European States.
On the 10th of March 2018, NATO added Ukraine to the list of NATO aspiring members (others including Bosnia and Herzegovina and Georgia). Several months later, in late June, Ukraine’s Verkhovna Rada passed a National Security bill: the bill defines the principles of state policy on national security and defence as well as focusing on Ukraine’s integration into the European security, economic and legal system; improvement in mutual relations with other states and eventual membership in EU and NATO.
On September 20, 2018, the Ukrainian parliament approved amendments to the constitution that would make the accession of the country to NATO and the EU a central goal and the main foreign policy objective.
On 7 February 2019, the Ukrainian parliament voted with a majority of 334 out of 385 to change the Ukrainian constitution in order to help Ukraine to join NATO and the European Union. After the vote, Ukrainian President Poroshenko declared: “This is the day when the movement of Ukraine to the European Union and the North Atlantic Alliance will be consolidated in the Constitution as a foreign political landmark.”
On 12 June 2020, Ukraine joined NATO’s Enhanced opportunity partner interoperability program. According to an official, NATO statement the new status “does not prejudge any decisions on NATO membership.”
On October 8, 2020, during a meeting with Prime Minister Boris Johnson in London, President Volodymyr Zelenskyi stated that Ukraine needs a NATO Membership Action Plan, as NATO membership will contribute to Ukraine’s security and defense.
On December 1, 2020, the Minister of Defense of Ukraine Andriy Taran stated that Ukraine clearly outlines its ambitions to obtain the NATO Membership Action Plan and hopes for comprehensive political and military support for such a decision at the next Alliance Summit in 2021. Addressing the ambassadors and military attaches of NATO member states, as well as representatives of the NATO office in Ukraine, they were urged to inform their capitals that Ukraine would hope for their full politico-military support in reaching such a decision at the next NATO Summit in 2021. This should be a practical step and a demonstration of commitment to the 2008 Bucharest Summit.
At the end of November 2020, it became known that the NATO Summit in 2021 will consider the issue of returning to “open door policy”, including the issue of providing Georgia with a Membership Action Plan (MAP). On February 9, 2021, the Prime Minister of Ukraine, Denis Shmygal, stated that he hoped that Ukraine would be able to receive an action plan for NATO membership at the same time as Georgia. In response, Alliance Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg confirmed during Prime Minister Schmigal’s visit to Brussels that Ukraine is a candidate for NATO membership.
Popular opinion in Ukraine
Western Ukraine has always been significantly more pro-NATO than the rest of the country.
Eastern Ukraine is far more anti-NATO and pro-Russia than the rest of Ukraine.
A Gallup poll conducted in October 2008 showed that 43% of Ukrainians associated NATO as a threat to their country, while only 15% associated it with protection. A November 2009 poll by Ukrainian Project System relieved 40.1% of Ukrainians polled said the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) was the best global security group for Ukraine to be a part of and 33.9% of the respondents supported Ukraine’s full membership in CSTO; more than 36% of the respondents of the poll said that Ukraine should remain neutral and only 12.5% supported Ukraine’s accession to NATO. A 2009 Gallup poll showed that 40% of Ukrainian adults associate NATO with “Threat” and 17% with “Protection”. According to a poll by Razumkov Center in March 2011 20.6% on average across Ukraine considered NATO a threat; this number was 51% in Crimea. A 2013 Gallup poll showed that 29% associated NATO with “Threat” and 17% with “Protection”; 44% viewed it as neither.
Following the Russian military intervention of 2014, annexation of Crimea and the start of the Donbass War, many Ukrainians changed their views of NATO: polls from the middle of 2014 till 2016 showed that the majority of Ukrainians supported NATO membership.
An electronic petition to the president of Ukraine Petro Poroshenko was filed on 29 August 2015 requesting that a referendum on joining NATO be conducted. The petition achieved the required 25,000 votes to be considered. The president’s reply stated that “One of the main priorities of Ukraine’s foreign policy is to deepen cooperation with NATO to achieve the criteria required for membership in this organization. Today, we carry out security sector reform in Ukraine to reach NATO standards and to strengthen the country’s defense system, which is necessary to counter Russian aggression. Once Ukraine fulfills all the necessary criteria to join the Alliance, final decision on this important issue will be approved by the Ukrainian people in a referendum.”
In February 2017, President Poroshenko announced that a referendum would be held during his presidency, with polls showing that 54% of Ukrainians favor such a move.
Russian opposition to Ukrainian NATO membership
Russia is strongly opposed to any eastward expansion of NATO. On February 12, 2008, (then) Russian President Vladimir Putin said Russia may target its missiles at Ukraine if its neighbour joins NATO and accepts the deployment of a US missile defence shield. Former Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko has stated more than once his country would not allow foreign military bases on its territory; as of December 2009, NATO was not planning to deploy military bases in Ukraine.
Prime Minister Vladimir Putin reportedly declared at a NATO-Russia summit in 2008 that if Ukraine joined NATO his country could contend to annex the Ukrainian East and Crimea.
During a NATO conference in Hungarian parliament on 20 November 2008, Deputy Assistant Secretary-General Aurelia Bouchez said: “We should not make a choice between NATO enlargement and Russia as we need both” and NATO’s Secretary General, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer told a conference in Spain twelve days later: “The emergence of independent states within the former Soviet space is a reality. The ability of these states to determine their own future is a litmus test for the new Europe. Do we have to choose between good relations with Russia and further enlargement? My answer is no – we will not choose, will not sacrifice one for the other. It would bring new dividing lines.”
In an interview with the BBC on 18 November 2014, Russian President Vladimir Putin spokesmen Dmitry Peskov called for “a 100% guarantee that no-one would think about Ukraine joining NATO”; 2 days later Secretary General of NATO Jens Stoltenberg rejected this call stating it would be “violating the idea of respecting the sovereignty of Ukraine, which is a fundamental”.
Ukraine’s foreign relations with NATO member states
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- During a NATO conference in Hungarian parliament on 20 November, she said “We should not make a choice between NATO enlargement and Russia as we need both.”
- He told a conference in Spain: “The emergence of independent states within the former Soviet space is a reality. The ability of these states to determine their own future is a litmus test for the new Europe. Do we have to choose between good relations with Russia and further enlargement? My answer is no – we will not choose, will not sacrifice one for the other. It would bring new dividing lines.”
- Condoleezza Rice told a press conference, “We believe that the NATO-Georgia Commission and the NATO-Ukraine Commission can be the bodies with which we intensify our dialogue and our activities. And, therefore, there does not need at this point in time to be any discussion of MAP.”
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