NATO and Ukraine: a contested partnership

A significant issue in the war between Russia and Ukraine is the prospect of Ukraine’s membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). For Ukraine, it is an important step forward in securing its national security. For Russia, it represents the unacceptable encroachment of what, from its perspective, is a hostile Western alliance.

This article gives some background on NATO and the 1949 North Atlantic Treaty (NATO Treaty) and explores the history and context of the relationship between Ukraine and NATO.

What is NATO?

NATO was formed as an effort in political and military integration, in part established by the US and Europe to halt the expansion of the Soviet Union (USSR). The alliance’s political objectives are to promote democracy and enable members to cooperate on defence and security. While NATO looks towards the peaceful resolution of disputes, if these fail it can use military power through crisis-management operations which is particularly relevant in the current conflict between Russia and Ukraine.

Article 5 of the NATO Treaty provides for collective self-defence in the event of an attack against one of the Treaty’s members. This can include the use of armed force to ‘restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area’. This reflects the right to individual and collective self-defence in Article 51 of the UN Charter.

However, Article 6 of the Treaty clarifies that an armed attack on NATO parties is one which takes place on the territory of a NATO party in Europe or North America. The Treaty also requires that when members take measures in self-defence, this must be reported to the UN Security Council – which again reflects the requirements of the UN Charter.

Highlighting the importance of the UN Security Council in international security issues, if NATO takes measures, these must cease if the UN Security Council steps in ‘to restore and maintain international peace and security’. NATO crisis management operations can also be carried out pursuant to a UN mandate, either alone or in cooperation with other states and international organisations.

NATO and Ukraine

NATO has an ‘enlargement’ process to enable new members to join the alliance. The 12 founding nations of NATO have now grown to 30, including the United States (US), Canada, United Kingdom (UK), France and Germany, but not Russia or Ukraine.

Article 10 of the NATO Treaty states that parties ‘may, by unanimous agreement, invite any other European State in a position to further the principles of this Treaty and to contribute to the security of the North Atlantic area to accede to this Treaty’. Three ‘partner countries’, Ukraine, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Georgia have declared their intention to join NATO.

For Ukraine, becoming a NATO member state is a priority and is written into its constitution. It is notable that the Constitution intertwines Ukraine’s aspirations towards membership of NATO and the EU, both of which offer the benefits of collective defence and cooperation westward. Similarly, in 2017 the Ukrainian Parliament made NATO membership a strategic foreign and security policy, while Ukraine’s 2020 National Security Strategy provided for the aim of NATO membership.

The emphasis of NATO membership in the Constitution of Ukraine reflects its view that NATO membership would contribute to its state sovereignty, territorial indivisibility, and economic independence.

Steps towards NATO membership

Dialogue between Ukraine and NATO began in 1991 when Ukraine declared its independence and joined the North Atlantic Cooperation Council (in 1991) and the Partnership for Peace Programme (in 1994). Following this, the 1997 Charter on a Distinctive Partnership provided the foundation for NATO-Ukraine relations, establishing the NATO-Ukraine Commission (NUC). The NUC is tasked with developing the NATO-Ukraine relationship, cooperative activities and providing a forum for Ukraine and NATO to discuss joint security issues.

In early April 2008, the NATO Summit in Bucharest debated whether Ukraine should be granted a NATO Membership Action Plan (MAP), the first step to becoming a member of NATO. The MAP assists states in moving towards membership through assistance and practical support. As noted in the 1995 Study on Enlargement new members must conform to ‘the principles of democracy, individual liberty, and the rule of law’, and while a MAP is not a guarantee of NATO membership it is a key step in moving towards that end.

In Bucharest, although NATO members welcomed Ukraine and Georgia’s aspirations for membership and agreed that in time they would become members of NATO, there were outstanding questions about their MAP applications. First, it is believed that Ukraine does not have a MAP due to not meeting the political, economic and military criteria required to enter NATO.

Second, Russia’s opposition to Ukraine joining NATO is likely halting the process. A Ukrainian MAP in the current circumstances would raise questions as to Article 5 and the protection afforded to MAP states. It is relevant that the 1995 Study on Enlargement says that ‘[s]tates which have ethnic disputes or external territorial disputes, including irredentist claims, or internal jurisdictional disputes must settle those disputes by peaceful means’.

Nevertheless, the relationship between NATO and Ukraine strengthened following the 2014 Russian-Ukraine conflict and Russia’s annexation of Crimea. NATO has said that it is ‘in full support of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity’, and suspended its practical and military cooperation with Russia while leaving communication open. Since 2014, NATO has worked with Ukraine on its military capacity.

In more recent developments, the 2016 Comprehensive Assistance Package for Ukraine (CAP) sets out NATO’s practical support including capacity building programs. Ukraine has also worked on developing its capacity through participating in NATO exercises.

Opposing world views

In the current conflict NATO membership remains a key issue. Based on their actions it appears that Ukraine and Russia see NATO and the world from completely opposing positions. Ukraine likely views NATO as a collective of independent sovereign states that have chosen to join the alliance for self-defence, and believes it too has a right to do so as an independent state.

On the other side of the spectrum is Russia (or at least Putin) seemingly with a view of the world as a contest between major powers, with NATO as a proxy for US imperial ambitions. Russia does not acknowledge Ukraine’s existence as a state nor its agency to join NATO, and as Slovenian Philosopher Slavoj Žižek has observed: ‘What about the people of Syria and Ukraine? Can they not also choose their truth and belief, or are they just a playground – or battlefield – of the big “bosses”? The Kremlin would say they don’t count in the big division of power’.


Flagpost is a blog on current issues of interest to members of the Australian Parliament

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