Membership in either institution would mean a formal link to the West — and infuriate Russia.
The prospect of Ukrainian membership in Europe’s two most important multinational institutions — the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization — has been a source of friction between Moscow and Kyiv since the days when Vladimir Putin was a minor St. Petersburg functionary and Volodymyr Zelenskyy was a teenager.
As with other formerly Communist countries, for Ukraine, both organizations symbolize the aspiration to firmly leave Moscow’s orbit behind. The Kremlin has long been hostile to NATO and EU expansion into Eastern Europe generally, but Ukraine in particular has been a red line given its close cultural ties to Russia and historical role as a buffer between Russia and the West. Both NATO, and to a significant but less-discussed extent the EU, played a significant role in Putin’s justification for his campaign to seize Ukrainian territory and force its government into submission.
In truth, though, it hasn’t just been Russia keeping Ukraine out of these organizations. Leaders in Washington and Brussels, though sympathetic to Ukraine’s aspirations to formally join the West, have often cast a skeptical eye on its problems with corruption and the rule of law, and its stark political divisions.
But as with so much else, the war has changed perceptions of Ukraine. Long viewed as a sympathetic but struggling crisis zone, the country is now often described by Western leaders as the epitome of Western, democratic values in a struggle against Russian tyranny.
That change has translated into an unprecedented level of support for Ukraine from both the EU and NATO. And the prospect of increased Ukrainian integration into these organizations, NATO in particular, has been raised as a possible inducement to get Kyiv to negotiate an end to the war. Meanwhile, the war itself has left Zelenskyy and millions of his compatriots believing that membership in those institutions is a logical next step.
But none of that mean Kyiv’s dreams of membership will be realized any time soon. And that reality has the potential to bring tension to the otherwise rock-solid relationship between Ukraine and the West.
Why the EU matters
While the prospect of NATO expansion got the most attention in the lead-up to last year’s full-scale invasion, it was arguably the EU question that originally sparked this crisis. In 2013, then-Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, under heavy Russian pressure, reversed course from a plan to sign a political association agreement with the EU.That sparked mass protests by pro-European demonstrators in Ukraine that ultimately forced him from power; and it was Yanukovych’s ouster that prompted Putin to order the annexation of Crimea and initial invasion of Eastern Ukraine. Given this history, it was somewhat odd last summer to hear Putin say that unlike NATO, “we have no objections” to Ukraine joining the EU. It seemed as if a whole lot of strife could have been avoided had he come to that position nine years ago.
EU membership would give Ukrainian citizens and businesses increased access to European markets and investment. It would be an enormous boon to the nation’s economy, and it’s an understandable aspiration for a country that was struggling financially even before the war and all its devastation. The EU also grants its members certain defense guarantees, though not as ironclad as those promised by NATO.
During a recent visit to Brussels, Zelenskyy made his latest and perhaps most emotional appeal yet for Ukrainian membership in the EU, saying “we need it this year. When I say this year, I mean this year. Two, zero, twenty-three.”
That’s almost certainly not going to happen. Ukraine officially applied for EU membership a week after last year’s invasion and was given official candidate status, along with Moldova, in June. That in itself was an unprecedently fast timeline, but it doesn’t mean full membership is coming any time soon. The last country to join the EU, Croatia, waited 10 years from the time it applied until Brussels judged that it met the Union’s standards — standards that cover areas from rule of law to economic policies to labor rules and environmental regulations. Despite the trauma of the war, EU leaders have shown no signs that they’re willing to fast-track Ukraine’s membership, particularly given that several aspiring members, including Albania, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia, are also ahead of Ukraine in the line to join. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has said there are “no rigid timelines” for Ukraine’s membership.
That’s not to suggest Ukraine’s unusual case for membership hasn’t resonated in Brussels. “Ukraine is the only country where people are dying because they wanted to be members of the European Union,” a senior EU official said to Grid. Nonetheless, the official said, Ukraine still needs to make “difficult reforms that require constitutional changes, changes in the legislation.”
Given the bureaucratic hurdles involved in getting EU membership — daunting even for the most stable of countries — it might seem odd that this remains such a priority for the Ukrainian government, considering everything else it has on its plate. As Mark Leonard, director of the European Council on Foreign Relations, told Grid, “Ukraine is just trying to survive as a state. Things like tanks and shells and macroeconomic assistance would seem to be higher on the hierarchy of needs than regulatory alignment around tomato paste or lawn mower sound emissions or that kind of thing.”
But Olha Stefanishyna, Ukraine’s deputy prime minister for European and Euro-Atlantic Integration, told Grid that for a nation at war, the EU accession process is about a lot more than these pedestrian issues. “More than 91 percent of Ukrainian people support European aspirations for Ukraine,” she said. “It causes a lot of positive energy for people and for the armed forces and it sends a clear signal to our people that Europe stands with Ukraine, and that after the war, we will stand together forever.”
Stefanishyna argued that rather than being a distraction from the war effort, the EU accession process has helped spur long-needed reforms and initiatives that will help keep the country afloat. She pointed to recent efforts to restructure ports on the Danube River to bring them into alignment with European waterways, a process that has made this river a “major artery” for European imports since the war broke out.
Not all measures will be so uncontroversial. Shortly before his recent Brussels trip, Zelenskyy announced a major new anti-corruption campaign, dismissing a slew of officials and placing others under investigation. The crackdown was widely seen as a measure to reassure European leaders that progress is being made on some of the issues that have long given them pause about Ukraine.
Even if the membership process drags on far longer than Zelenskyy is demanding, the war has clearly changed perceptions of his country among EU governments, as demonstrated by the regular parade of heads of state making the long and arduous train trip to Kyiv to see him. It makes political sense that Zelenskyy would want to push his country’s membership bid as far as he possibly can at a time when sympathy for Ukraine is at its highest.
The NATO question hasn’t gone away
In the lead-up to last year’s invasion, the topic of Ukrainian membership in NATO dominated the global conversation as Putin pushed for guarantees from Western leaders that Ukraine would never be admitted to the alliance. In truth, though Ukraine was given assurances way back in 2008 that it would be granted membership one day, there was little prospect of that actually happening any time soon, as leaders including U.S. President Joe Biden made clear.
As with membership in the EU, joining the flagship trans-Atlantic security alliance has been a Ukrainian aspiration since independence, but even as NATO expanded into other countries in what was once the Soviet sphere of influence in Eastern Europe, Ukraine was kept at a distance, owing in part to its internal challenges and in part to Russian sensitivities.
The core component of NATO’s founding charter is its mutual defense guarantee, Article 5, which holds that all members will treat an attack on any member state as an attack against all. Particularly after Russia annexed Crimea and sent troops into Eastern Ukraine in 2014, governments were not eager to extend this guarantee to a country that was already in a state of low-grade armed conflict.
Source: Grid News