October 7, 2022 | Policy Brief

Ukraine’s NATO Bid is a Test of the “Open Door”

October 7, 2022 | Policy Brief

Ukraine’s NATO Bid is a Test of the “Open Door”

Ukraine has formally applied for full membership in NATO. This historic move will be a major test to the alliance’s official “open door” to new members.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy made the announcement on September 30, 2022 — just hours after Russian President Vladimir Putin proclaimed Russia’s illegal “annexation” of four contested Ukrainian regions (Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia). The timing was significant. Zelenskyy upstaged Putin, rallying his domestic support and adding international political momentum to a recent series of impressive Ukrainian military victories.

In explaining the move, Zelenskyy framed the bid as a natural recognition of facts on the ground. “De facto, we have already made our way to NATO. De facto, we have already proven compatibility with Alliance standards,” he said. “Today, Ukraine is applying to make it de jure.” He also indicated Ukraine’s intention to apply for membership under a simplified process that would fast-track the application, as was the case with Sweden and Finland.

Kyiv will now need to overcome possible objections from member states, including the fact that it is still fighting a defensive war against Russia. Officially, the alliance maintains an “open door” for membership to every democracy in Europe. Allies recently reconfirmed this position at the NATO Madrid Summit in June. Ukraine’s application will test if NATO’s theoretical open door remains shut to Ukraine in practice. All 30 members of the alliance must unanimously approve Ukraine’s application for the bid to succeed. This will put a high premium on Ukraine’s ability to rally diplomatic support from within the alliance.

Immediately after the announcement, NATO’s three Baltic states (Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania) enthusiastically endorsed the application. “Ukraine’s Baltic friends fully support welcoming Ukraine into NATO,” said Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Reinsalu. Shortly after, the three Baltic presidents joined a letter signed by the presidents of six additional NATO members who endorsed Ukraine’s membership bid (Poland, Romania, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, North Macedonia, and Montenegro).

The initial response outside of Central Europe and the Baltics was more cautious. Speaking in Washington, Canadian Foreign Minister Mélanie Joly quickly restated her country’s openness to Ukraine. “We believe that Ukraine should be part of NATO,” she said. “It’s been our position for now more than a decade, and we believe in the open-door policy.” Meanwhile, the Biden administration was keen to kick the can down the road. “Our view is that the best way for us to support Ukraine is through practical on the ground support in Ukraine, and that the process in Brussels should be taken up at a different time,” said National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan.

The White House’s desire for delay is not new. Ukraine has been in the alliance’s waiting room for over a decade. Back in 2008 at NATO’s Bucharest Summit, the United States and its allies formally declared that Ukraine and Georgia “will become members of NATO.” Ever since, Washington has declined to say precisely when that might be, while always maintaining that NATO’s door was open to them. Zelenskyy’s announcement now acts as a forcing mechanism, pushing allies to honor their word.

The United States should welcome Zelenskyy’s NATO bid. On the battlefield, Ukraine has proven to have the best military in Europe — and one of the best in the world at this point. It would greatly benefit U.S. interests to have such an ally on NATO’s eastern front with Russia. If the White House drags its feet, Congress should weigh in with its support.

Going forward, Kyiv will likely push ahead with efforts to secure stronger cooperative guarantees with NATO members, such as the new Kyiv Security Compact, while its formal application is pending. This practical process will help fortify Zelenskyy’s claim that Ukraine is already a NATO ally in fact — if not yet in name.

Peter B. Doran is an Adjunct Senior Fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies (FDD). Follow him on Twitter @PeterBDoran. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD. FDD is a Washington, DC-based nonpartisan research institute focused on national security and foreign policy.


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