NATO Enlargement Eastwards: Not Just a Matter of Geopolitics (Part II)

Ukraine – One of “Us” or the “Other”?

In Part I, it was argued that the invitation to the Baltic States to become members of NATO was as much a matter of recognizing their identification with the West, as it was a matter of purely pragmatic security interests. How do these issues play out in Ukraine?

After Ukraine seceded from the Soviet Union, it had to fashion a new identity for itself as an independent country. On the one hand, its identity partially leaned towards the West as Ukraine sought to build more economic and political linkages with Western countries. On the other hand, Russia maintained a strong influence on Ukraine’s political identification, trying to keep the country within its sphere of influence. Consequently, the question of how NATO perceives Ukraine – as one of “Us” or the “Other” – resists straightforward answers. Definitions of Ukraine’s place in Europe and its relation to the Western Community have ranged from designations like a “bridge between the East and the West” to classifying Ukraine as a Central European country.

Ukraine has always been seen as a reliable NATO partner. Since the breakdown of the USSR, the country has been strengthening its ties with the Alliance by actively participating in the Partnership for Peace Program and being the only partner to have contributed to all NATO-led operations and missions. In 1997, NATO and Kiev signed the Charter on a Distinctive Partnership, which defined key areas for consultation and cooperation. Over the last 20 years, NATO–Ukrainian relations have intensified in several areas, including military-to-military cooperation, crisis management, peace support operations, security, and defense sector reform. This cooperation has been of great significance for Ukraine’s continuing effort to transform its security architecture and accomplish a democratic transition.

Kyiv conference
Conference in Kyiv commemorating the 15th anniversary of the signing in 1997 of the Charter on a Distinctive Partnership

Still, despite many consultations and programs aimed at supporting Ukraine’s reforms and Euro-Atlantic integration, the country is still not seen as ready to join the Alliance. Among the reasons behind such a predicament is the country’s failure to resist Russian influence and implement reforms needed to foster transparent and democratic governance. One of the most widely used arguments to explain why NATO would not accept Ukraine as a member is the geopolitical environment the latter finds itself in and tense relations with Russia arising from the fact that Moscow regards Ukraine as one of its most geopolitically important satellites in the post-Soviet space. Russia has always wanted to keep Ukraine under its grip, hindering all attempts by the government in Kiev to bring the country closer to Euro-Atlantic integration.

Although geopolitical arguments seem to be dominating discussions on Ukraine’s NATO membership prospects, another line of reasoning holds that the reason why Ukraine has not been invited to join the Alliance is its failure to fully internalize Western principles and norms. From the constructivist perspective, NATO enlargement represents a spread of liberal-democratic ideas and values. A country is offered membership if it demonstrates strong commitment to NATO’s shared ideas and multilateralist norms. Despite Ukraine’s declared intent to join the Western community – in the form of NATO and particularly the EU – the country is still struggling to deal with widespread corruption, oligarchy, and political instability. Since the break-up of the Soviet Union, this “iron triangle” has been the key obstacle preventing Ukraine from continuing on the path of reforms towards adopting European standards, which are of great importance when seeking to integrate into Western political or military structures.

NATO’s commitment to its open door policy and the current situation in Eastern Europe raise important questions about NATO’s expansion eastwards; questions that the Allies will have to tackle in the upcoming Warsaw Summit next year. Georgia’s Defense Minister has already noted that her country will raise the issue of NATO enlargement in Warsaw. Both Georgia and Ukraine were officially promised future membership in the Alliance during the Bucharest Summit in 2008. However, despite Ukraine’s strong aspiration and political commitment to move closer to the Alliance, the country is still a long way from becoming a fully-fledged member of the Western community.

Ukraine’s interest to join NATO is undoubtedly based on pragmatic calculations, but it is also a value-driven aspiration. The successful example of the Baltic countries demonstrates that geopolitics is not all that matters when it comes to NATO’s expanding eastwards. Although Russia is a very important player in the region and one that opposes any moves from NATO that could expand its influence, the Russian factor is not the only one in play. Eastern European countries themselves should be actively involved in socialization with the Western Community by embracing its norms and values, implementing radical institutional reforms needed to stay in line with NATO’s standards and Western values.

Zivile Marija Vaicekauskaite

About Zivile Marija Vaicekauskaite

Živilė Marija Vaicekauskaitė is a long time member and current chairperson of the Lithuanian Atlantic Treaty Association (LATA). As a member of LATA, she is actively involved in the execution of national and international educative initiatives, and public engagement campaigns devoted to encouraging young people’s interest in the transatlantic security dialogue and building ties among young leaders from different NATO countries. Živilė holds a Master’s degree in European Studies and a Bachelor’s degree in Political Science from the Institute of International Relations and Political Science, Vilnius University, where she is also currently working as the international programs' coordinator. Živilė is an author of several publications analyzing Lithuania’s commitments to NATO, NATO's role in Afghanistan after 2014, Lithuania’s energy independence, and Eastern Partnership Policy related issues. Her academic interests are transatlantic security cooperation in general and U.S. - Nordic – Baltic security cooperation in particular, NATO transformations in XXI century, and Lithuanian national security and defense policy.