Ukraine's move to apply for membership of NATO on September 30 was met with quite some surprise in Brussels.
Very few saw that coming and while there is a lot of sympathy for Kyiv there, don't expect that the country will join the military alliance in an expedited fashion, as President Volodymyr Zelenskiy promised when announcing the latest move. In fact, don't expect much on this issue anytime soon.
The most common reading I hear when talking to NATO officials is the timing of Zelenskiy's announcement -- just hours after Vladimir Putin's big show in Moscow, in which the Russian leader confirmed the intent to annex further Ukrainian territory and once again threatened the West with nuclear saber-rattling. The media-savvy Zelenskiy needed to "steal Putin's thunder," one official told me, speaking on condition of anonymity. Judging by the press coverage it worked -- to a degree.
It reminded me of another move made by Kyiv earlier in the war: the push for the West to create and enforce a no-fly zone over Ukraine. For several days, Ukrainian officials were pressuring for this, and experts were debating the pros and cons of it. But the practical impossibility of it meant that all the chatter soon died down and there hasn't been any serious talk about it since early March.
The same fate is likely to befall the Ukrainian NATO membership bid and for the very same reason: The West, broadly represented by NATO here, doesn't want to be dragged into this conflict in any way. To understand why, look no further than NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg's press conference in Brussels later on September 30 after Ukraine's surprise announcement.
Yes, he did say when asked about Ukraine's NATO bid that "every democracy in Europe has the right to apply for NATO membership, and NATO allies respect that right. And we have stated again and again that NATO's door remains open."
That has essentially been NATO's line on Ukraine (as well as other NATO aspirant countries such as Bosnia-Herzegovina and Georgia) ever since it was decided at the 2008 NATO summit in Bucharest that, one day, it was welcome to join the club. Nothing has changed there. What was more important from that press conference were two other sentences Stoltenberg said.
The first one was that "NATO is not party to the conflict." He repeated that very line on two more occasions during his 18 minutes in front of the press.
NATO is ready to defend every inch of its own territory and alliance members are still very much keen to help Kyiv with weapons and ammunition to defeat Russia. But don't expect NATO to come to the rescue in any other way. Military confrontation with Russia is something to be avoided no matter what. So, as long as there is a Russian presence on Ukrainian territory, the whole idea of Ukraine even inching closer to membership is rather moot. And the same is true for Georgia with its frozen conflicts.
Stoltenberg's second sentence perhaps makes Ukraine's potential entry into NATO even more theoretical: "We support Ukraine's right to choose its own path, to decide what kind of security arrangements it wants to be part of. Then, a decision on membership, of course, must be taken by all 30 allies and we take these decisions by consensus."
Ukraine's Best Bet
The need for consensus is the real killer of Ukrainian hopes. And it will prolong the waiting no matter how much Kyiv is pushing. Look no further than Finland and Sweden here. Their NATO bids were roundly welcomed when they applied in May. It was an expedient process, just like the one Zelenskiy is looking for with some steps skipped or decided on very quickly. And for a while there was even talk about the Nordic pair joining at the end of the summer. We are now in October and there is no sign of Turkey's parliament or president greenlighting anything until Stockholm has made the concessions Ankara has asked for. And on top of that, Hungary's lawmakers are also not in a hurry to vote in favor just yet.
Ukraine's membership plans have been endorsed by nine presidents of Central and Eastern European countries and, down the line, there could potentially be a few more sympathizers depending how the war effort goes and how the geopolitical landscape in Europe changes in the coming months. But we are still far from the consensus of 30 (or 32 when Finland and Sweden finally join.)
What could change is that NATO updates the way it deals with aspirant countries. So far, it has been done via the Membership Action Plan (MAP), a pre-accession NATO program of advice, assistance, and practical support tailored for a prospective member, even though a MAP does not automatically entail future membership. Finland and Sweden skipped this stage altogether whereas Bosnia-Herzegovina has had one since 2010 and still hasn't moved too far forward. For both Ukraine and Georgia, even getting a MAP has proved elusive so far.
For the upcoming NATO summit in Vilnius, slated for the summer of 2023, it could happen that a MAP is given to Kyiv or Tbilisi -- or both. But the MAP has become a politically sensitive word in NATO circles, especially when mentioned in conjunction with eastern aspirants. Maybe it could be a "MAP in all but the name itself," something that might be disguised as a "road map" or "consultation on membership"?
In any case, any move forward would require consensus, and the same unanimity is needed for the next steps: the signing of an accession protocol and the ratification of it. A tall order, in other words, and one that will take time.
Perhaps Ukraine's best bet when it comes to its NATO membership bid is that a lot will change for the better, both on the battlefield and among the alliance's political elites in the nine-month run up to the next summit.