Ambassadors from the North Atlantic Council— the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) principal political decision-making body—visited Ukraine, on October 30–31, for a meeting of the NATO-Ukraine Commission. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy attended the Commission’s meeting, and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, who led the delegation, addressed the parliament in Kyiv (Nato.int, October 31).
Comprised of all 29 (imminently 30) allied countries’ ambassadors to NATO, the delegation also visited Ukraine’s naval academy and the port of Odesa. A NATO group of four minesweepers (Romanian, Bulgarian, Italian, Spanish) and two Island-class coastal guard boats just gifted by the United States to Ukraine were anchored there for the occasion (UNIAN, October 30, 31).
The NATO-Ukraine Commission is the decision-making body overseeing NATO-Ukraine relations and cooperative activities. It also provides a forum for Ukraine and the Alliance’s consultations on common security concerns; and it regularly reviews Ukraine’s activities under the Annual National Program of cooperation with NATO. This meeting was the first that the Commission held in Ukraine following this year’s democratic change of regime in that country (Nato.int, October 30, 31).
Zelenskyy paid a visit at NATO headquarters in Brussels in June, as freshly elected president. His government looks set to continue the NATO integration agenda it inherited from Petro Poroshenko’s presidency and the parliament of the 2015–2019 convocation. They set Ukraine on a firm course toward integration with the North Atlantic Alliance while also founding Ukraine’s bilateral strategic partnership with the United States. This bilateral relationship is far more productive to Ukraine’s national security and defense than its relations with NATO collectively (see below), although the two relationships are ultimately inseparable. Ukraine attained the status of country aspirant to NATO membership during Poroshenko’s presidency. At his initiative, the parliament enshrined the goal of NATO membership in Ukraine’s laws on national security and foreign and domestic policies (June 2017) and in Ukraine’s constitution (February 7, 2019), so as to safeguard Ukraine’s NATO membership aspirations against hypothetical abandonment by another leadership.
The new government in Kyiv can now build on that legacy. It has identified four priority areas for Ukraine-NATO cooperation, to be included in the Ukraine-NATO Annual National Programs (ANP) from 2020 onward: 1) Strengthening Ukraine’s naval forces, special operation troops, logistics, cyber defense, and military police; 2) consolidating civilian control and democratic oversight of the security and defense sector; 3) developing a modern military education system; and 4) strengthening national resilience to hybrid threats. Ukraine’s deputy prime minister for Euro-Atlantic integration, Dmytro Kuleba, and Defense Minister Andriy Zagorodniuk coordinated these priorities at NATO headquarters in Brussels, ahead of the North Atlantic Council’s visit to Kyiv (Ukrinform, October 31, November 1).
NATO will not entertain Ukrainian appeals for a Membership Action Plan (MAP) any time soon. Such appeals had become an irritant in the relationship, as they did in Georgia’s case and for similar reasons, namely Russia orchestrating territorial conflicts to render these countries ineligible for NATO membership. Ukraine‘s new government has decided to refrain from appealing to the Alliance for a MAP, anticipating a negative answer. Moreover, reopening the MAP issue at this time would jeopardize the summit meeting with Russia, Germany and France (the “Normandy” format) that Zelenskyy so eagerly seeks (see EDM, October 3, 16, 17, 31).
Zelenskyy’s government takes the position that it could advance inter-operability and de facto integration with the transatlantic alliance through incremental steps, with NATO’s assistance but in the absence of a MAP. That movement, however, would be slower and more trial-and-error prone without a Membership Action Plan. The MAP entails closer, deeper, and better resourced NATO mentoring of the aspirant country’s progress, compared with the Annual National Program. The ANP is basically a national commitment, the MAP is a mutual commitment between the aspirant country and the Alliance.
The NATO-Ukraine Commission’s concluding statement (Nato.int, October 31) repeats verbatim what every NATO communique has said about a Ukrainian MAP for years. Ukraine should “make the best use of the tools available, in particular the Annual National Program [though less effective than a MAP—see above].” Also invariably from year to year, “in light of Ukraine’s restated aspirations for NATO membership, we stand by our decisions taken at the Bucharest Summit and subsequent summits.” This passage alludes to the 2008 decision that Ukraine (and Georgia as well) “will be members of NATO.” Merely alluding to that decision without actually quoting it, however, dilutes the statement’s value in terms of commitment from NATO and incentive to the aspirant country (see EDM, July 30, 2018 and August 1, 2018).
NATO’s official, collective position holds that: a) a MAP is a necessary prerequisite to Ukrainian (or Georgian) eventual membership; however, b) Ukraine (or Georgia) is not eligible for a MAP. As duly expressed by Secretary General Stoltenberg in Kyiv, “the MAP is an indispensable stage for membership aspirants,” and a “MAP is indeed an obligatory part of the process of membership accession.” Nevertheless, Ukraine must use other instruments to prepare for membership, instead of applying for a MAP (Ukraiynska Pravda, November 1).