Why can’t Ukraine join Nato?

Volodymyr Zelensky concedes his country may never become member of military alliance

Volodymyr Zelensky accuses Nato of being ‘hypnotised’ by Russian aggression

Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky said on Tuesday that his country must accept it will never join Nato, seemingly a first major concession to Russia as Vladimir Putin’s bombs continue to hammer the country’s cities after three weeks of unrelenting and brutal siege warfare.

Mr Zelensky has emerged as a hero since the conflict began on 24 February and continues to lead from the streets of Kyiv, which is itself now under attack, with residential buildings and a subway station the latest targets of Russian military shelling.

Speaking to military officials belonging to the UK-led Joint Expeditionary Force in a video message, he said it was a “truth” that embattled Ukraine would not join the North Atlantic military alliance, which was founded in the aftermath of the Second World War and obliges members to come to the defence of any fellow signatory to its founding treaty should they come under attack from a foreign power.

“Ukraine is not a member of Nato,” Mr Zelensky said. “We understand that. We have heard for years that the doors were open, but we also heard that we could not join. It’s a truth and it must be recognised.”

On the eve of war, Mr Putin demanded assurances that Ukraine would never join the allaince and has repeated those demands since the war erupted and also called on Kyiv to sign a neutrality agreement and recognise the independence of the pro-Russian quasi-states of Donetsk and Luhansk in the east.

While Ukraine is not a formal member of the alliance, the country does enjoy ties to the alliance and a Nato-Ukraine Commission (NUC) was established in 1997 to explore collaboration on security issues and other areas of mutual concern, which has led to Nato assisting the country with a number of security-related issues like cyber-defence and explosive ordnance disposal.

In 2009, the Declaration to Complement the Nato-Ukraine Charter was signed, giving the NUC a role in promoting with domestic reform initiatives concerning everything from politics, the economy and legal system to national security and the military.

Aims are drawn up and agreed as part of an Annual National Programme, which is reviewed by allies annually to assess Ukraine’s progress with a view to possible future admission to Nato membership, although “the responsibility for implementation falls primarily on Ukraine”.

A member of the anti-war organization "Women in Black" holds a banner during a protest against the Russian invasion, in solidarity with the Ukrainian people in Belgrade, Serbia

Since June 2020, Nato has also recognised Ukraine as an “enhanced opportunity partner”, a status also extended to other non-member nations like Australia and Sweden that have “made significant contributions to Nato-led operations and missions”, as Ukraine did in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Iraq and Afghanistan.

But full membership remains elusive and would involve a lengthy process requiring a Membership Action Plan being signed off by all 30 of the alliance’s current member states.

In light of Russia’s attack, Ukraine does now have the support of all 30, with the likes of France and Germany dropping their historic objections in the greater interests of protecting the country.

However, a key requirement for admission is that any applicant nation has no “unresolved external territorial disputes” outstanding, a condition that could not be met even before 24 February because of the ongoing fighting in the Donbas since 2014, which has seen the Ukrainian military battling pro-Russian separatist rebels in a conflict that has cost some 14,000 lives over the last eight years.

For its part, Nato’s official stance remains that “a sovereign, independent and stable Ukraine, firmly committed to democracy and the rule of law, is key to Euro-Atlantic security”.

It points out that its associations with the country date back to the disintegration of the USSR and that cooperation has had to be intensified in light of the events of 2014, when Russia moved to annexe Crimea in response to the removal of pro-Kremlin president Viktor Yanukovych in a wave of popular protests.

For the US, Ukraine’s path to Nato membership is not clear cut.

This map shows the extent of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine

While secretary of state Antony Blinken told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee as recently as 8 June 2021 that “we support Ukraine membership in Nato”, his deputy, Wendy Sherman, was cagier when she addressed the issue in January, saying only: “Together, the United States and our Nato allies made clear we will not slam the door shut on Nato’s open door policy – a policy that has always been central to the Nato alliance.”

US president Joe Biden is meanwhile known to be determined to see political and judicial corruption stamped out in Ukraine and is reluctant to further provoke Moscow.

As for Russia, while Mr Putin’s stated reason for commencing his “special military operation” against Ukraine last month is to “de-Nazify” and “de-militarise” the country by removing its current government, which he insists represents a threat, his opposition to the neighbouring state joining the protective embrace of Nato is no secret.

The Kremlin leader is widely believed to resent Ukraine’s aspirations to be a free, western-style democracy and to reject its loss and that of other former Soviet satellite states following the collapse of the USSR in 1989, insisting in a televised address in February: “Ukraine is an inalienable part of our own history, culture and spiritual space. These are our comrades, those dearest to us – not only colleagues, friends and people who once served together, but also relatives, people bound by blood, by family ties.”

Mr Putin has also repeatedly criticised Nato for what he regards as its gradual creep eastwards over the last two decades, which saw the alliance induct former Soviet territories in 1999 and again in 2004, which he claims occurred in violation of promises made to Mikhail Gorbachev.

Nato’s defence ministers will meet in Brussels on Wednesday for the first time since the war started to discuss what more can be done to help Ukraine, although a no-fly zone remains off the table for fear of drawing the alliance into a much larger conflict with Russia over Eastern Europe.

The Independent has a proud history of campaigning for the rights of the most vulnerable, and we first ran our Refugees Welcome campaign during the war in Syria in 2015. Now, as we renew our campaign and launch this petition in the wake of the unfolding Ukrainian crisis, we are calling on the government to go further and faster to ensure help is delivered. To find out more about our Refugees Welcome campaign, click here. To sign the petition click here. If you would like to donate then please click here for our GoFundMe page.

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