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Analysts: NATO Membership for Ukraine Unlikely Anytime Soon

A meeting at NATO's headquarters (file photo)

A meeting at NATO's headquarters (file photo)

Ukrainians go to the polls January 17 to elect a new president. Current leader Viktor Yushchenko is a strong advocate for Ukraine's membership into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. But that membership is unlikely to happen anytime soon.

Ukraine and Georgia have expressed interest in becoming NATO members. The Bush administration strongly supported their membership bids. But at the April 2008 NATO summit in Bucharest, Romania, member countries declined requests by both nations to begin the process of accession known as a "Membership Action Plan". The final communiqué simply said NATO leaders agreed that "these countries will become members of NATO" - but no time frame was given.

A former senior State Department official in the Bush administration, David Kramer, who was responsible for Eurasian and European affairs says both countries have to overcome numerous obstacles before becoming NATO members.

"Joining NATO means meeting the criteria for joining NATO - countries can't simply fill out an application and become a member the next day. They do have to undertake reforms that include political, economic as well as security reforms. And membership is a long process - it does not happen quickly. And so in some respects, in different areas, Georgia and Ukraine have made progress in these regards. But in other areas, in other parts of reform, they have a long way to go. So membership for Ukraine and Georgia is not going to be in the offing anytime soon."

Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko has been pushing for NATO membership since he assumed power five years ago. But he is on the verge of losing his job as voters go the polls this Sunday to elect a new president. Public-opinion surveys put Mr. Yushchenko far behind the two front-runners: Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko and Viktor Yanukovich, head of the powerful "Party of Regions" in the Ukrainian parliament.

David Marples from the University of Alberta [Canada] looks at Ms. Tymoshenko's and Mr. Yanukovich's stand on NATO membership. "Tymoshenko is a little unclear on what would happen with NATO . Yanukovich is opposed to it, but he would probably agree to a referendum. And all the polls so far have suggested that most people would vote against it: something like 55 or 60 percent, which is a very high figure in a referendum, would vote against Ukraine joining NATO," he said.

Russia has been vehemently opposed to Ukraine's bid to join NATO. Analysts say as a result of President Yushchenko's attempts to join the alliance, relations between Kiyev and Moscow are at an all-time low.

But many experts, including Robert Legvold from Columbia University, say NATO membership appears to be less of an issue now than it was five years ago at the beginning of the Yushchenko administration. "One of the interesting things about this election is no candidate, no single candidate, not even Yushchenko, who is after all one of the 18 candidates, is raising the issue of NATO membership in this presidential campaign. Both objectively in terms of Ukraine's relations with NATO and in terms of the politics of it in Ukraine, as reflected in this presidential election, Ukraine is farther away from NATO membership than before," he said.

Legvold says that has a lot to do with NATO's perception of Ukraine. "And that is that Ukraine is seen less and less as a fit member of NATO, because it has not been able to deal with these underlying structural problems: it has made a little bit of progress in terms of military reform, but not in terms of corruption or political stabilization or advancing in a way that would make it anything other than for NATO, a basket case to take on. And NATO has had enough trouble dealing with, just as the European Union, with the enlargements of the past," he said.

Ukraine is also vying to be a member of the European Union. But experts say Kiyev has even less of a chance to become an E.U. member because the standards for getting into the European Union are much tighter than they are for membership in NATO.