When will Ukraine join NATO?

Volodymyr Zelensky, President of Ukraine since May and lately at the centre of American and international attention because of his instrumental but rather passive role in the case for impeachment against Donald Trump, was elected chiefly because of his promise to end the war in the Donbass, in the Eastern Ukraine. This week, the man who was generally considered Zelensky’s mentor, the Ukrainian Jewish oligarch Igor Kolomoisky, in an interview with the New York Times, released what amounted to nothing less than a shocking declaration: “It is time for Ukraine to give up on the West and turn back toward Russia. They’re stronger anyway. We have to improve our relations. People want peace, a good life, they don’t want to be at war. And you (meaning the US red.) are forcing us to be at war, and not even giving us the money for it”. This was a significant change of heart for a man who in 2014, when the disorders in Eastern Ukraine began, helped organize and finance several battalions that were to fight the Moscow-backed rebels and separatists.

Battle for Ukraine, published in May 2019, available on Amazon here

Kolomoisky’s words may have come as a surprise to many and provoked some outcry in his own country, where he could recently return after having spent the last few years in a self-imposed exile, first in Switzerland and then in Israel. Kolomoisky’s new approach, however, did not seem to reflect the rhetoric of his supposed protégée, the Ukrainian President, who only two weeks ago took part in a NATO-Ukraine summit and declared:

“Ukraine stands ready for closer cooperation with NATO, continuing systemic reforms in the country’s defence sector and will keep the possibility of joining the Alliance’s Membership Action Plan on the agenda.

“We hope that our progress in the implementation of NATO principles, norms and standards, as well as the new format of our engagement with the Alliance, will be recognised in further political decisions of the Allies.

“I am sure that Ukraine is ready to move to this new level of cooperation”.

Zelensky’s course on the issue of NATO seems until now to be not too different from the one taken by his certainly predecessor Petro Poroshenko, who made ample use of belligerent rhetoric to earn political capital and before leaving the presidency promoted a move that lead the Ukrainian parliament to enshrine membership of the NATO and the EU in the constitution of the country.

Ukraine’s history with NATO

But when and how did NATO membership exactly become a priority for Ukraine? To find this out, one needs to go back at least a decade, before the Maidan revolution of 2014 that changed Ukraine forever.

In 2014, when the Ukrainian crisis emerged in its full and the Eastern regions of Ukraine began to show signs of serious instability, Western audiences were shocked at the sight of what was portrayed as an “unexpected” and “unprovoked” Russian aggression. The cable quoted here below, from 2008, by the then US Ambassador to Russia William J. Burns illustrates however very well that the consequences of a possible NATO expansion towards Ukraine were perfectly known, even at the time, six years before the “pro-Russian” Ukrainian President was overthrown.


Classified By: Ambassador William J. Burns.

Reasons 1.4 (b) and (d).
1. (C) Summary. Following a muted first reaction to Ukraine’s intent to seek a NATO Membership Action Plan (MAP) at the Bucharest summit (ref A), Foreign Minister Lavrov and other senior officials have reiterated strong opposition, stressing that Russia would view further eastward expansion as a potential military threat. NATO enlargement, particularly to Ukraine, remains “an emotional and neuralgic” issue for Russia, but strategic policy considerations also underlie strong opposition to NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia. In Ukraine, these include fears that the issue could potentially split the country in two, leading to violence or even, some claim, civil war, which would force Russia to decide whether to intervene. Additionally, the GOR and experts continue to claim that Ukrainian NATO membership would have a major impact on Russia’s defense industry, Russian-Ukrainian family connections, and bilateral relations generally. In Georgia, the GOR fears continued instability and “provocative acts” in the separatist regions. End summary.

The most interest passage in the cable is arguably the one regarding a possible civil war in Ukraine: “the issue could potentially split the country in two, leading to violence or even, some claim, civil war, which would force Russia to decide whether to intervene”. It seems almost a general probe of what was to come only little more than five years later.
In the rest of cable NATO membership is casually referred to as an “ambition” of the Ukrainian nation. But was it really in 2008? Did the Ukrainian people really wish to join NATO? Yes, NATO membership was a key objective for the then President Yushchenko, who had come to power following the 2004 Orange Revolution. But in another leaked cable from February 2010, immediately after the Ukrainian presidential election, however, the US Ambassador to Ukraine explains:

“Viktor Yushchenko ends his tenure after having gotten only about five percent of the vote in the first round of the Presidential election. His appeal now extends only as far as Lviv and other limited areas of Western Ukraine. He is widely blamed — not least by many who voted for him in 2004 — for his poor management, incessant quarreling with Tymoshenko at the expense of national interests, needless antagonizing of Russia, and his penchant for seeking declarations of membership from NATO and the EU instead of focusing on the hard work of economic and military reforms that would have moved such aspirations toward concrete reality.”

NATO membership might have been a fixation for Yushchenko, the first Ukrainian politician that made the country’s pro-West and anti-Russia stance a matter of principle, but as the cable clearly illustrated, this approach ended up alienating much of the population: Ukrainians simply had much more pressing priorities. “In contrast, the two orange governments in office from January 2005 – July 2006 had tried to rush the NATO accession issue, increasing negative attitudes towards NATO”, as the US Ambassador put it, speaking of then Prime Minister, none other than Viktor Yanukovich, who was reported saying at the time that “he saw himself as NATO’s chief imagemaker in Ukraine, given the challenge of public opinion to Ukraine’s Euro-Atlantic integration”. It was the same Yanukovich who would later go down into history as a “pro-Russian” politician for having walked away from the Association Agreement with the European Union just a few days before its planned signing.

Another cable from 2008 details NATO information campaign and its very specific goal, that is, to increase support for NATO membership among the Ukrainian population of more than 25%, from 30% to 55% in 2011, with an extensive informational effort (one could call it propaganda for lack of a more fitting term) that included TV programs, visits for journalists, and even NATO centers at universities, among other things.

State Euroatlantic Integration Campaign
5. (U) Adopted by the CabMin on May 28, the “State Program on Public Information on Ukraine’s Euroatlantic Integration 2008-2011” provides 40.5 million hryvnia (8.5 million USD) for a four-year program that aims to increase public support for NATO membership from today’s level of 30 percent to 55 percent by 2011. The funds will be used in part in combination with existing programs to increase leverage — for example, 50,000 USD will be combined with an additional 200,000 USD from local budgets to organize NATO speaker programs in local press centers. Disposition of the funds is spelled out in detail (full list will be forwarded by e-mail), with key items including:

– NATO pamphlets/postcards (1.2 million USD)
– TV debates (500,000 USD)
– Monthly TV Program (350,000 USD)
– Regional Conferences (300,000 USD))
– NATO HQ visits for journalists, NGO reps, etc (150,000 USD
– one visit per oblast per year)
– NATO centers at Universities (175,000 USD)
– Polling (100,000 USD)

NATO had signaled it would be open to admit Ukraine and Georgia as far back as 2008. Then came the famous NATO summit in Bucharest the same year, where Putin, the Russian president, a guest at the summit, allegedly opposed a NATO expansion into Ukraine with fury. Even more significantly, in August Russia and Georgia engaged in 5-day war in South Ossetia, a region formally part of Georgia but that has been de facto independent since 1991. NATO ambitions for Georgia, and for Ukraine too, were stalled after that.

Now, more than 10 years later, things could be starting to change. In theory, NATO’s own statute would prevent it from admitting countries that are entangled in territorial disputes. This would automatically exclude a possible NATO membership for Ukraine, not only because of the conflict in the Donbass, which could in the near future come to an end, but for the issue of Crimea too. Crimea has de facto been part of Russia since 2014 and NATO has promised that it “never going to recognize the annexation”. In practise, however, NATO has repeatedly made clear that it could make an exception for Ukraine, given the country’s unique strategical position. “As a sovereign nation, Ukraine has the right to choose its own security arrangements. NATO’s door remains open,” said Jens Stoltenberg, NATO Secretary General, addressing the Verkhovna Rada, the Ukrainian parliament. “No outside country has the right to veto. The time of spheres of influence is over”, he added.

After 5 years of a conflict that many in Ukraine have been persuaded to perceive as a “war with Russia”, a rapprochement with Russia, of the kind suggested, probably as a sort of provocation or a form of blackmail, by the oligarch Kolomoisky, seems rather unfeasible politically. During his election campaign, Zelensky had promised a referendum on a future NATO membership, but once in office, he did not go refer to this idea anymore. Instead he has insisted on Transatlantic integration, as if this was the inevitable path for Ukraine. Until now, however, NATO’s own promises with regard to a full membership have been rather vague. De facto Ukraine is already a NATO ally anyway, and thousands of US, British and Canadian advisers have cooperated with Ukrainian armed forces since the beginning of the conflict in the Donbass. Considering Ukraine’s trajectory after the Maidan revolution and its damaged relations with Russia, making the engagement between NATO and Ukraine official appears solely a formality, a question of secondary importance.

This article is loosely based on a chapter from our author Stepan Antonov’s book: Battle for Ukraine: Ukraine between Russia and the West. You can buy the book on Amazon.


  1. Fatales Spiel mit falschen Freunden, Der Spiegel, 2 December 2010
  2. Ukraine: NYET MEANS NYET: RUSSIA’S NATO ENLARGEMENT REDLINES, 1 February 2008, available at Wikileaks https://wikileaks.org/plusd/cables/08MOSCOW265_a.html
  3. Ukraine: SCENESETTER: NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISOR JONES’ ATTENDANCE AT YANUKOVYCH INAUGURATION, 23 February 2010, available at Wikileaks https://wikileaks.org/plusd/cables/10KYIV275_a.html
  4. Ukraine: NATO INFORMATION CAMPAIGN GAINS MOMENTUM, 11 June 2008, available at Wikileaks https://wikileaks.org/plusd/cables/08KYIV1144_a.html

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