Since Russia invaded Ukraine last year, NATO leaders have faced a complex dilemma: how should they respond to Kyiv’s push to join the military alliance without offering an immediate path to membership?
At an informal meeting in Oslo on Wednesday, NATO foreign ministers will gather to answer that question.
“Ukraine’s rightful place is in NATO. And over time, our support will help you make it possible,” said NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg during his visit to Kyiv in April 2023, standing next to Ukrainian President Zelenskyy.
The Kremlin, meanwhile, has repeatedly said that preventing Ukraine from joining NATO is a key goal of its invasion, arguing that Kyiv’s membership would pose a threat to Russia.
What can Ukraine’s allies offer?
If NATO were to grant membership to Ukraine now, it would effectively drag the alliance into a direct war with Russia – a nuclear power that regularly threatens to use its tactical nuclear weapons. As a result, NATO leaders have indicated that this prospect is effectively off the table as the war continues.
“Everyone agrees that membership is not for now, but everyone also agrees that Ukraine needs an upgraded relationship with NATO,” Bruno Lete, a defense expert at the German Marshall Fund, told DW. “Oslo needs to explain what this upgrade is.”
To date, NATO countries have not yet found a consensus on what this means for Ukraine’s membership prospects in the short to medium term, sources told DW. Many members of NATO’s former Soviet bloc are seeking formal commitments on Ukraine – pledges such as a path or a timetable that Kyiv could provide at a summit of NATO leaders in July in the Lithuanian capital. in Vilnius.
Ukrainian President Zelenskyy, who has insisted that his country needs a concrete roadmap to become a member, is expected to attend the meeting.
NATO’s ‘open door’ policy in question
The US, the largest military power in the alliance, however, does not seem inclined to make formal promises to join Ukraine at this point. Asked if an invitation for membership was on the cards, Dereck Hogan, the top US diplomat for European and Eurasian affairs, reiterated that the Biden administration “remains steadfast” in its commitment to ” open door” policy of NATO.
“We will find ways to support Ukraine’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations,” Hogan told reporters in Washington. “But now, Ukraine’s immediate needs are practical, and so we must focus on building Ukraine’s defense and deterrence capabilities.”
The US, as well as France, “balance support for Ukraine with restraint because of the upcoming elections,” Lété told DW. He also pointed to Germany as one of the allies that “want to prevent a complete isolation of Russia in the post-war European security architecture.”
Those allies have been reluctant to move away from the language established during the NATO summit in Bucharest in 2008. At the time, leaders said they agreed that Ukraine and Georgia would become NATO members but stopped short of issuing a formal invitation.
Boosting morale without concrete promises?
As discussions continue, NATO leaders seek to send a positive signal to Ukraine without making major decisions on the principles or timing of a possible membership. But what does this mean in practice?
One suggestion is to upgrade Ukraine’s political relationship with NATO. Currently, the two sides meet in the NATO-Ukraine Commission, which oversees the activities and provides a forum for consultation, according to the alliance. In the future, this body can be transformed into a “NATO-Ukraine Council.”
Although it may seem bureaucratic, such a change means something because “it institutionalizes a higher level of dialogue between NATO and Ukraine,” Karsten Friis, security and defense expert at Norwegian Institute of International Affairs, told DW.
Ukraine will then sit at the table as an equal partner, along with all 31 NATO members and Sweden. It also means that Kyiv can call for meetings in case of emergency and have access to new areas of cooperation.
Individual security assurance for Ukraine
To address the core of Ukraine’s security concerns, some NATO allies are also looking at a security model similar to the one Israel has, Lete said. “The key here is to create an easy way for the West to transfer weapons and advanced technology to Ukraine,” he emphasized.
The idea was first brought forward by Andriy Yermak, a top aide to President Zelenskyy, and Anders Fogh Rasmussen, a former NATO secretary general. They suggested giving Ukraine security guarantees from individual NATO members, including the US, Germany and the UK. These will be based on bilateral agreements, but combined under a joint strategic partnership document.
Friis said he didn’t expect it to be a big issue during the foreign ministers’ meeting in Oslo because it was a topic for individual member states, rather than NATO as a whole. Friis also explained that such security guarantees, aimed at helping Ukraine defend itself, cannot be confused with a guarantee in the sense of Article 5 of NATO.
Article 5 of the founding treaty of NATO states that an armed attack against one member of the alliance is an attack on all members.
However, the question of how to increase practical support and build Ukraine’s longer-term capabilities and interoperability with NATO can certainly be discussed.
Sweden on the Oslo agenda
The ministers will also focus on Sweden and its NATO bid, according to officials, as they will meet just days after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan won reelection. Turkey, along with Hungary, is still blocking Sweden’s membership in the alliance. Other allies are expected to send a strong message to the two holdouts that now is the time to drop their objections.
The ministers may also discuss Jens Stoltenberg’s successor as NATO chief, although no one expects the Oslo meeting to give concrete decisions on this.
Edited by Emily Schultheis.