The Ukrainian parliament voted on Tuesday to repeal a law that guaranteed the country's non-aligned status, a move that much of the mainstream media has billed as a significant step toward Ukraine joining NATO. Rhetoric from Ukrainian officials seemed to confirm as much, with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin saying that this development underscored Kiev's pivot toward the West. In the meantime, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov expressed Moscow's concern over the move, saying it will "escalate the confrontation" in the conflict in Ukraine. However, the government's scrapping of the country's non-bloc status is neither unprecedented nor necessarily destined to alter the strategic picture for Ukraine.
Ukraine's foreign policy has swung like a pendulum since the country gained independence from the Soviet Union. Ukraine spent the early 1990s preoccupied with overcoming the major economic and political dislocations of the Soviet collapse. From 1994 until 2004, the government under then-President Leonid Kuchma attempted a balancing act between Russia and the West. The country then underwent a major shift with the onset of the Orange Revolution in 2004-2005, which brought in a government that firmly oriented Ukraine toward the West and made EU and NATO membership a top priority. The pendulum swung again in 2010 with the election of Viktor Yanukovich, who brought the country closer to Russia and made NATO membership illegal with the passing of the country's non-aligned status that same year. In February of this year, Yanukovich was overthrown and replaced by a pro-Western government that has once again shifted Ukraine toward integration with the European Union and NATO. While the law repealing non-bloc status was just passed on Tuesday, it reflects a policy that has existed for much of the past year.
Still, repealing this law hardly guarantees Ukraine's looming — or even potential — membership in NATO. From NATO's perspective, there are numerous reasons why Ukraine's membership currently is not a realistic option. As an alliance, NATO is still very much based on direct political decisions by its member states as expressed in the North Atlantic Council, and thus membership considerations are influenced highly by the individual interests of its member states. Not only is a unanimous decision by the North Atlantic Council required, but also any individual member state can demand that a prospective member meet specific criteria before it can join the alliance.
This fact puts Ukraine in a particularly tough spot, because several issues would cause current NATO members to take issue with Ukrainian membership. The conflict in eastern Ukraine (despite the cease-fire) puts Ukraine at direct odds with Russia. Besides the fact that NATO typically demands the resolution of any remaining territorial disputes before allowing new members to join, the conflict would technically be grounds for Ukraine to invoke Article 5 of NATO, which would draw the other member states into the conflict.
As a defense alliance, NATO was not created with the intention of going to war, but rather to mount the necessary deterrents to prevent war. Allowing countries with a volatile geopolitical position, or even active involvement in armed conflicts, to join the treaty would be contrary to that objective. The main security providers in NATO — primarily the United States but also several Western European states such as France, the United Kingdom and Germany — do not seek a direct conflict with Russia. Supporting Ukraine financially and providing security assistance is acceptable to them, but active commitment to a conflict, or deployment of large numbers of forces to Eastern Europe, is simply beyond the scope of what they desire. Other Eastern European NATO members like Poland and Lithuania might think otherwise, because they also feel threatened directly by Russia's aggressive stance, but because of the construct of the treaty, they are unable to dictate the policy of the alliance.
However, despite Ukraine's inability to become a full member of NATO in the foreseeable future, Ukraine can achieve many things in cooperation with the alliance to improve its own defense posture. Ukraine has already conducted exercises with NATO, even while Yanukovich was president, and has taken part in naval deployments (such as the alliance's counter-piracy mission in the Gulf of Aden, Ocean Shield, and its counterterrorism mission in the Mediterranean, Operation Active Endeavour). The country has also received the alliance's support in reforming military education and training, and even though Ukraine has not been completely integrated by NATO standards yet, there is technically nothing stopping Kiev from moving that far even without membership in the alliance.
But while greater cooperation with NATO is one thing, Ukraine's actual membership in the bloc is another. NATO membership for Ukraine is a red line for Russia — one that many NATO members are not interested in crossing. Even Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has said that Ukraine does not plan to actually apply for membership in NATO (and the European Union) until 2020. A lot can happen between now and then, and given Ukraine's recent history, it is possible that Kiev could shift its position again on the issue of NATO integration, or even its broader foreign policy orientation. Ultimately, the government's decision on Tuesday is an important symbolic move, but one that is far from set in stone.