Ukraine’s Integration to NATO: The Implications of US Support

By THO Contributor, Arianna Garcia Guerrero

During the recent NATO summit, many important conversations were held on the various issues at stake. Some of these matters included: the rise of China, the recent tension with Russia, and transnational security threats that have arisen during recent months. Amongst these various concerns, however, it remains to be seen what sort of relationship will develop between the new Biden administration and NATO as they confront these topics and engage in conversations on how to combat these threats more broadly. From previous statements and during the NATO Summit itself, President Biden expressed a strong commitment to working with the alliance. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg stated that both he and Biden agree “on the importance of...strengthening the transatlantic bond, the bond between North America and Europe in NATO,” (NPR, 2021). This statement reflects the overarching sentiment that alliances and deeper connections between the West and many of the countries abroad remains an important objective for the United States. In light of the comments made by leaders during and after the NATO Summit, it is important to observe the ways in which Biden will attempt to establish new and fortified relations with their European allies and the steps he will take to reconstruct the transatlantic relationship.

One of the ways in which Biden’s larger relationship with NATO and his commitment to the founding principles of the alliance will be especially observable, is in his approach to Ukraine’s attempts to become a NATO member. The importance of the United States’ approach to Ukraine’s call for membership is reflected in the implications such membership holds for Ukraine itself and other countries’ reactions towards their potential integration. In April, Russian military leadership began transferring thousands of soldiers to its border region with Ukraine for exercises on Crimea and the Black Sea, creating the largest such presence in the region since the 2014 invasion of Crimea (Ukrinform, 2021). Not only were twenty-eight battalion tactical troops of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation stationed throughout the border with Ukraine, but satellite images at the time also displayed other Russian military units being deployed to the region (Gordon & Kantchev, 2021). The increasingly large drills were meant to be a response to the US and NATO’s destabilizing and “provocative activities” in the Black Sea, according to Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu. 

During this time, President Volodymyr Zelensky expressed his urgent desire to become a part of the NATO alliance as a means of counteracting the growing military standoff between them and Russia. At the time, this union was seen as one of the only concrete means of ensuring security and true protection for the region (Grod, 2021). As the situation continued to escalate and Russia continued to send their troops to the region, the call became increasingly dire and led many other countries to release statements on the issue. More specifically, the United States and NATO, reaffirmed their commitment to Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty but did not go so far as to publicly support their call for a quicker path to membership (Seldin, 2021). In an April speech given by President Zelensky, he touted the international support Ukraine was receiving from countries such as Turkey and the United States. Who had promised, at the time, to provide financial support and committed to impose harsher sanctions on the Russian Federation (Kyiv Post, 2021). As the situation developed however, it became clear to Zelensky that NATO and the US were not actively engaging in efforts to follow through with their promises of streamlining Ukraine’s proposed membership to this organization (Kyiv Post, 2021). Many of the NATO members have stated that even before considering Ukraine’s entry, it is important that Ukraine adhere to the reforms necessary to become a viable member of the alliance. Many of these reforms have been developed under Zelensky’s administration, but as with presidential administrations in the past, the actual progress made towards them has stagnated in recent years (Pifer 2020).

While the Western hesitancy to give a firm statement on the matter continued,  Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was unusually outspoken in his support for Kyiv during the Russian buildup. Erdogan expressed his concerns over the growing violence in the Donbas region, where the fighting broke out with pro-Russian separatists. During that time, Erdogan hosted Ukrainian President Zelensky in Ankara and again reiterated his support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity, and for their desire to join NATO. Given Turkey’s advanced defense industry, Ukraine has looked to them in order to gain armaments that could pose a sizable challenge to Russia’s own military force. Ukraine has already expanded talks on acquiring 48 additional Bayraktar drones, starting a joint production of corvette ships and AN-178 military transport aircraft (Aydıntaşbaş & Hosa, 2021). Additionally, there have been recent discussions on enhancing cooperation between Ukrainian and Turkish navies, “which will help implement NATO standards in the Ukrainian Navy, increase their defense capabilities and interoperability with NATO member states, and generally strengthen cooperation between the countries for security in the Black Sea,” (Ukrinform, 2021) The Turkish support has been strongly felt from Ukraine who took the time to vocalize their gratitude after the NATO summit and praised their “excellent relationship” with Turkey. Following the support that Erdogan offered to Ukraine, there has been much talk about how Turkey’s growing relationship with Ukraine, may serve as a reminder that they are still very much a part of the West and an important NATO ally while also giving Ukraine the necessary assistance needed to present a fortified NATO membership plan (Aydıntaşbaş & Hosa, 2021). While this symbiotic relationship between Turkey and Ukraine can lead to both countries edging closer to their individual geopolitical goals- Turkey growing closer to the US as an indispensable ally and Ukraine becoming a NATO ally and thereby being able to fend off some of Russia’s threats- it can also become an entryway by which the US can strengthen the transatlantic bond and develop a higher degree of cooperation and unity among its European allies (Hussein, 2021).

Biden’s actions towards Ukrainian calls for NATO membership have multi-layered implications for each of the countries involved. On one hand, Turkey has been met with a Biden administration that has followed the same historically unclear approach towards the region that past administrations have had (ibid, 2021). Thus, by supporting Ukraine, “Ankara hopes [it] will curry favor with the US President Joe Biden - whose pro-Ukrainian credentials are well-known - and thus Turkey hopes to promote the idea that it is an indispensable NATO ally pushing back against Russia,” (Aydıntaşbaş & Hosa, 2021). This support for Ukraine would potentially place Turkey back on the scene as a key NATO player who has the potential to bring in a member that would give the West some hold in the region against Russia’s growing influence. In terms of the benefit for Ukraine, it would help them to achieve a faster membership for NATO while also providing them with the necessary protection against Russian military power. Up until now, Biden’s approach to Ukraine has largely fallen in line with NATO’s general vague response but many US officials argue that the United States should promote Ukraine’s reforms in order to help them more quickly become a part of NATO. This support could lead to the strengthening of the North-Atlantic Alliance, contributing to the historic unification of Europe, and transforming the US’ current relations with Russia (Euromaidan Press, 2021).  By supporting Ukraine, the US would be in a strong position to uphold NATO’s founding principle of the “open door policy.” It would also begin to define Biden’s strategic planning for upholding the objectives he stated to have in mind, namely, the strengthening of transatlantic relations, even if that means acting as a key player in breaking some of the lack of progress towards Ukraine’s larger integration. As Danylo Lubkivsky, Director of the Kyiv Security Forum, points out, the Ukrainian appeal is, “a historic opportunity to be seized during Joseph Biden’s presidency.” Throughout the twelve points he outlined in a document, he highlighted the importance of fortifying the US-Ukraine relationship more broadly but also stated that it should be one based on democratic values. In his opinion, the United States has the power to aid Ukraine in undertaking the necessary reforms and implementing defense and security structures that conform to the NATO requirements (ibid, 2021). The need to do so is clear for Lubkivsky who states that this support is the baseline for establishing trust between the two countries and advancing democratic aspirations. The region itself is at a prime location, at the center of four big forces with, “democracy on its western edge; Russian military aggression to its north; Chinese financial influence to its east; and instability in the Middle East to its South,” (ibid, 2021) Thus the US’ willingness to slightly deviate from NATO’s vague responses could deepen their strategic relationship with Ukraine.

Given that the NATO summit was the very first moment for Erdogan and Biden to meet, it was important to observe the dynamic between the two leaders that have a stake in the Ukraine membership especially given that Ukraine was not invited to attend the summit itself. The productive conversations between Biden and Erdogan at the summit suggested a move towards more engagement and dialogue which was one of the objectives Turkey had wanted to achieve by getting involved with Ukraine. However when the topic arose, Biden refused to give a definite “yes” or “no” when asked whether he approved of Ukraine joining the alliance. For General Jens Stoltenberg, Ukraine isn’t ready to join. He mentioned that Ukraine is an “aspirant country” and that the US offers support to them in order to advance their “defense and security institutions.” This support has been offered to help them edge closer to achieving the necessary reforms to be a fully-fledged member of NATO but, according to him, “to agree on the membership action plan, you need consensus among 30 allies. This was not the focus of the summit,” (Gould, 2021). Nonetheless, each of these countries reaffirmed their support for the membership action plan (MAP), formulated by NATO’s 2008 decision, after the summit ended despite no clear timetable being given. The United States emphasized that their membership would depend on, “Ukraine’s anti-corruption activities and its implementation of NATO’s criteria to get to the membership action plan.” (ibid, 2021) Biden further stated that the United States is not the sole decision maker in this topic but everything would largely depend on how the alliance votes. Nonetheless, the US would, “do all that they can to put Ukraine in the position to be able to continue to resist Russian physical aggression,” (Gregorian, 2021) 

Through the statements offered before, during, and after the NATO summit, it is clear that for now the United States has no intention of giving a resolute opinion on Ukraine’s entry. Their statements have largely followed the same general sentiment of most other NATO countries; that Ukraine needs to implement profound reforms in order to be considered a viable candidate. While maintaining the same rhetoric as NATO could prove that Biden has a strong commitment to the ideals and principles of the alliance, many experts argue that there would be greater benefits for Biden to take a firmer stance. Benefits that would not just be in terms of geopolitical alliances, formation of trust, or control in a prime region of the world, but through supporting Ukraine more directly, Biden could show a more strategic interpretation of the actual founding principles of NATO. This support would offer the necessary basis for Biden to push for that stronger transatlantic relationship and to begin to establish a pattern of staying committed to NATO while also promoting his own domestic agenda throughout the region in collaboration with other like-minded NATO countries such as Turkey.

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