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The Treaty

Can Ukraine Really Join NATO?

Royal Netherlands Air Force F-35 Lighting II fighters fly in formation with Polish Air Force MiG-29 Fulcrums during a training sortie over Poland on 21 March 2023.
Royal Netherlands Air Force F-35 Lighting II fighters fly in formation with Polish Air Force MiG-29 Fulcrums during a training sortie over Poland on 21 March 2023.

Ukraine’s NATO Membership Path and Hurdles Towards Ascension: The Russian invasion of Ukraine is increasingly becoming intertwined with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, not only because the Kremlin uses NATO expansion as a pretense to invade but also because Ukrainians realize they will never be safe from the boot of Russia unless they are secured into a defense alliance.

Kyiv faces several main challenges and obstacles on its path to NATO ascension. Not only is Ukraine engaged in an existential war, but it is also battling internal conflicts and foreign relations along the way.

Talks of Ukraine’s Ascension Into NATO

Ukraine’s potential membership talks stalled in 2008 after a veto from Germany that coincided with Georgia’s membership in limbo after the war with Russia.

NATO Membership in Ukraine was unpopular before the 2014 Russian invasion of the Donbas and annexation of Crimea. However, the popularity of NATO skyrocketed after Russia’s full-fledged invasion in 2022 when Ukraine realized Russia was an existential threat and they would never feel secure unless they became part of the collective defensive alliance.

Immediately after Ukraine’s successful offensives in Kharkiv and Kherson, Vladimir Putin declared an illegal annexation and referendum of multiple occupied oblasts—Luhansk, Donetsk, Zaphorizhzhia, and Kherson.

In return, the Zelensky administration declared its willingness to join NATO, and several members immediately welcomed the call.

However, multiple obstacles remain before Ukraine can officially join the alliance.

Key Obstacle One: Corruption

Ukraine suffered from rampant corruption prior to the 2022 full-scale war and had one of the lowest transparency scores in Europe. Volodymyr Zelensky, the current President of Ukraine, ran his campaign against corruption in 2019.

Though running against corruption and attempting to mitigate it, Russian influence in the growingly pro-Western Ukrainian government will be evident in 2022.

Russian forces could rapidly capture much of Southern Ukraine due to the lack of defensive fortifications and the sheer number of collaborators who had local garrisons stand down or purposely withdraw before engaging the enemy. Ukraine’s internal security, the SBU, to this day, actively breaks up Russian informants and cells in the country to mitigate corruption—however, internal problems remain in Kyiv’s government.

Russia’s early success in the 2024 Kharkiv offensive was partially due to the lack of fortifications made by local officials in the oblast—something Kyiv did not focus on after liberating most of it in the autumn of 2022.

Throughout the war, Zelensky has sacked numerous officers due to corruption, and with measures taken, Ukraine is showing improvement, though there is a long way to go.

Key Obstacle Two: Territorial Sovereignty

Ukraine, now in two years of full-scale war and ten years of overall war with Russia, is currently engaging in ways to dislodge over 400,000 Russian troops out of their country.

Per NATO member protocol, no prospective member can join if they have a territorial dispute—one reason Georgia’s ascension is now in limbo. Kyiv is also figuring out ways to get out of the purgatory category.

Due to many problems, the 2023 Ukrainian counteroffensive fell far from expectations compared to the 2022 counteroffensive due to many issues. With the lack of US aid for over seven months and delays in mobilization for over a year, Russian forces continue to dig in—making potential counteroffensives harder in the future.

Ukraine looks to avoid the Iran-Iraq War trap and the armistice of the Korean conflict. Kyiv is aware Moscow would use any negotiated settlement with Ukrainian territories in its favor. Freezing conflicts in its favor multiple times in the past, the Kremlin would re-arm, prepare forces, and strike when it saw weakness.

Ukraine knows the Kremlin’s tactics and knows a ceasefire would benefit Russia. Inflicting heavy equipment losses on Russian forces, Ukraine looks to conduct attrition warfare until enough Western equipment comes in and brigades are staffed through mobilization before performing a new potential counteroffensive.

Key Obstacle Three: Realpolitik

Kyiv’s central government faced not only wartime and internal issues related to the NATO membership path, but also external factors imposed by NATO members themselves. The diplomatic dispute between Ukraine and Hungary has been out in the open for the past couple of years, with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban never agreeing completely.

Hungary, which is openly pro-Russia and has been labeled as the ‘Trojan horse’ of Europe, has lost much of its standing in the EU and NATO the past few years, which is exacerbated by Budapest’s policies during the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

For Ukraine to ascend into NATO, Kyiv will either make concessions towards Budapest or lobby and grow ties with bigger players in NATO—a game of realpolitik.

A central strategy Ukraine should use is to continue growing ties with the other 31 NATO members and show Kyiv’s value to the organization as the continent’s strongest land army. Having the support of the other 31-member states, the majority in NATO can eventually pressure Hungary towards ascension or make some sort of concession akin to the disputes Sweden faced for over a year.

Overall, Ukraine realizes its country will never be secure from the Russian threat until a clear path towards NATO membership is realized. Ascension could be a long way away, but if Kyiv works on current setbacks holding the country back, NATO can reciprocally benefit from having Ukraine in the organization as much as Ukrainians would with the collective defensive alliance.

About the Author: Julian McBride

Julian McBride is a forensic anthropologist, SOFREP contributor, and independent journalist born in New York. He reports and documents the plight of people around the world who are affected by conflicts, rogue geopolitics, and war, and also tells the stories of war victims whose voices are never heard. Julian is the founder and director of the Reflections of War Initiative (ROW), an anthropological NGO which aims to tell the stories of the victims of war through art therapy. As a former Marine, he uses this technique not only to help heal PTSD but also to share people’s stories through art, which conveys “the message of the brutality of war better than most news organizations.” McBride is also a Contributing Editor to this publication. 

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Julian McBride, a former U.S. Marine, is a forensic anthropologist and independent journalist born in New York. He reports and documents the plight of people around the world who are affected by conflicts, rogue geopolitics, and war, and also tells the stories of war victims whose voices are never heard. Julian is the founder and director of the Reflections of War Initiative (ROW), an anthropological NGO which aims to tell the stories of the victims of war through art therapy. As a former Marine, he uses this technique not only to help heal PTSD but also to share people’s stories through art, which conveys “the message of the brutality of war better than most news organizations.”

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  1. Pingback: The Ukraine War Proves Europe Must Spend More on Defense Now - NationalSecurityJournal

  2. Pingback: Ukraine at a Crossroads: End the War or Risk Defeat - The National Interest Online | Bible Prophecy In The Daily Headlines

  3. Pingback: The NATO Summit Declares Russia an Enemy - NationalSecurityJournal

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