Ukraine Wanted to Join NATO's Alliance for Years. What Stopped It?

In the years before war, Ukraine’s leaders made enthusiastic pleas about their desire to bring the country into NATO, and the prospect rose in popularity in public polls

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As Russia gathered tens of thousands of troops along its border with Ukraine in the months before invading the country — something the Kremlin denied it would do about up until the day it happened — President Vladimir Putin began issuing demands to the West.

In mid-December, Russia submitted draft documents outlining security arrangements it wanted to negotiate with the United States and NATO, as Washington for weeks had been seeking diplomatic solutions to deescalate from what U.S. officials were already calling the opening moves of a possible invasion.

One of the Kremlin’s top demands near the top of the list: NATO should ban Ukraine from ever joining its alliance.

While NATO, the U.S. and other allies rejected this demand — and have even downplayed the Ukraine-NATO issue as a reason for Russia's invasion — NATO also avoided adding Ukraine despite requests from the country to join over several years.

Here’s why Ukraine hasn’t become a member of NATO, and whether it has any chance of joining in the future.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Ukraine Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba speak about the Russia-Ukraine crisis.

What Is NATO and What Does It Do?

NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, is a group of countries in North America and Europe that maintains a military and political alliance.

For most of its history, the organization has focused primarily on its political goals — what it describes as promoting “democratic values” and addressing “security-related issues” to avoid conflict. This communal work in practice has played out in many different ways, from providing relief and goods in response to natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina in 2005 to defending international aid ships from piracy off the Horn of Africa starting in 2008.

But its military components, while executed less often, have been far better known since the group's founding in 1949.

That year, a dozen countries led by the United States made an agreement on mutual security and defense amid fears that the rising power of the Soviet Union in Eastern Europe could become a threat to the countries in the western part of the continent. More countries joined NATO as the Cold War escalated through the latter half of the 20th century, while others aligned with the Soviet Union to make up the Warsaw Pact in 1955. 

There was never full-scale conflict between the pair of ideologically-opposed blocs, and Warsaw dissolved in 1991 when the Soviet Union fell. But even a single attack during those 36 years could have escalated quickly, due to the most notable part of NATO’s charter: Article 5. This item dictates that if any member country of NATO is attacked, NATO will consider it an attack against them all, and all countries should step up to provide a defense.

The pact agreement has only been called upon one time: by the United States in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, and countries followed through on their pledge to stand by and assist as needed. This took several different forms, including 13 countries sending pilots to participate in the anti-terror operation “Eagle Assist,” patrolling the skies of the U.S. for seven months. More NATO countries later provided resources for the war in Afghanistan, too.

Ukraine was once part of the Soviet Union, and is now a buffer between Russia and European members of NATO, a military alliance led by the U.S. Sky News security and defense editor Deborah Haynes explains more about tensions in Ukraine and how negotiations are going between the U.S. and Russian leader Vladimir Putin.

How Do Countries Join NATO?

Since the first 12 countries came together to form NATO, new applicants have essentially faced two base requirements: they must be located in Europe, and they must receive unanimous approval from every current member of NATO. 

In the 1990s, as NATO reevaluated its purpose in a world without a powerful Soviet Union — which the alliance was designed to counterbalance — NATO formed a more organized process for prospective countries: the Membership Action Plan. The program aimed to help aspiring nations who were interested in joining solidify their application through goals and recommendations from NATO’s leadership, many of which involve democratic, economic and other ideals.  

While this made for a more uniform process, it also made for a longer one. Even after countries have been granted MAP status, it has taken them years to reach the point of acceptance. For the latest nation let in, North Macedonia, 21 years passed from when it joined MAP to its induction in 2020. Bosnia and Herzegovina is the only country currently participating in MAP, which it joined in 2010, according to NATO's website.

Ukraine and Georgia, both of which expressed interest in MAP in the 2000s, have yet to be allowed to participate, despite receiving vague promises from NATO leaders in 2008 that they would be welcomed in at some point in the future.

Does Ukraine Want to Join NATO?

Ukraine’s leaders in recent years have made enthusiastic pleas about their desire to bring the country into NATO — especially current President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who was elected into office in 2019. 

His election came on the heels of a move by Ukraine’s parliament to enshrine the goals of joining NATO and the European Union into the country’s constitution in September 2018

Three years later, Zelenskyy sat in the Oval Office, meeting with President Joe Biden during an official visit to the U.S., and he told reporters he planned to press his American counterpart on the question of Ukraine’s “chances to join NATO and the timeframe." No timeline or further commitment came out of the meeting.

But while Ukraine’s leadership has directly pressed for membership since at least 2008, it hasn’t always been popular in the country. 

In 2010, the country’s parliament passed a law banning Ukraine from joining any military bloc, effectively banning it from entering NATO though maintaining opportunities for cooperation. According to a poll conducted by Pew Research Center the fall before, just over half of Ukrainians disapproved of NATO and the idea Ukraine might try to join, while just 28% approved.

A few years later in 2014, the mood had shifted drastically after protests deposed Ukraine’s then-president and Russia annexed Crimea. A Ukrainian pollster found in July of that year that 44% of Ukrainians supported becoming a part of the alliance, representing the first time a plurality of Ukrainians were in favor. Just 19% of people had felt the same way in a similar question the group asked in 2012.

In one of the most recent snapshots of public opinion, conducted by Ukraine’s Rating Group think tank prior to the invasion in mid-February, 62% of adults supported Ukraine’s entry to NATO, with just 30% opposed.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg spoke on Tuesday about Ukrainian allies continuing to support the country's efforts against Russian troops.

Does NATO Want Ukraine to Join?

This is a more complicated question, largely stemming from the fact NATO requires unanimous approval from all its current member countries.

While it’s unclear exactly how each and every country’s leadership feels in 2022 about Ukraine’s status, the process has been largely stalled since 2008. That year, as Ukraine sought to join MAP, President George W. Bush cast his support behind the idea during a summit in Bucharest.

“Welcoming [Ukraine and Georgia] into the Membership Action Plan would send a signal to their citizens that if they continue on the path to democracy and reform they will be welcomed into the institutions of Europe,” Bush said in a speech. “It would send a signal throughout the region that these two nations are, and will remain, sovereign and independent states.

“So my country's position is clear: NATO should welcome Georgia and Ukraine into the Membership Action Plan.”

But Bush didn’t garner support from key allies, including France, Germany and others, The New York Times reported, amid fears the decision would inflame tensions with Russia. And indeed, Putin — still serving in his first stint as president — and other Russians at the time lashed out against the idea that either country might move closer to NATO.

“Georgia’s and Ukraine’s membership in the alliance is a huge strategic mistake which would have most serious consequences for pan-European security,” Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Grushko said during the summit, according to Ukraine’s Interfax news agency.

Little changed over the subsequent years among European leaders, while the U.S., if anything, has eased back from its once-enthusiastic position. While Biden in the past has supported Ukraine’s entry into NATO, he has kept a cool tone in addressing the possibility over the past year. In June 2021, when asked for a “yes or no” on whether Ukraine would be allowed to join, he said "School's out on that question. It remains to be seen," adding they had more work to do to clean up corruption and improve in other areas to qualify for MAP.

Transparency International, an anti-corruption watchdog, gave Ukraine a 32 out of a possible 100 points on its Corruption Perceptions Index and ranked it 122nd out of 180 countries for 2021, lower than any NATO nation. The lowest current NATO member in the rankings is Turkey, given a 38, while Russia was graded at a 29.

Bosnia and Herzegovina, which has been invited into MAP, was given a 35 on Transparency International's CPI for 2021.

Ukraine still faces a high bar by some metrics, it doesn't appear as far off the track in others. Freedom House, which rates 210 countries and territories by their citizens' access to political rights and civil liberties, gave Ukraine a combined score of 61 on a 0-100 scale through its annual Freedom in the World report. That puts it close behind ahead Albania, Montenegro and North Macedonia (67), ahead of MAP member Bosnia and Herzegovina (53) and well ahead of Turkey (32).

According to a report released by Freedom House in 2021, Ukraine has sought to reform its democracy in recent years, though cited "strong resistance from entrenched interests during 2020" as holding back progress. Current NATO members Poland and Hungary, however, saw dramatic single-year drops in their democracy scores, and they reached the lowest levels during 17 years of decline, the report said.

While Western leaders may point to corruption as a primary reason for keeping Ukraine on hold, the alliance could still have chosen over the past decade to invite Ukraine to join MAP — a nonbinding step, and a program designed explicitly "to assist aspiring countries in their preparations for possible future membership," NATO's site reads.

But this move to bring Ukraine closer to NATO would surely be met with further critique from Russia, and European leaders have feared aggression could follow.

Russia's annexation of Crimea and war in the eastern Donbas region between Ukraine and Russia-backed Separatist groups in 2014 also complicated the picture. Since NATO's Article 5 allows member countries to call on the support of others for their defense, admitting Ukraine to NATO could have immediately sparked conflict on disputed soil between Russia and the West, which countries have long gone out of their way to avoid even before Russia's invasion in 2022.

Zelenskyy, while being a champion himself of Ukraine joining NATO, has acknowledged several times the seeming long-shot reality around the prospects of Ukraine joining the organization anytime soon: “For years we have heard about the supposedly open door [to NATO], but we have also heard [lately] that we should not enter, and this is true and we must admit it,” he said in March.

Where Does Russia Stand on Ukraine Joining NATO?

Putin, who has served as either president or prime minister of Russia since 1999, has been clear and often outspoken about his belief Ukraine should never be allowed to join NATO.

In the days up to Russia's invasion of Ukraine, Putin rehashed to the Russian people longwinded historical arguments, including claims — which at least one expert called both "surreal" and "strange" — that Ukraine is not and was never actually an independent state. He described Ukraine as a “historically Russian land” that was stolen from the Russian empire.

Ukraine in its modern form became an independent country in 1991 when the Soviet Union dissolved. Timothy Snyder, a history professor at Yale University, told MSNBC in March that Ukraine was recognized as a distinct Soviet republic not arbitrarily by Vladimir Lenin, as Putin has argued, but because the Soviet leader recognized in Ukraine a distinct, existing national identity.

Putin has also repeatedly claimed that much of NATO's expansion into eastern Europe in recent decades has violated a promise that Russia says the U.S. made in 1990, where U.S. Secretary of State James Baker in negotiations said they would move NATO "not one inch" farther eastward in exchange for Russia allowing a then-divided Germany to reunify.

The U.S. and NATO deny they ever made such a deal, and there is no legal agreement preventing NATO from expanding eastward. NATO on its website cites among other sources a 2014 interview with Mikhail Gorbachev — the Soviet Union president leading the 1990 negotiations — said such conversations were only in reference to the reunification of Germany. "The topic of 'NATO expansion' was not discussed at all, and it wasn't brought up in those years," he said." I say this with full responsibility." Ten years earlier, though, Gorbachev had insisted that he was promised NATO would not "move 1 centimeter further east," muddying the water around the historical debate.

Putin ahead of the February 2022 invasion demanded NATO remove its deployments east of where they were in 1997, which would nearly cut NATO nearly in half: the 14 countries that have joined from 1999 to 2020 were all in the Eastern half of Europe.

How Many Countries Are Part of NATO?

There are currently 30 countries that make up NATO, more than double the initial 12 that came together in 1949. 

Which Countries Are Members of NATO?

The full list of countries is below, plus the year they officially joined:

  • Albania (2009)
  • Belgium (1949)
  • Bulgaria (2004)
  • Canada (1949)
  • Croatia (2009)
  • Czech Republic (1999)
  • Denmark (1949)
  • Estonia (2004)
  • France (1949)
  • Germany (1955)
  • Greece (1952)
  • Hungary (1999)
  • Iceland (1949)
  • Italy (1949)
  • Latvia (2004)
  • Lithuania (2004)
  • Luxembourg (1949)
  • Montenegro (2017)
  • Netherlands (1949)
  • North Macedonia (2020)
  • Norway (1949)
  • Poland (1999)
  • Portugal (1949)
  • Romania (2004)
  • Slovakia (2004)
  • Slovenia (2004)
  • Spain (1982)
  • Turkey (1952)
  • The United Kingdom (1949)
  • The United States (1949)
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