Since 1999, all NATO candidate countries have undergone the standard Membership Action Plan application procedure. The plan sets out certain conditions for joining, including security sector reform as well as requirements to bring political and bureaucratic procedures into line with NATO standards.
For more than 20 years, no candidate nation has avoided this procedure. That all changed last year when Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, and Finland and Sweden abandoned their neutrality and applied for NATO membership. This set a precedent: faced with Russian aggression in Europe, the alliance decided that the two Scandinavian countries could skip the procedure. It was this precedent that Ukraine naturally decided to follow.
War changes everything
"The issue of the Membership Action Plan has been removed from the agenda, because we have applied for additional strengthening of NATO's assistance. And this cannot be a substitute for membership and cannot be a condition for membership," Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said after a meeting of the NATO-Ukraine Commission in Brussels in April.
Many parallels can be drawn between Ukraine and the Scandinavian newcomers. These include the high degree of compatibility between the Ukrainian Armed Forces and the armies of the alliance — which continues to grow as Ukraine moves away from Soviet weapons systems — as well as the status of an EU candidate country, which carries political and civilizational weight, and the high degree of public support for NATO membership among Ukrainians.
If Ukraine successfully liberates its territories, NATO membership could cement this success.
But there is one significant difference: the war. This factor has undermined all of the political and diplomatic efforts by Ukrainian authorities to get NATO membership in the short term. Despite active bilateral support at the level of member states, the alliance cannot afford to become a party to this war by providing Ukraine with guarantees during active hostilities.
It would be better for progress on membership if Ukraine successfully liberates its territories. If it does, NATO membership could cement this success. If it does not, Ukraine's accession to the alliance can be phased in without the territories still not controlled by the Ukrainian government.
In this case, the extension of collective security commitments under Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty to Ukraine will not include Ukrainian territory temporarily occupied by Russia — like when West Germany joined NATO in 1955. When Germany reunited in 1990, all of the country's internationally recognized territories fell under NATO's guarantees.
Practical and political suggestions
There is an active, mostly behind-the-scenes debate among NATO members about what exactly should be offered to Ukraine in Vilnius, so that the summit itself does not turn into a do-over of the 2008 Bucharest agreement, when the doors to the alliance were closed to Ukraine and Georgia, in the face of Russian pressure.
Allies are arguing whether a separate summit statement should be dedicated to Ukraine, or whether the country should be mentioned in the general declaration after the meeting.
In an attempt to summarize these proposals, in March, the NATO Secretary General presented a document to member states containing "practical and political" suggestions for Ukraine, including a new declaration that the country should become a member of the alliance.
"We believe in NATO's open door policy."
Some NATO members say Ukraine's accession cannot be seriously discussed during the war. At the same time, the number of supporters of offering Ukraine a "political path" to membership is growing among Central and Eastern European states. But according to The Financial Times, the U.S., Germany and Hungary are against providing a roadmap for Ukraine's membership in the alliance.
At the same time, White House National Security Council Coordinator John Kirby said that the U.S. supports Ukraine on its path to NATO.
"We believe in NATO's open door policy. We also believe that NATO membership should be a subject for discussion between Ukraine and the Alliance. And we will not interfere with these negotiations," he said.
The Vilnius summit
After Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Washington has taken a conservative stance, and is now calling on allies to focus on military, financial and humanitarian aid to Kyiv. The main priority at the Vilnius summit, according to the U.S., should be practical support, including a steady supply of ammunition. At the same time, discussions about potential post-war political relations only distract from these tasks.
NATO is still looking back at Moscow: the position of the U.S. and other nations opposed to Ukraine's invitation to join the alliance indicates a desire to avoid confrontation with Moscow because it "poses a nuclear threat." Ukrainian negotiators are now trying to prove a simple truth to their partners: if NATO makes an interim "settlement of the conflict" or even a "ceasefire" a condition for Kyiv's membership, Russia will do everything possible to ensure that this never happens.
As it was 15 years ago, one of the biggest obstacles to Ukraine's path to NATO is the resistance of the German and French governments, which actively opposed the Membership Action Plan for Ukraine and Georgia in 2008.
Risks of a "frozen" conflict
But this resistance may not be able to withstand the apparent facts of the breakdown of the European security system. Germany, in particular, is experiencing the collapse of its illusions about Russia and is now discussing building continental security. Therefore, given the new realities and the multibillion-dollar costs to the federal budget, the German position on Ukraine's membership in NATO may also change. If this happens, the rest of Western Europe may also change its mind.
This month, after the first meeting of the NATO-Ukraine Commission in six years, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg invited the Ukrainian president to attend the summit in Vilnius. In response, Zelensky said that he would attend the event only if he "will see actual steps towards Ukraine's membership, such as post-war security guarantees from member states or closer cooperation" with NATO.
"Ukraine's future lies in the Euro-Atlantic family."
After visiting Kyiv on April 20, Stoltenberg said that "Ukraine's future lies in the Euro-Atlantic family. All NATO Allies have agreed that Ukraine will become a NATO member. But the main focus now, of course, is on ensuring that Ukraine gains the upper hand in the war. Our support helps Ukraine move towards Euro-Atlantic integration; our assistance allows them to make this possible."
Some Western analysts remain skeptical about NATO's prospects of resolving Ukraine's membership issue in the coming years, and are promoting a conditional alternative.
European think tank CEPS believes that if the Russian-Ukrainian war ends in a ceasefire scenario, including a frozen conflict and occupation of territories, it is unlikely that Ukraine will have prospects for NATO membership. At the same time, they note that Ukraine should receive security guarantees and the creation of a coalition with allied states such as the U.S., the UK, the Baltic states, Poland and others.
Before becoming a NATO member, one of the options for Ukraine may indeed be to sign a treaty with a powerful nuclear state that can provide security guarantees. This could be an agreement similar to the one signed by the UK with Sweden and Finland last May, when the two Scandinavian countries began their path to NATO membership.
Negotiations and the search for a solution to Ukraine's membership prospects are ongoing, but the final compromise may directly depend on the situation at the front.