By some measures, Ukraine looks closer than ever to joining NATO. Support for its membership, both inside Ukraine and within the alliance, is at its strongest ahead of this week’s NATO summit, while Ukraine’s war-tested military has demonstrated on the battlefield that it can use NATO weapons and tactics effectively. The biggest obstacle along its path to NATO no longer appears to be Russia or Vladimir Putin. It’s the White House, which is stalling Ukraine’s effort to join.
“I don’t think it’s ready for membership in NATO,” President Joe Biden declared in an interview with CNN that aired on July 9, two days before NATO leaders are due to gather in Vilnius, Lithuania. Even putting the matter to a vote among NATO members, Biden added, would be “premature.”
Compare that to an earlier set of Oval Office talking points, and it’s clear just how far the U.S. position has changed. Fifteen years ago, when NATO leaders took a position on this issue, the U.S. was firmly behind Ukraine’s membership. Then-President George W. Bush lobbied hard among his peers to get Ukraine and Georgia a formal invitation and a detailed roadmap into the alliance. Back then, France and Germany shot the idea down, arguing that it would provoke a conflict with Russia.
At their landmark summit in 2008, held in Bucharest, Romania, the leaders of NATO declared that both Ukraine and Georgia would join one day, but they gave no timeline and offered no specific plan for keeping that promise. “NATO’s non-decision on their membership was the worst possible outcome,” the Harvard historian Serhiy Plokhy writes in his new book, The Russo-Ukrainian War. It angered the Kremlin without offering any protection to Ukraine and Georgia. “While Russia would not dare to attack NATO, it could easily attack its aspirants,” Plokhy wrote, “and it did so.” A few months after the Bucharest summit, Russia invaded Georgia and occupied about a fifth of its territory.
In the years that followed, Ukrainians remained skeptical of NATO membership. Only 28% supported it in a Pew Research survey taken in 2010, and 51% were against. But those attitudes changed after Russia invaded Ukraine four years later, seizing Crimea and starting a separatist war in eastern Ukraine. With the start of the full-scale Russian invasion in February 2022, support for NATO membership reached record highs inside Ukraine, topping 80% support in recent surveys.
Much the same trend has played out inside the alliance. Polls taken in May across five of NATO’s leading member states found that most people support formally inviting Ukraine to join the alliance despite the ongoing war: 70% in the U.S., 56% in France, 55% in the Netherlands, 53% in Italy and 50% in Germany. Some of those supporting the invitation favored delaying Ukraine’s actual accession until after the war ends.
European leaders are also coming around. Since the end of May, French President Emmanuel Macron has repeatedly called for NATO to give Ukraine a concrete path to membership, marking a significant shift in policy, while Poland has emerged as the leader of an influential block inside NATO that is pushing hard for the alliance to welcome Ukraine.
Last week, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky took a tour of these allies in Eastern Europe to rally their support, and he urged them to avoid the half-measures and empty promises that have defined Ukraine’s relationship with NATO since 2008. “We need honesty in our relations,” Zelensky said during a visit to the Czech Republic. “We need some kind of signal, a clear one.”
In his interview the following day with CNN, President Biden was abundantly clear. “I don’t think there is unanimity in NATO about whether or not to bring Ukraine into the NATO family now,” he said.
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