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NATO foreign ministers debate Ukraine’s status

May 30, 2023

NATO members have agreed in principle that Ukraine will join the alliance once the war with Russia is over. But what can NATO offer Kyiv right now? A meeting of foreign ministers in Oslo may offer answers.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg and Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskiy shake hands at a joint news briefing, in Kyiv, Ukraine.
NATO and Ukraine: Plenty of talk, a lot of promises but little progress on membership Image: Alina Yarysh/REUTERS

Since Russia invaded Ukraine last year, NATO leaders have faced a complicated dilemma: how can they address Kyiv's push to join the military alliance without offering an immediate path to membership?

At an informal meeting in Oslo on Wednesday, NATO foreign ministers will gather to address that question. 

"Ukraine's rightful place is in NATO. And over time, our support will help you make it possible," NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg declared during his visit to Kyiv in April 2023, standing next to Ukrainian President Zelenskyy.

The Kremlin, meanwhile, has repeatedly claimed that preventing Ukraine from joining NATO has been a key goal of its invasion, arguing that Kyiv's membership would pose an existential threat to Russia.

What can the allies offer Ukraine?

If NATO were to grant Ukraine membership now, this would effectively would drag the alliance into a direct war with Russia ­— a nuclear power that has regularly threatened to use its tactical nuclear weapons. As a result, NATO leaders have indicated that this prospect is effectively off the table as long as the war continues.

"Everyone agrees membership is not for now, but everyone also agrees Ukraine needs an upgraded relationship with NATO," Bruno Lete, a defense expert with the German Marshall Fund, told DW. "Oslo should define what this upgrade is."

So far, NATO countries have not been able to find a consensus on what this means for Ukraine's membership prospects in the short- to medium term, sources told DW. Several former Soviet bloc NATO members are seeking formal commitments to Ukraine — pledges such as a pathway or a timetable that could be given to Kyiv at a summit of NATO leaders in July in the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius.

Ukrainian President Zelenskyy, who has been adamant that his country needs a concrete roadmap for becoming a member, is expected to attend the meeting.

Ukraine Kiew Besuch NATO-Generalsekretär Jens Stoltenberg
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg visited Kyiv in April, declaring Ukraine's "rightful place" is in the military allianceImage: GLEB GARANICH/REUTERS

NATO's ‘open door' policy in question

The US, by far the largest military power in the alliance, however, doesn't seem inclined to make formal accession promises to Ukraine at this point. Asked whether an invitation for membership is on the cards at all, Dereck Hogan, the top US diplomat for European and Eurasian affairs, reiterated the Biden administration "remains steadfast" in its commitment to NATO's "open door" policy.

"We will look for ways to support Ukraine's Euro-Atlantic aspirations," Hogan told reporters in Washington. "But right now, the immediate needs in Ukraine are practical, and so we should be focused on building Ukraine's defense and deterrence capabilities."

The US, as well as France, is "balancing support for Ukraine with restraint due to upcoming elections," Lété told DW. He also pointed to Germany as one of the allies who "want to prevent a total isolation of Russia in the post-war European security architecture."

Those allies are reluctant to move away from the language established during a NATO summit in Bucharest in 2008. Back then, leaders stated they agreed that Ukraine and Georgia will become members of NATO but stopped short of extending a formal invitation.

Boosting moral without concrete promises?

As the discussions continue, NATO leaders are seeking to send a positive signal to Ukraine without making substantial decisions on the principles or the timing of a possible membership. But what does this mean in practice?

One proposal is to upgrade Ukraine's political relationship with NATO. Right now, both sides meet in the NATO-Ukraine Commission, which steers activities and provides a forum for consultation, according to the alliance. Going forward, this body could be transformed into a "NATO-Ukraine Council."

Although it might sound bureaucratic, such a change would mean something of substance because "it institutionalizes a higher level of dialogue between NATO and Ukraine," Karsten Friis, security and defense expert at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs, told DW.

Ukraine would be then sitting at the table as an equal partner, together with all the 31 NATO members and Sweden. It would also mean Kyiv could call for meetings in case of emergency and would have access to new areas of cooperation. 

Polen | Kampfjet Mig-29
NATO foreign ministers will debate how best to aid Ukraine in its fight against RussiaImage: GIANLUCA VANNICELLI/IPA/picture alliance

Individual security assurances for Ukraine

To address the core of Ukraine's security concerns, some NATO allies are also looking at a security model similar to the one Israel has, Lete said. "The key here is to enable an easy way for the West to transfer arms and advanced technology to Ukraine," he emphasized.

The idea was first brought forward by Andriy Yermak, a top aide to President Zelenskyy, and Anders Fogh Rasmussen, a former NATO secretary general. They suggested providing Ukraine with security guarantees from individual NATO members, including the US, Germany and the UK. These would be based on bilateral agreements, but brought together under a joint strategic partnership document.

Friis said he does not expect this to be a big issue during the foreign ministers' meeting in Oslo because it is a topic for individual member states, rather than for NATO as whole. Friis also explained that such security assurances, which are aimed at helping Ukraine defend itself, are not to be confused with a guarantee in the sense of NATO's Article 5.

Article 5 of NATO's founding treaty states that an armed attack against one member of the alliance is an attack on all members.

Still, the question of how to increase practical support and build Ukraine's longer-term capabilities and interoperability with NATO will certainly be up for discussion.

Sweden on the agenda in Oslo

The ministers will also focus on Sweden and its NATO bid, according to officials, as they meet only a few days after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan won reelection. Turkey, along with Hungary, is still blocking Sweden's membership in the alliance. The rest of the allies are expected to send a strong message to the two holdouts that now is the time to lift their objections.

The ministers may also speak about Jens Stoltenberg's successor as NATO chief, although no one expects the meeting in Oslo to offer up concrete decisions on this front.

Edited by Emily Schultheis. 

von Nahmen Alexandra Kommentarbild App
Alexandra von Nahmen DW’s Brussels Bureau Chief, focusing on trans-Atlantic relations, security policy, counterterrorism