Ukraine Can't Afford NATO

A Ukrainian tank.

Just one day after Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko declared the worst of the war in the country's east to be over, the government in Kiev appears to be doing its level best to ensure the fighting starts again.

The cabinet submitted legislation to parliament today that would cancel Ukraine's existing commitment not to join any military alliance, and instead seek membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization "in the short term." For the sake of peace and reason, Ukraine's parliament should vote no. Should the law pass anyway, Poroshenko should commit to veto it.

Of the many reasons it is a bad idea for Ukraine to attempt to join NATO, the most obvious is that NATO does not want it. This much was clear at the recent alliance summit in the U.K., where an uncomfortable Poroshenko had to bat away questions about potential membership. When Poroshenko then traveled to Washington to ask President Barack Obama for special status as a "major non-NATO ally," the answer was a blunt no.

To understand why the NATO members are so opposed, consider two very hypothetical scenarios: First, imagine for a moment that NATO, which is already struggling to convince its easternmost members that it would indeed fight for them if Russia should attack, were foolish enough to encourage Ukraine to join. Ukraine, a divided and almost bankrupt nation of 45 million, would first have to receive a Membership Action Plan and then meet its conditions -- a process that would take many years. (Albania, which joined NATO in 2009, got its MAP in 1999.) So starting the process would merely set the clock ticking for Russia to do whatever it takes to prevent its neighbor from joining -- from rekindling the war to eastern Ukraine to making a full-scale invasion.

Next, imagine that Ukraine were, miraculously, to succeed in joining NATO. It would only further destabilize the country. Even though Russia has lately done much to unite most Ukrainians against it, the east of the country still has strong cultural and historical ties to Russia. As long as the Kremlin sees and portrays NATO as a threat, a substantial share of Ukraine's population will want no part of it. Before the annexation of Crimea, in 2010, 51 percent of Ukrainians opposed joining NATO. (In the east, 72 percent did.) Even today, polls suggest that less than half of Ukrainians want to join the alliance.

Ukraine deserves U.S. and European support in its effort to ward off a predatory power next door and remain truly independent. It should have the right to develop ties and common standards with the European Union if it wants. Yet a country with Ukraine's history cannot suddenly join a military alliance that was formed to confront Russia, without asking for trouble.

No doubt, Ukrainian politicians have reasons for talking tough about joining NATO, as they jostle for position ahead of parliamentary elections next month. Yet this is a game their country cannot win. Ukraine should instead offer a long-term pledge of neutrality as part of a deal with Russian President Vladimir Putin that would allow the country to develop whatever political and economic associations it wants.

-- Editors: Marc Champion, Mary Duenwald

To contact the editors on this story:
David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net
David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net