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The battle to be a member

It seemed like the obvious answer at the time. Get Ukraine into the Nato fold and employ the newly incorporated military muscle to keep Russia back from whence it came.

Obvious, but not so simple. Instead, it was immensely infuriating to have President Putin boldly telling Nato to keep its nose out of the fight, and Nato appearing to do just that.

There is no quick solution in politics. Geopolitics moves at glacial speed, tied up in paperwork and well-meaning but ultimately sloth-like bureaucrats who dare not step away from the rulebook, lest they get something done ahead of schedule.

Ukraine has tried, unsuccessfully, to become a member of Nato many times, but failed to meet the criteria, largely because of what Nato determined was widespread corruption at the highest levels of government. It’s hard to change public perception, and Ukraine couldn’t shake its shady reputation for love nor money passed in a plain brown envelope at the far end of a dark alley.

However, after years of fruitless efforts, Ukraine seems closer than ever to joining Nato — but debate within the alliance on Ukraine’s would-be membership is heated, and it is developments on the battlefield that may be the tipping point.

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 quicker than young Russian men were fleeing to the border to avoid conscription. This set a critical new precedent: Faced with Russian aggression in Europe, the alliance decided that the two Scandinavian countries could skip the application procedure. And it is this precedent that Ukraine desperately wants to follow.

However, according to credible reports sourced from behind-closed-door discussions in Europe, some Nato members say the possibility of membership for Ukraine cannot be seriously discussed during the war. This is a particularly risky position to take because if the war continues and the most dreadful of outcomes comes to pass, there may not be a Ukraine to consider for membership.

It has become a most difficult landscape to interpret. The Financial Times reported that the United States, Germany and Hungary are against providing a roadmap for Ukraine’s membership in the alliance. Those countries, and no doubt many others, are understandably worried about the threat of Russian nuclear weapons should membership be granted. At the same time, White House National Security Council coordinator John Kirby said that the US supported Ukraine on its path to Nato. So, worried, but not wanting to look frightened.

Meanwhile, the battle rages in Ukraine, with more firepower deployed during the weekend than we have seen in a while, including an attack on oil stocks in Crimea. Negotiations and the search for a solution to Ukraine’s membership prospects are ongoing, but the final decision may directly depend on battlefield wins and losses.

Roger Parker
Roger Parker
Roger Parker is the Times-Age news director. In the Venn-diagram of his two great loves, news and sport, sports news is the sweet spot.

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