Ukraine’s Tuesday vote to drop its “nonaligned” status -- a prerequisite for joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization -- is threatening to further aggravate tensions with Russia. But it’s not likely we’ll see Ukraine join NATO anytime soon, analysts say.
It is “difficult to see much sentiment within NATO now to put Ukraine on a membership,” Steven Pifer, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, said via email. But he acknowledged Ukraine’s small step toward a NATO bid was “understandable given Russia’s aggression over the past year.”
Ukraine previously made a bid to join NATO in 2008 under then-president Viktor Yushchenko. Yushchenko’s plan received support from the U.S. initially, but the bid went nowhere after France and Germany opposed it amid concerns the move would disrupt the balance of power between Russia and European countries. Those concerns are even more palpable now following Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March and military support for rebels in eastern Ukraine. Ukrainian membership in the military alliance could trigger a wider conflict with Moscow, given NATO’s principle of “collective self-defense.”
But ironically, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s moves in Ukraine -- stemming from his efforts to try to incorporate the country into Moscow’s sphere of influence in the region and away from the West -- seems to have pushed Ukrainians toward embracing the idea of NATO membership even more. A Gallup poll found prior to the crisis, in 2013, 20 percent of respondents regarded NATO as a force of protection for Ukraine. In 2014, that figure rose to 36 percent. Separately, a November survey by the Ukrainian polling firm Rating Sociological Group found a slight majority of Ukrainians -- 51 percent -- expressed support for joining NATO, up from 40 percent in April.
Tuesday's vote "is a direct result of the Kremlin's 10 months of increasingly overt aggression against the country," said John Herbst, director of the Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Center at the Atlantic Council and also former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine. "A large majority of Ukrainians now understand tha the policies of Mr. Putin are very dangerous for Ukraine. This is a sign they need to find some way to withstand the Kremlin's aggression."
Russia has vociferously opposed Ukrainian membership in NATO, and Tuesday's overwhelming 302-8 vote to drop Ukraine’s neutral status provoked outrage in Moscow. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the move would “escalate the confrontation” between Kiev and Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine, the Tass news agency reported.
But Yury Barmin, an independent Russian analyst based in Abu Dhabi, said he didn’t think Russia would ramp up aggression at the border. “So far its involvement with Ukraine has been very painful for Russia economically, and both the EU and U.S. are ready to impose more sanctions,” he said. “The [ruble] crash last week showed how vulnerable the Russian economy is, so I believe Vladimir Putin will choose not to provoke any more sanctions at this point.”
Pifer said Ukraine could consider putting off a bid for NATO membership for a certain amount of time as part of a settlement deal with Russia. “That could be a key element, and [Kiev] would not be giving up much, in view of attitudes within the alliance,” he said.
But, he added, “Moscow unfortunately has shown little sign of interest in reaching a settlement, apparently preferring to create a frozen [or not-so-frozen] conflict as a means to pressure [Kiev]."
Herbst said while he couldn't predict what Putin's response to the vote might be, the president's goal of destablizing Ukraine to the point where Kiev would prove unable to establish a pro-EU foreign policy is looking trickier to achieve. "Putin realizes that his international position today is much worse than it was six months ago," he said. "And he wants to avoid worsening that."