Obama Ducks Opportunity to Support NATO Membership for Ukraine, Georgia

By Patrick Goodenough | March 26, 2014 | 8:33 PM EDT

U.S. President Barack Obama looks down as he addresses the media at the European Council building in Brussels, on Wednesday, March 26, 2014. (AP Photo/Yves Logghe)

(CNSNews.com) – President Obama on Wednesday had an opportunity to voice support for future NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia, but instead noted that neither country was “currently on a path to NATO membership,” adding that “there has not been any immediate plans for expansion of NATO’s membership.”

The president was asked during a press conference in Brussels whether he thought the Crimea crisis would make it more or less likely that NATO would expand to include Ukraine as well as fellow former Soviet republic, Georgia.

“Well, I think that neither Ukraine or Georgia are currently on a path to NATO membership and there has not been any immediate plans for expansion of NATO’s membership,” he replied.

“I know that Russia, at least on background, has suggested that one of the reasons they’ve been concerned about Ukraine was potential NATO membership,” Obama continued. “On the other hand, part of the reason that the Ukraine has not formally applied for NATO membership is because of its complex relationship with Russia. I don’t think that’s going to change anytime soon, obviously.”

Obama indicated that his current priorities with regard to Ukraine do not include the question of NATO membership.

“We’re going to do everything we can to support Ukraine in its elections, its economy, and to continue to try to isolate Russia in response to the actions that it’s taken,” he said. “But I think it would be unrealistic to think that the Ukrainian people themselves have made a decision about that, much less the complex process that’s required in order to actually become a NATO member.”

Obama was technically correct in saying Ukraine and Georgia were not on a path to membership, since neither has been granted a “membership action plan” (MAP), a program putting aspirants on track to join the alliance.

But the fuller story is that both countries first indicated their desire to join NATO as long ago as 1992 – Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma that May and Georgia’s Eduard Shevardnadze six months later – and over the years since, despite strong objections from Moscow, have moved through various processes towards achieving that goal.

Ukraine in 1994 became the first former Soviet state to join the NATO Partnership for Peace (PfP) program, and in 2002 the alliance signed an agreement with Ukraine supporting its reform efforts on the road towards Euro-Atlantic integration.

In 2005 NATO launched an “intensified dialogue on Ukraine’s aspirations to NATO membership” with then-President Viktor Yushchenko.

The movement only stopped in 2010, when newly-elected pro-Moscow President Viktor Yanukovich shelved Ukraine’s MAP application, issuing a decree dissolving an official commission working towards NATO membership.

North Atlantic Treaty Organization ministers meet in Brussels. (Photo: NATO)

Georgia has also been knocking on NATO’s door for more than a decade. It joined the PfP in 1994, began contributing to NATO peacekeeping efforts in 1999 (in Kosovo), and in 2004 became the first country to agree an individual partnership action plan with the alliance.

Georgia later becaome the biggest non-NATO contributing nation to the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan.

Both Ukraine and Georgia’s MAP aspirations had strong Bush administration backing, but at a NATO summit in Romania in 2008, European members leery of upsetting Russia refused to go along. NATO decisions require consensus, so instead the summit agreed that Ukraine and Georgia “will become a member of NATO” at some future, undetermined date.

The decision was reaffirmed at summits in Strasbourg in 2009, Lisbon in 2010 and Chicago in 2012.

Under article five of the North Atlantic Treaty, an attack on any member is considered an attack on all. (The article has been invoked only once in the alliance’s history, after the 9/11 attacks on the U.S.)

Had Ukraine and Georgia been members, NATO allies would have been obliged to come to their aid in response to Russia’s takeover of Ukraine’s Crimea region this month – and to its invasion of Georgian territory in 2008. On the other hand, knowledge of that fact may have deterred the Russian action on both occasions.

Beyond Ukraine and Georgia, despite Obama’s remark Wednesday that “there has not been any immediate plans for expansion of NATO’s membership,” both Montenegro and Macedonia have been granted MAPs, while Bosnia has been offered one once it completes reforms relating to the registration of defense property.

Suppprting NATO enlargement has been U.S. policy since the end of the Cold War, with Washington encouraging the admission of Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic in 1999; Romania, Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovenia and Slovakia in 2004; and Albania and Croatia in 2009.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow