Nine points about Ukraine’s prospects for Euro-Atlantic integration


  1. There is a distinction between “accession integration” and “becoming European,” and Kyiv should treat accession integration as a possible means for becoming European, not as an end in itself.
  2. Becoming European would be a huge challenge for Ukraine under the best of circumstances, and these are far from the best of circumstances.
  3. The European project is in crisis, which not only makes accession integration all the more difficult for Ukraine but also reduces its benefits.
  4. It is unrealistic for Ukraine to expect to join the EU anytime soon.
  5. Joining the EU is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for Ukraine becoming European.
  6. NATO already has a serious security problem with Russia, and it is not going to want to make that problem worse by offering membership to Ukraine.
  7. It is unrealistic for Ukraine to expect to join NATO anytime soon.
  8. Joining NATO is not a necessary condition for deterring further Russian aggression.
  9. To become European, Ukraine is eventually going to have to improve relations with Russia.


During his visit to Kyiv earlier this week, U.S. Vice President Biden offered some tough love to Ukraine. As he put it in his speech to the country’s parliament:

 This is your moment. This is your responsibility. Each of you — if you’ll forgive me for speaking to you this way in your body — each of you has an obligation to seize the opportunity that the sacrifices made in the Maidan, the sacrifices of the Heavenly Hundred. Each of you has an obligation to answer the call of history and finally build a united, democratic Ukrainian nation that can stand the test of time.

…The whole world is watching you. That’s a fact. They’re watching you because their hopes for your success as you fight both the unrelenting aggression of the Kremlin and the cancer of corruption will impact on them.

In both these struggles you have the unwavering support of the United States of America and the American people — including nearly 1 million proud Ukrainian Americans. You have the united support of Europe — Western, Central, and Eastern Europe — all invested in your democratic success because your success goes to the heart of an enduring commitment to a Europe whole, free, and at peace.

So the question of whether Ukraine’s post-Maidan government has made progress toward joining “a Europe, whole, free, and peace” is back in the headlines, at least briefly.

One way to approach this question is to consider just how much progress has been made with respect to certain reform yardsticks – the approach taken, for example, by VoxUkraine in its regular “reform monitor” reports.

What I want to do here, however, is step back and consider the larger picture by considering what we mean by “joining Europe” and what Kyiv’s best strategy might be for realizing that objective.

With respect to the former question, I will make a conceptual distinction between what I will call “accession integration” and “becoming European.”

By accession integration I mean joining European or Atlantic organizations, notably the European Union and NATO, but others as well, as I will make clear in a moment. By becoming European I mean becoming a stable liberal democracy in Europe.

Joining Europe in this latter sense is partly an institutional project – first and foremost the establishment of the rule of law, but also legal protections for civil liberties and civil rights, the institutional underpinning of a well-regulated market economy, and competitive electoral politics.

It is also, however, very much a values project, which is the more difficult task. To be truly stable, liberal democratic institutions have to be undergirded by social norms such as respect for the rule of law, majority rule, and limits on majority rule. Most importantly, the liberal part of liberal democracy requires a society that values tolerance and at least a measure of social diversity.

There are three empirical points to be made about the relationship between accession integration and becoming European in this latter sense.

  1. It is entirely possible to be fully European and not be a member of the EU – consider, for example, Norway, Iceland, Switzerland, and Ireland.
  2. It is entirely possible to be fully European and not be a member of NATO – again, consider Sweden, Finland, Austria, Ireland, and Switzerland.
  3. It is possible to be a member of the EU and/or NATO and be at best ambiguously European – consider Hungary, Turkey, Romania, Bulgaria, Greece, and even Poland, countries where it is increasingly obvious that liberal values in particular are thinly distributed.

With that as background, I turn now to my substantive points.

Kyiv should prioritize becoming European, not accession integration

In my view, Ukraine’s leadership should treat accession integration as a possible means for “becoming European,” not as an end in itself. And it should be careful not to let efforts at accession integration get in the way of becoming European.

To that end, Ukraine’s political leadership should appreciate that there are many forms of accession integration that fall short of EU or NATO membership but that could nonetheless supplement Ukraine’s existing involvement with the EU’s Eastern Partnership Program (Ea), its Association Agreement and Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (AA/DCFTA), and its participation in NATO’s Partnership for Peace program (PfP).

Moving from less to more ambitious forms of accession integration, these include:

  1. Obtaining the right to visa-free travel to the Schengen zone (a feasible objective in the near future that would be a very important deliverable to the Ukrainian people for Kyiv and the EU).
  2. Joining the European Free Trade Association. Although it now has only four member states (Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway, and Switzerland), the EFTA has historically been a gateway to full EU membership.
  3. Joining the European Economic Area. The EEA, which provides Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway with full access the EU’s Internal Market. Switzerland, as the only EFTA member that is not a member of EEA, has a bilateral agreement with the EU governing access to the Internal Market, and that too is an option for Ukraine.
  4. Joining (eventually) the Schengen zone. Note that not all Schengen countries are members of the EU (Norway, Iceland, Switzerland, and Lichtenstein), and not all EU countries are members of Schengen (the U.K. and Ireland have opted out).
  5. Increased cooperation, coordination, and interoperability with NATO like that currently underway with Sweden and Finland.
  6. Increased bilateral military cooperation with, and assistance from, individual NATO or non-NATO countries in the Atlantic community, including of course the United States but others as well.



Source: The Economist

Becoming European would be a huge challenge for Ukraine under the best of circumstances

There are in fact very few states around the world that qualify as stable liberal democracies. In particular, all post-Communist countries have had very difficult and costly transitions from Communism, and there are still powerful Communist as well as pre-Communist legacies that have made those transitions incomplete in many cases, particularly with respect to values. If nothing else, Europe’s refugee/migrant crisis points to a long-lasting east-west values gap when it comes to tolerance and diversity.

There are at least three necessary conditions for Ukraine becoming European

  1. Kyiv has to get the country’s domestic institutions in order, a challenge that has been common to all post-Communist countries (even if it has been more of a challenge for some than for others).
  2. There has to be an end to the fighting and a stabilization of the conflict in the Donbas. My view has long been that the least-worst option for Kyiv is a stable frozen conflict (as opposed to an unstable one, or worse a hot conflict). But one way or the other, Kyiv has to end the violence.
  3. At some point there has be a normalization of Ukraine’s relationship with Russia (more on this below).

Europe’s current crisis is going to make accession integration even more difficult

In my view, the European project broadly is facing the worst crisis in its history. The EU’s economic recovery since the 2008 financial crisis has lagged well behind the U.S.’s, and most analysts are forecasting low trend growth of maybe 1.5%, as well as comparatively high unemployment, for the foreseeable future. The causes of this low-growth/high unemployment problem are structural and are not going away soon, and although the Eurozone countries are in particular trouble, the E.U.s economic woes are only partially a product of design flaws with the Euro.

Additionally, the EU is facing a very serious and costly security problem along most of its borders, including but not only with Russia.

And as of this year the EU has had to deal this year with an acute – and also costly – refugee/migrant crisis.


Source: The Washington Post

All of these factors help account for growing support for right and left anti-EU nativist parties across most of the continent. They are also causing centrist parties to reassess the benefits of “an ever wider, ever deeper union.” Earlier this year, we had the first instance of a country that formally changed course on EU accession when Iceland withdrew its membership application. And it is possible – although I think it unlikely – that we will see the British electorate vote for a Brexit in 2017.

Source: The Economist. Note that Iceland has withdrawn its application while Turkey has been on hold since 1987

Source: The Economist. Note that Iceland has withdrawn its application while Turkey has been on hold since 1987

One manifestation of the crisis of the European project is acute expansion fatigue. “Widening,” the argument goes, has gone too far, too fast, and the EU’s defenders need to solve the union’s internal problems before taking in new members.

This expansion fatigue is reflected in the recent official review of the EU’s European Neighborhood Policy (which includes the Eastern Partnership program). The emphasis now is less on building a zone of peace and prosperity “founded on the values of the Union” in neighboring regions, and more on political and economic stability and cooperation where there are mutual interests. Basically, the EU is saying there will be less “my way or the highway” when dealing with neighbors. The report also recommended taking a more differentiated approach to neighboring countries, the logic being that Azerbaijan is not Moldova, and measured integration with the latter is more practicable than with the former.

It is unrealistic for Ukraine to expect to join the EU anytime soon

Ukraine’s internal and external challenges, along with Europe’s crisis, would have made becoming European a long and difficult process even if Yanukovich had signed on to the AA/DCFTA at the Vilnius summit in late 2013. The annexation of Crimea, the war in the Donbas, and Ukraine’s economic collapse have made the challenge all the greater.

This is particularly true with respect to “European values” – war and deteriorating economic conditions are typically not conducive to tolerance or learning to “speak European.”

These challenges make it all the more imperative for Kyiv to focus on two short term objectives with respect to relations with the West.

  1. It should make every effort to meet the conditions for securing the financial and other assistance already on offer from the EU, Western governments, and the IMF. And the West should use its conditional assistance strategically to support reform.
  2. It should do what it can to secure visa-travel to the Schengen countries, again by living up to existing commitments. Unfortunately, Europe’s migrant/refugee crisis, the pressure on Schengen, and the changing political atmosphere in Europe means Kyiv can’t count on visa-free travel even if meets those obligations.
Countries with visa-free access to Schengen. Source: Wikipedia

Countries with visa-free access to Schengen. Source: Wikipedia

Joining the EU is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for Ukraine becoming European

Again, this is both a logical point and an empirical point – many states are fully European but not members of the EU. But what I want to emphasize here is that Ukraine’s leadership should make clear to the Ukrainian people that EU accession is neither imminent nor a panacea.

I don’t mean to suggest that EU accession hasn’t been a critically important facilitator of reform for other former Communist countries – it has been.

Rather, the point is that these are different times, and the benefits that Ukraine’s neighbors have accrued from accession integration in the past are much less likely to be enjoyed by Kyiv. Europe has lost much of its luster, an already over-burdened EU is going to be much more insistent about strict conditionality for financial assistance as well accession integration, and neither the American nor the European public is in a particularly generous mood, to say the least.

Finally, Kyiv should appreciate that by the time Ukraine is ready to join the EU, the EU as we know it today may no longer exist. Schengen in particular is at risk.

Source: Stratfor. The Schengen zone

Source: Stratfor. The Schengen zone

Accordingly, Ukrainian leaders should be careful about over-promising, and they should be especially careful not to suggest that outside assistance matters more than internal reform. The core message should be: We need and appreciate outside help, but ultimately Ukraine’s fate is in our own hands.

NATO already has a very serious security problem with Russia, and it is not going to want to make that problem worse by offering membership to Ukraine

I am convinced that the Kremlin, the Russian foreign policy establishment, and the Russian public believe that NATO expansion and the reinforcement of NATO’s eastern defenses are a threat to Russia’s vital national security interests. You may think those concerns are without justification, but what matters is what Russian decision makers think, not what we think.

As a result, while I think the risk of a military clash between Russia and NATO is relatively low, it is a lot higher that it should be when you consider the potential consequences.

Moreover, NATO commanders have been very clear that the Alliance would be hard pressed to defend the Baltic republics in the event of a Russian invasion. They are slowly and carefully trying to establish a credible deterrence force in Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, but they nonetheless consider these three NATO members to be very exposed.

In that sense, NATO is already dealing with an over-extension/under-commitment problem. As a result, I very much doubt that NATO commanders would want the additional burden of trying to build a credible deterrence force in Georgia or Ukraine.

This is particularly the case because the Kremlin has made very clear that a significant move toward accession by either country is a red line for it, and it will react one way or the other.

Source: The Economist

Source: The Economist

It is unrealistic for Ukraine to expect to join NATO anytime soon

The fact is that there is very little support among NATO governments for taking in new members  bordering on Russia. That is true above all for Ukraine and Georgia, but I suspect it would be true for Finland as well, should it decide to apply for membership (which I think is rather unlikely).

Finland has a very long border with Russia that would be extremely difficult to defend, so Finland is appropriately being careful to weigh the benefits of being a member of NATO against the risks of provoking Russia into some kind of “borderization” move against Finnish territory.

I should point out that those risks that would be particularly high during any transition period between the decision to join and actual accession, when Article 5 would kick in. That is likewise the case for Georgia, where Russian troops are only a few kilometers from the country’s main east-west corridor. And it would be the case for Ukraine as well, were it to receive a Membership Action Plan (MAP).

The reasons for the lack of political support for taking in new members bordering on Russia are many, but three stand out.

First, one of NATO’s informal criteria for accession is enhancing the Alliance’s collective security. That would not be the case if Ukraine, Georgia, or Finland were to join. On the contrary, accession by any one of these countries would put NATO’s collective security at risk by significantly increasing the risk of war with Russia.

Sweden, I should note, is a rather different matter, given that it doesn’t share a border with Russia. And in my view Russia’s objections to Montenegro’s accession should be understood as a warning to Georgia about NATO accession in particular, but also to Ukraine and Finland.

Second, another informal criterion is control of sovereign territory. Were NATO to offer membership to either Ukraine or Georgia, it would have to decide how Article 5 would apply to their particular circumstances. NATO is not going to want the next “borderization” incident in Georgia, or the next flare up of violence in the Donbas, to put it at war with Russia.

Finally, and most decisively, accession requires unanimous approval by all current member-states. I do not believe there is the least chance that Germany, France, Italy, Spain, and Greece would all agree to membership for Ukraine or Georgia given the current level of military tension with Russia.

A new administration in Washington, were it to press for accession for Georgia or Ukraine, would encounter even more pushback than the Bush administration did in 2008 when it called for MAPs for the two countries. Indeed, the primary effect would be to further divide the Alliance on its Russia policy.

As NATO officials constantly repeat, every country has a right to determine its own external orientation and alliance aspirations. But it is also true that every alliance has the right to reject new members if accession would undermine its collective security or unnecessarily threaten the peace. And for the foreseeable future, NATO is going to exercise that right with respect to Ukraine and Georgia.

Joining NATO is not a necessary condition for successfully deterring further Russian aggression

It goes without saying that Ukraine has the right, and indeed the duty, to defend itself. The question is what is the most effective way to do so.

Clearly a large part of the answer is to build up its own defensive capabilities, which is what it is doing. As part of this effort, Ukraine has the right to cooperate with NATO and receive military assistance from the United States, other NATO members, and indeed other countries.

That assistance should be carefully calibrated, however. The obvious risk is that too much outside military assistance could provoke an escalation of the Donbas conflict or, worse, a major
Russian assault on the Ukrainian military.

That is how the debate in the West over the provision of lethal weapons to Ukraine should be framed – the question how to help Ukraine defend itself most effectively (and there are many ways to do so short of providing lethal weapons) without provoking Russia to the point that it lashes out. And that entails attention to the symbolic impact of particular actions, including providing lethal weapons.

The basic point, however, is that military assistance to Ukraine, lethal or otherwise, is not a function of NATO accession. On the contrary, pushing for NATO accession would make Ukraine’s security problem with Russia much worse because the Kremlin will go to great lengths, and take great risks, to prevent it.

Ukraine is eventually going to have to ameliorate tensions with Russia

In the long run, Ukraine is going to have to figure out how to reduce tensions with Russia. That, I am convinced, is going to require taking NATO accession off the table. That can be done by Kyiv supporting the U.S. in some kind of broad bilateral security dialogue with Russia. Or it can be done by Kyiv dealing directly with Moscow.

To be sure, neither will happen soon. But Kyiv should be thinking downfield, so to speak, and is going to need to devise a strategy, sooner or later, for lowering Russian pressure.

It is doubtless the case that Russian aggression has helped unify the Ukrainian public, at least for now. But in the long run being at the edge of all-out war with a very large, very powerful, and very angry neighbor will make it all the more difficult, and perhaps impossible, for Ukraine to become a stable liberal democracy in Europe.

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