Although the geopolitical tug-of-war between the European Union and Russia was recognized as a principal factor driving recent events in Ukraine, NATO’s full role in the crisis is not widely understood. Like the EU, the alliance’s pull on Ukraine has long aroused anxieties in Moscow as well as among pro-Russian Ukrainians, exacerbating tensions related to the East-West standoff. But while NATO took no military action in the crisis, its partnership policies toward Ukraine have helped keep the Ukrainian armed forces out of the recent street fighting and could help the country emerge from its recent security crisis.
Ukraine is not a NATO member and, under its recently deposed government, was not seeking to join, but NATO and Ukraine have engaged in many cooperative projects in recent years. In particular, the alliance has encouraged crucial security sector reforms that may, as in Spain and Turkey, have helped depoliticize the Ukrainian military, contributing to its decision to refrain from joining the recent armed clashes or seize power itself. While NATO should be cautious about renewing efforts to bring Ukraine into the alliance until the volatile political situation there stabilizes and decreases the risks of NATO’s role in Ukraine again becoming a polarized issue, new partnership projects can profit all parties.
Official NATO-Ukraine ties began in 1991, when the newly independent country joined the North Atlantic Cooperation Council. Three years later, Ukraine became the first of the Commonwealth of Independent States to join the Partnership for Peace. The NATO-Ukraine Commission was established in 1997 to provide a forum where Ukraine and NATO’s members can discuss security concerns and cooperation. In language regularly repeated by NATO officials since then, the commission’s charter recognized that, “an independent, sovereign and stable Ukraine, firmly committed to democracy and the rule of law, is key to Euro-Atlantic security.” Among the various working groups created under the commission are the NATO-Ukraine Joint Working Group on Defense Reform, created in 1998, which promotes security and defense reforms; and the Annual National Program, developed in 2008 and 2009, which establishes yearly political, economic and other reform objectives for Ukraine.