In a completely new security context after Russian agression against Ukraine NATO is reviewing all fundamental principles, which has driven its decisions over the last two decades. Enlargement, the Alliance’s primary policy to realise the vision of a Europe whole, free and at peace, should be — and has been — no exception.
Ukraine, which in peacetime maintained a 130,000-strong military, is not only strategically positioned to strengthen the stability of the post-Soviet space and the Balkans but also to contribute to international security at large.
- Since 1992 more than 35,000 Ukrainian servicemen have been on peace and crisis management operations around the globe, initially under the UN flag but with a growing contribution to NATO operations.
- In 1996 it participated in the NATO-led mission in Bosnia and Herzegovina, with later commitments including KFOR in Kosovo (184 personnel), Iraq NATO Training Mission (37), ISAF in Afghanistan (26), Resolute Support in Afghanistan (10) and NATO’s naval operation Active Endeavour.
- Given such involvement Ukraine gained recognition as the Alliance’s only partner nation involved in all major NATO stability operations. It has also offered invaluable help by providing a strategic airlift capability and other air transport capabilities for crisis management operations.
From a NATO perspective, Ukraine’s membership is a distant prospect. Russia already demonstrated that it is ready to use military force and change borders to block Ukrainian integration with the West.
Prominent thinkers including Henry Kissinger, Zbigniew Brzezinski and François Heisbourg suggested that Ukraine should be “Finlandized” as a core element of a new relationship with Russia. According to Wolfgang Ischinger, rather than remaining a frontline, Ukraine should become a bridge between Russia and the West.
Whatever the description, in practice it seems even more unlikely than before that NATO will be able to agree consensus on Ukrainian membership anytime soon. Additionally, with full implementation of the Minsk II agreements offering a quasi autonomy for the eastern regions the country itself would be unable to agree on the accession.
But being a key nation in Russia’s global strategy, Ukraine must take a more central place in NATO’s strategy as well.
The Alliance urgently needs a new strategy for hybrid warfare (while remembering that Russia may not use the same tactics twice to achieve strategic surprise). Both nations have important contributions to make in order for NATO to learn from the current conflict and adapt for the future.
Bosnia and Herzegovina
Unfortunately, in the words of a senior Slovak diplomat, both Bosnia and Macedonia find themselves in “the corner of the cellar you don’t visit anymore to look for marmelade”.
Bosnia and Herzegovina, with a military of 10,000 troops on active duty, has been increasing its contribution to UN, EU and NATO peacekeeping and crisis management operations.
Bosnia and Herzegovina, whose accession to the MAP is conditioned on the legal control of military property by the state, has struggled to overcome the constitutional limbo of the Dayton Agreement, which makes all policy decisions dependent on the three ethnic entities – Bosniaks, Serbs and Croats.
The nation continues to be politically fragile, requiring the presence of EU forces with an executive mandate.
Macedonia’s efforts to join NATO date back to 1993, when the national assembly adopted a declaration on accession, arguing that potential membership would strengthen the fragile state and help promote stability in the volatile Balkan region.
Macedonia’s 10,000-strong military contributed 150 troops to ISAF and the EU’s ALTHEA operation in Bosnia. It also participates in the EU Battle Group concept to enhance its chances of accession both to EU and NATO.
Unfortunately, Macedonia should be a powerful memento of how a country can fall apart after losing its prospects for a European and Atlantic future.
A nearly unbelievable conflict with Greece over its constitutional name has plagued its candidacy. Although there seemed to be a chance to resolve the issue after Macedonia made a number of concessions, in 2008 Greece started to block Macedonia’s accession to both NATO and the EU. NATO nations, for their part, have failed to exercise enough pressure on Greece, a NATO member, to remove this only hurdle to Macedonia’s membership.
Economic interests may influence broader geopolitical calculations: Macedonia’s territory seems to have unique value for the southern expansion of Gazprom’s pipeline system. Although it has been orthodoxy that Macedonia will join NATO as soon as the name issue is resolved, this maxim may no longer be true.
Sweden and Finland
And then there is the issue of the potential accession of Sweden and Finland, which are not officially candidate countries but need the Open Door Policy to better balance their relations with Russia.
Both countries run the policy of non-alignment, although the understanding of the status has evolved substantially as they are members of the European Union, which developed its Security and Defence Policy (ESDP). Both have been very active in CSDP perceiving it as the main vehicle to strengthen international stability.
Sweden also made a unilateral “declaration of solidarity”, indicating that it will not be passive if any EU or Nordic state is attacked.
Both Finland and Sweden have a vital role to play in securing the Baltic Sea area in general and in closing NATO’s vulnerability on the defence of its three Baltic members in particular. Moreover, both nations have a proven expertise in peace operations as well as in building the capacity of local forces, which is a booming dimension of NATO business.
Therefore, the Alliance has an important interest in deepening the integration of both nations in all aspects of NATO planning. It must also be ready to initiate discussions on their potential membership as soon as these nations express an interest in doing so.
The Way Forward
There is a new geopolitical situation in Europe, with Russia openly and stubbornly rejecting the idea of partnership with the Euro-Atlantic community and demonstrating that it is ready to use force to block EU and NATO enlargement.
Although Moscow is probably more determined to defend the staus quo on the post-Soviet space, it cannot be exluded that it will also resort to blackmail, coercion, hybrid or even conventional warfare to discourage any significant security changes close to Russian borders. In such a volatile environment the Euro-Atlantic community needs to tread carefully and focus on the following priorities:
1) stop the war in Ukraine and help Kiev regain control over the Eastern part of the country,
2) try to avoid escalation and a larger confrontation between NATO and Russia, which would first affect the Alliance’s border states,
3) While it is important to limit the risks and build new relations with Russia, it is fundamental that the Alliance does not de facto approve of any new divisions in Europe by stalling the enlargement process.
Wojciech Lorenz is a Senior Research Fellow with the European Security and Defence Economics Program of the Polish Institute of International Affairs (PISM).
Mário Nicolini is an Advisor to the Central European Strategy Council and the Founder & Honorary President of the Euro-Atlantic Center.
The authors would like to thank Peter Bátor, Jacek Durkalec, Col (Ret.) Ján Pšida and Kacper Rękawek for their valuable insights.
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