Author: Alex Petriashvili, Senior Fellow at Rondeli Foundation
Historically neutral countries Finland and Sweden were members of the European Union and did not particularly aspire to NATO membership, however, they quickly gave a positive answer to this question after Russia launched its full-scale aggression against Ukraine on February 24, 2022.
Georgian society is unwaveringly in support of NATO membership. The number of supporters of joining the European Union is even stronger. The situation was different in Ukraine, which expresseddifferent attitudes towards NATO membership at different stages of its independence. In particular, during the rule of Viktor Yanukovych,Ukraine completely removed NATO membership from its priorities and left only European Union membership in the constitution. However, when the landmark moment in the history of Ukraine came, when it was supposed to sign the Association Agreement and the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement, the Ukrainian authorities went against the will of the people to meet the interests of Russia. Back then, in 2013, there was really no real talk about the enlargement of the European Union or the accession of Eastern Partnership countries. Moreover, the expansion of NATO and the implementation of the decision of the 2008 Bucharest NATO summit, according to which Ukraine and Georgia would definitely become NATO member states, were not even close to the reality. Unfortunately, NATO was not ready to implement this decision even in 2022, but Putin was no longer interested: His focus was on conquering Ukraine, and without much delay continuing to implement his dream goal – the reincarnation of the Soviet Union.
More on NATO a little later. Before that, let’s return to the European Union and its expansion. 10 years have passed since the events of the Ukrainian Maidan. The Ukrainian people then chose the new government and, most importantly, the European way. They signed an Association Agreement and a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement with the European Union, but this was followed by Russia’s annexation of Crimea and Sevastopol, and hostilities in eastern Ukraine. Today, Ukraine is fighting against Russia, trying to liberate its territories occupied by Russia in 2014. Ukraine has had to struggle and make great sacrifices to ensure its safe and stable future, but it is a battle that has changed the attitude towards enlargement ofthe European Union not only towards Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova, but also towards the countries of the Western Balkans. It seems that the full integration into the European Union of North Macedonia and Montenegro, which only recently joined NATO, should not have beena problem, and yet it is a fact that, for years, skepticism and a negative outlook of expansion was forming among the societies of the European Union member states, an attitude which significantly hindered the Balkan countries’ progression in this regard.
And it was Ukraine’s fight that changed the approach to enlargement in the European Union, seeing talk begin of the need to create a single European family from Lisbon to Tbilisi, or from Lisbon to Luhansk. They began to approach the issue of enlargement seriously within the European Union as well, and initiated the process of reforming the Union. 12 research organizations from France and Germany presented the first draft on how the European Union should be reformed to be ready for new members. Along with the above-mentioned countries, this concerns Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia, and, most likely, Kosovo. Compared to these countries, the most “seasoned” candidate is Turkey, but due to the strict approach of the European Union tojustice and human rights protection, the accession negotiations with Turkey were suspended.
The European Union this week gave a historic decision, following on from the European Commission’s positive recommendation on the start of accession negotiations in the spring of 2024 to Ukraine and Moldova, as well as to Bosnia-Herzegovina, with some conditions, and the granting of candidate status to Georgia. If we take a look and take into account the complexity of the negotiation procedures and the scope of the work to be done, we can easily see that the countries have a long way to go before being able to sign an actual agreement on joining the European Union. There were a number of questions about how ready these countries are both to start accession negotiations and to obtain candidate status, but most importantly, to carry out fundamental reforms in their own nations. However, a positive recommendation was made based on the new geopolitical realities. There was seemingly nothing to spoil a good pre-Christmas mood, but as has been the case many times before, the situation was complicated by the stand-out position of the Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who said the issue of starting negotiations with Ukraine should not be on the agenda of the summit of the Council of the European Union at all, just as a decision should not be made to allocate 50 billion Euros for Ukraine in the years 2024-2027. In addition, Orbán stated that the adoption of the new, 12th, package of sanctions should not be rushed, as it requires “serious deliberation.” For Orbán. The price of this decision is 14 billion Euros, which the European Union has blocked due to the decisions of the Hungarian authorities in the field of justice. Obviously, along with all this, by delaying the process, and in the worst case, by blocking it, Viktor Orbán would have been acting as a defender of Putin’s interests from within the European Union, which, according to him (Orbán), would have brought with itadditional dividends to Hungary.
The European Union has long been talking about strategic autonomy, independent security, and a geopolitical European Union in general. If this decision had not been taken, it would have seemed as if the European Union had become a hostage to the blackmail of its own member state, further weakening its already vague perspective of “geopolitical autonomy”. On the other hand, the European Union’sbowing down to Hungary’s blackmail in exchange for a positive position on Ukrainian issues could have set a very bad precedent.
Consensus in decision-making is just as essential for the North Atlantic Alliance. Viktor Orbán’s role here is relatively “modest”, although in this case he still resorts to manipulation, and is refusing toratify Sweden’s NATO accession treaty. The main obstacle here is from Turkey, whose legislative body, despite President Erdogan’s numerous public statements, has still not ratified Sweden’s NATO accession treaty. Despite all this, I am sure that the issue of Sweden will be resolved in the near future, and that it will most certainlybecome the 33rd member of the Alliance.
As for war-torn Ukraine, the issue is much more complex. Despite the fact that at the Vilnius Summit Ukraine was allowed to circumvent the Membership Action Plan – the so-called MAP, despite the statements that Ukraine will certainly become a member of NATO, the Alliance, unfortunately, is not really ready to make a decision. Among other issues, the decision was made to create the NATO-Ukraine Council at the Vilnius Summit. The first meeting in this format was recently held at the level of foreign ministers. Although the MAP was not actually mentioned, the discussion on the need to implement reforms were widely heard within the format of the Alliance. Now, NATO and Ukraine should cooperate within the framework of the annual national program and evaluate how the reform process is progressing (andGeorgia has been working with the Alliance for years precisely on this program).
Ukraine is at war. In Ukraine, they still deeply believe that they are fighting not only for their own, but also for European and Euro-Atlantic security. You will hear such a statement in the Alliance too, but when it comes to making a decision on taking on new members,behind-the-scenes and internal political news are at the fore. Unlike the European Union, NATO and its most powerful member – the United States of America – have very little time. The 75th anniversary summit of NATO will be held in Washington in 2024. By that time, the US presidential campaign will also have entered a decisive phase. Thus, President Biden will certainly need impressive results and solutions. Indeed, a lot will depend on what the situation is like on the front line, which in itself is directly related to the timely amount of vitally needed support for Ukraine from the West. However, even if Ukraine succeeds, it will be extremely difficult to say whether theAlliance will agree on Ukraine’s accession to NATO. While the answer seems to be simple– that Ukraine, like Moldova and Georgia, being a member of NATO and the European Union is the best way to contain Putin’s aggression –it seems that many in the upper echelons of the West still do not think so.