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How to Come Closer to NATO Without Scaring Anyone

An interesting Euro-Atlantic expert and civil society initiative was born in Ukraine

A regular NATO summit will take place in Brussels in June, and some optimists expect Ukraine to be granted MAP, the Alliance’s Membership Action Plan. President Zelensky has repeatedly stressed that this would be a real signal for Russia as the shortest way to end the war in Donbas lies through NATO. However, realists emphasise that Ukraine should not hold out hope for such gifts.

On the one hand, MAP does not contain any specific time requirements. A country can stay in the MAP status for years. For example, it took North Macedonia 12 years to become a full-fledged member. On the other hand, it is a direct promise of future accession to the Alliance, and some NATO members consider it very difficult, almost impossible, to make such a promise to the present-day Ukraine in its complicated condition.

It would seem that the problem is solved by the status of a NATO Enhanced Opportunities Partner, which Ukraine already has. If to mention that Sweden, Australia, and Finland have such a status, we could even be proud of it. However, close ties with the Alliance within the framework of enhanced partnership do not provide additional incentives to reform the country. Sweden does not need such reforms, unlike Ukraine’s urgent needs.

Several Ukrainian expert and non-governmental organisations and media outlets have united around an initiative that can specify and accelerate Ukraine’s Euro-Atlantic prospects. These are Yevropeyska Pravda, New Europe Centre, Anti-Corruption Action Centre, National Interest Advocacy Network (ANTS), and the Centre for Global Studies “Strategy XXI.” The idea is to use the common interest of the Ukrainian civil society and Western partners in qualitative changes in Ukraine, not linking them directly with the country’s future NATO membership, though actually bringing it closer.

It is proposed to take the Visa Liberalisation Action Plan (VLAP) as an example, which encouraged serious changes in Ukraine in 2015-2016. In particular, thanks to the plan, anti-corruption bodies were established and a system of electronic asset declarations of politicians, judges, and officials was launched. The prize was granting Ukraine the visa-free regime with the EU. Yet, in order to obtain it, the country had to carry out a number of reforms, the implementation of which was constantly monitored by European agencies. In turn, the civil society closely followed the actions of the authorities, exerting a grassroot pressure. It would be appropriate to create a similar tool for change now.

The authors call it the Plan to Achieve Ukraine’s compatibility with NATO. Unlike MAP, it would not lead to membership automatically, and a separate decision could be made later if all the concerns within the Alliance disappear by the time the conditions are met. More importantly, such a plan will outline the clear and consistent steps that will be expected of Ukraine in NATO, and its implementation will be subject to constant monitoring by the Alliance and Ukraine’s civil society. The result will be a significant qualitative improvement of government agencies and norms to reach modern European standards of law and democracy, and this is the most important thing.

Undoubtedly, the adoption of this unusual proposal and further work on it require the joint efforts by both the Ukrainian authorities and NATO member states. For politicians and bureaucrats, this someway means the need to go out of the comfort zone as it does not fit into the established formats and algorithms. But if the current approaches do not bring the country closer to the desired result, perhaps it is really worth listening to the civil society and expert community of Ukraine?

The very appearance of such an initiative testifies to the readiness of the Ukrainian civil society, its advanced part, not only to move in the European direction, but also to lead the way and, if necessary, make the authorities take real steps, not to imitate them by force of habit. And this, by the way, is a convincing evidence of that Ukraine’s place is in Europe, where not the government is “the only European,” as Pushkin once said about the tsarist government of Russia, but citizens.

Leonid Shvets

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