NATO When You Don’t Want It; No NATO When You Do

After being promised a future in NATO in 2008, Ukraine is still waiting for membership. At last year’s NATO summit, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s pleas for membership, or at least a timeline to membership, was unceremoniously rebuffed by the alliance.

“Ukraine isn’t ready for NATO membership,” President Joe Biden said at the July 2023 NATO gathering. He reiterated that position in a recent interview with TIME. While American officials continue to say that Kiev’s future is in the bloc, that alliance is pressuring Zelensky to downplay the issue at this year’s NATO summit.

Last year, Zelensky reacted furiously to his demands for NATO membership not being met. “It’s unprecedented and absurd when time frame is not set neither for the invitation nor for Ukraine’s membership. While at the same time vague wording about ‘conditions’ is added even for inviting Ukraine,” he said.

This year’s NATO summit, to be held in Washington in July, will be presented differently to the world. Though Zelensky and Biden are expected to sign a security agreement between the two countries in July, NATO will not offer Ukraine membership or a timeline for membership at the upcoming summit.

After another year of fighting for NATO’s right to expand to Ukraine, Zelensky will be even angrier than last year. But no one will know it. To avoid last year’s embarrassing rejection of Ukraine’s aspirations, NATO officials have engaged in “expectation management,” muting NATO members supportive of Ukraine’s accession while warning Zelensky not to demand the “impossible.” NATO officials have asked Zelensky not to pressure NATO members to publicly support a timetable for NATO membership this time.

The NATO charter makes it clear to Ukraine that it cannot become a NATO member until the war ends. The NATO charter says that countries that aspire to membership must not be at war, must be committed “to resolve conflicts peacefully,” and cannot have territorial disputes.

NATO officials have also made it clear that Ukraine will not become a member until after the war has ended. The irony, though, is that it is becoming increasingly likely that the war can only be ended by a Ukrainian promise not to join NATO.

The bleak reality of Ukraine’s potential future in the bloc does not reflect the rosy public narrative. NATO membership has historically been promised to Ukraine and withdrawn from Ukraine in a provocative and divisive manner.

It was at the 2008 NATO summit that NATO first welcomed “Ukraine’s… aspirations for membership in NATO” and promised it would become a member. But despite the assertion of Ukraine’s “aspirations” for membership, Ukrainians did not support joining the alliance.

Sociologist Volodymyr Ishchenko of the Freie University in Berlin cites polling in his book Towards the Abyss that reveals that fewer than 20% of Ukrainians wanted to join NATO at the 2008 Bucharest NATO summit.

President George W. Bush had to push Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko to apply for a NATO Membership Action Plan. NATO membership was dangerously divisive in Ukraine, and NATO was offering it when Ukraine didn’t want it.

The post-coup government in Kiev in 2014 was pushing to join NATO when the Ukrainians didn’t want it. Ukraine’s Declaration of Sovereignty and its Constitution both commit it to neutrality and prohibit entry into a military pact. That changed in 2019 when the Poroshenko government amended the constitution, committing Ukraine to a “strategic course” that pursued NATO membership. At the time the amendment was passed, Ishchenko says that public support for NATO membership still hovered at only around 40%.

It was only after the strife in Crimea and the Donbas began that public support for NATO membership swelled. However, polls that found that support had swollen to 73% suffered from the methodological problem that they could no longer poll people in breakaway regions where NATO membership was unpopular or people who had left Ukraine.

A poll that included those people, conducted in April 2022 after the war had begun, still found that 24% wanted NATO membership, while 27% wanted non-alignment with security guarantees. A third were undecided. Ishchenko cites a May 2022 poll that found 39% favoring NATO membership versus 42% favoring neutrality with security guarantees.

When Ukrainians were not demanding NATO membership, their government and NATO were promising it to them. Having fought and died for the “core principle” that they have the right to choose their alliances and for the right for NATO to expand, the promise is being withheld.

NATO’s divisive promise that Ukraine would become a member contributed to the war within Ukraine. By continuing to lie to Kiev, NATO contributed to the war with Russia. NATO has always been an irritant that has contributed to the war in Ukraine. It has never contributed to its security.

Ted Snider is a regular columnist on U.S. foreign policy and history at and The Libertarian Institute. He is also a frequent contributor to Responsible Statecraft and The American Conservative as well as other outlets. To support his work or for media or virtual presentation requests, contact him at