NATO-Ukraine Council Must Turn Into Stepping Stone to Membership

NATO diplomats are kicking into high gear to elevate NATO-Ukraine cooperation.

13 September 2023

Hennadiy Maksak

Future of Ukraine Fellow

While the NATO Summit in Vilnius was short of an official invitation for Ukraine to join the Alliance, it did bring some positive developments. Most notable is a new institutional and procedural framework that is being debated and developed right now.

One of the outputs of the Vilnius NATO Summit was the decision to launch a new institutional platform, the NATO–Ukraine Council (NUC), to substitute the previously active NATO–Ukraine Commission, launched in 1997.

In the run-up to the Summit, allies already proposed some modalities for the functioning of this new body, with a broad framework for its design and functions. So far, two meetings of the Council have been held in Vilnius and Brussels.

But real work and filling this institution with essence will start in autumn when allies move from various locations to the NATO Headquarters. Some diplomatic consultations are already scheduled for September to proceed with the adapted Annual National Programme (ANP), which was also part of the Vilnius Summit deliberations. In October, a meeting on the ambassadors’ level may occur in Brussels, while the final design of the Council is to be completed in November and formally approved by the North Atlantic Council.

During autumn, Ukraine has time and momentum to fine-tune the NATO–Ukraine Council as an effective mechanism for further accession and deepened cooperation. This time shouldn’t be wasted.

The political significance of the NATO–Ukraine Council

In the run-up to the Vilnius NATO Summit in July 2023, NATO allies tried to “sell” NUC as a politically more advanced bilateral platform to deal with all aspects of NATO–Ukraine cooperation. One of the arguments in favour was that the new composition proposed equal status for all the participants, including Ukraine, during these meetings of shared importance and relevance.

To compare, under the previous format of the Commission, Ukraine had to discuss proposals already prepared by NATO.

In public communication, the Council’s main task is to “advance political dialogue, engagement, cooperation” as well as hold crisis consultations, summoned to the request of each member of the NUC and make decisions. Many questions are to be answered this autumn regarding the type of issues that can be put on the agenda.

Despite the less-than-optimistic results in Vilnius, top Ukrainian officials announced that NATO allies will give a clear signal that the very launch of the Council means the start of joint activity on all issues connected to Ukraine. Previously, NATO remained the only organisation where the principle “nothing about Ukraine without Ukraine” was not followed. So it’s high time the approach changed.

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Another concern for Ukraine is whether the new format will also run the risk of being blocked on a political level by some allies, as it has happened since 2017 with the political level of the NATO-Ukraine Commission.

In his remarks, Secretary General Stoltenberg mentioned that the new format would be more resilient to such destructive positions as Hungary’s. But it still remains to be seen with further advancements in the Council’s activity.

Although the modalities of the NUC structure are not yet publicly disclosed, some outlines of the institutional framework might already be traced from the previous format of cooperation. Meetings of the NATO–Ukraine Council will likely take a similar shape as the NATO–Ukraine Commission. Moreover, the new institution will be stirred by the Secretary-General. Meetings of the Council will be held at the level of heads of state and governments, at the ministerial level of foreign affairs and defence, and at the level of ambassadors.

But except for the political level, the primary debate will be over the practical composition of the Council regarding thematic directions of cooperation.

Some joint committees are expected to continue previous tracks under the NATO – Ukraine Commission. It has to be mentioned that under the Commission, some joint working groups were dealing with defence and security reform, armaments and economic security as well as scientific and environmental cooperation. Such working groups were involved along with NATO Committees in planning and arranging senior-level meetings of the Commission.

The Commission has also dealt with the issue of assessing Ukraine’s participation in the Partnership for Peace Programme and the cooperation under the Military Committee and the fulfilment of the Ukraine Annual Work Plan.

So it is expected that these activities will be extended, and we will see such committees as political, military, defence cooperation, and security and defence reforms sector including civilian control over these areas. Scientific and environmental cooperation will also be continued, considering the recent focus on innovation projects, which gained traction under NATO programmes.

ANP: Adapted but not changed

Before the Vilnius NATO Summit, Kyiv presented its vision for the changes to the ANP, arguing that Ukraine’s road to NATO accession should be paired with the Ukrainian EU accession track, especially since the shared fundamental values. In Kyiv and European institutions, there is a feeling that a road map with specific requirements gains more political focus and could be implemented more swiftly.

Ideally, the NATO invitation should resemble a brief document like the seven requirements from the European Commission handed to Ukraine in June 2022. It doesn’t mean that Ukraine wants to skip some part of its obligations, but rather to modernise a routine ANP and fill it with substance with regard to timelines and more concrete benchmarks. The previous iteration of the programme featured hundreds of pages with detailed enlisting of all the cooperation Ukraine has with NATO. The content was overloaded with unnecessary details and multiple indicators.

The Ukrainian team started consultations on the new outline of the document on the side-lines of the Vilnius Summit, and the continuation is expected this month.

At this time, it is becoming clearer that the new outline of the ANP will likely preserve the current five priorities Ukraine has in its National Program under the NATO-Ukraine Commission. For the allies, these priorities will be perfect scorecards to assess Ukraine’s readiness for the start of the accession dialogue.

In many ways, such a structure is similar to the model of NATO’s Membership Action Plan. So, the adapted ANP will include such divisions as (i) political and economic issues, (ii) defence and security issues, (iii)  resource issues, (iv) security issues, (v) legal issues.

The only change the programme might witness will be in the number of goals proposed under these five priorities. Some of minor relevance will be excluded, but some will gain more importance, in particular in such areas as civilian control over the defence sector and intelligence community, interoperability and fundamental democratic reforms, including anti-corruption, good governance, etc.

Accession instrument or refurbished “Commission”

The question is still open: What will the final composition of the NATO–Ukraine Council be, and what practical and political mode will it take?

So far, copy-pasting the thematic portfolio and political set-up from the NATO–Ukraine Commission does not demonstrate a forward-looking approach to the new institutional format. For Ukraine and the allies, it is still an urgent issue to answer the question of what decisions are to be made under the Council’s constellation.

But at this moment, provided the elevated political meaning of the new format, the Ukrainian side may expect the NUC to provide a venue for a more streamlined integration process to NATO, including assessment of reforms implementation and interoperability tracks.

Simultaneously, Council activity should go beyond the issues of Kyiv’s alignment with NATO standards. A discussion platform of “equals” also presumes that Ukraine has a say in areas of global security and common defence initiatives, including international terrorism, China’s hostile activity in the Indo-Pacific, etc. It requires Ukrainian elites in some way to reassess its Ukraine-centric approach, for how difficult it is now in times of war and start acting as a global security actor.

This is not to say that issues of global and regional importance have never appeared on the NATO-Ukraine bilateral agenda. In pre-war times, Ukraine played a serious role as a peacekeeping nation with participation in many missions under UN, NATO and EU umbrellas. The new Council format allows for the continuation of this practice with like-minded allies.

Conversely, the meeting of equal partners should also bring some changes to NATO members’ commitments within cooperation with Ukraine. Decisions taken at the NUC’s meeting have to be mutually binding and provide a shared responsibility for their implementation by all parties.

Another challenge looming through the timeframe of the establishment of the Council is practical assistance in the preparation of Ukraine for accession. It is really difficult to foresee how effective the Council activities will be in Ukraine’s preparation for the Washington NATO Summit in 2024 since the full-fledged start of the work is planned for November 2023.

Most importantly, it is still unclear how to avoid a veto on the ambitious Ukraine agenda from Hungary or other potentially pessimistic allies.

For instance, Budapest would be inclined to set a specific committee or, in another way, to keep the issue of the national minorities on the NUC’s agenda. Overall, there’s a real dilemma on how to make Ukraine’s accession process more streamlined and less hampered.

In this context, it is crucially important that the newly adopted ANP be more ambitious, with clear-cut benchmarks for Ukraine leading to better interoperability and steady progress on the reforms track.

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Published as part of our Future of Ukraine Fellowship programme. Learn more about it here and consider contributing.

The featured image comes from the Presidential Office of Ukraine. All materials featured on this site are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International.

Hennadiy Maksak

Future of Ukraine Fellow

Hennadiy Maksak is a Future of Ukraine Fellow as well as the founder and executive director of Foreign Policy Council Ukrainian Prism, which enhances Ukraine’s foreign policy and international security. He served as President of the Polissya Foundation for International and Regional Studies, promoting regional cooperation and advancing Ukraine’s foreign policy agenda. Hennadiy held high-profile positions in the Ukrainian government, including Chair of the Civic Council under the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

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