Achieving all NATO membership criteria and establishing relevant standards and principles has been the strategic national path of all national governments appointed since the 2014 Revolution of Dignity in Ukraine. However, do these efforts promise Ukraine’s ultimate membership in NATO? This paper provides the author’s personal opinions regarding the topic, which are enriched by first-hand knowledge of new policy developments in Ukraine’s security and defense sector, national narratives, and sociological studies. This paper will try to open the door for understanding how specific sectoral reforms are set in the national context and how Ukrainians see themselves on their path toward prospective NATO membership
By Mariam Symonova
For nearly three decades, right after gaining independence in 1991, Ukraine enhanced and supported collaboration with NATO and Alliance member countries. Ukraine became the first among the Commonwealth of Independent States to join the Partnership for Peace (PfP) in 1994.[i] However, the more the topic of Ukraine's NATO membership is promoted by politicians in power today, the more questions arise from the Ukrainian public: What does it actually mean to live and operate like a NATO member country? How much time and effort would it cost?
Today, both questions remain unanswered. The drama and the reality of the Crimean crisis has definitely opened Ukraine’s eyes as to how many lives it costs for Ukraine not to be in NATO.
Recent sociological studies and national polls show that Ukraine’s aspiration for NATO membership gained an extremely high level of public support in 2019, with 66% of Ukrainian citizens claiming they would say a definite ‘yes’ to Ukraine’s membership in the Alliance. This percentage is even higher than the percentage of ‘yes’ votes in some recently accepted member countries in which national referendums for NATO membership were held. Ukrainians’ support for its NATO membership is higher in the western regions (up to 76%), average in the north and south (66% and 55%, respectively), and the lowest in the east (37%). Only 21% of respondents claimed they would oppose Ukraine’s Euro-Atlantic integration. Comparing these numbers with poll results in 2012, in which 69% supported Ukraine’s EU membership and 42% supported Ukraine’s NATO perspective,[ii] Ukraine’s NATO membership perspective is likely to remain a hot topic in public talks and household debates as it continues to be on the country’s primary agenda.
The potential behind these numbers is rooted in the high level of public expectations regarding the probability of Ukraine’s NATO membership. Almost everybody has an opinion on Ukraine’s reasons to join the Euro-Atlantic club, but as far as NATO remains diplomatic and does not give a definite ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to Ukraine’s Membership Action Plan (MAP) application, even more rumors are born to explain the Alliance’s readiness (or lack thereof) to welcome a new family member from European East.
Following public support and aiming to preserve Ukraine’s Euro-Atlantic integration endeavours, anticipating the presidential and parliamentary elections in early 2019, President Poroshenko introduced and supported Ukraine’s EU and NATO perspectives as the only foreign policy objectives beyond the protection of the sovereignty of Ukraine. This was supported by the constitutional majority of the parliament.[iii]
All these symptoms build a real need to know and communicate Ukraine’s Euro-Atlantic integration process and procedures, regardless of the target audience. While Ukrainian citizens are generally positive about NATO, civil servants are challenged by comprehensive demands to start and continue the adoption of NATO principles, Standardization Agreements (STANAGs), and Standardization Recommendations (STANRECs), attempting to define numerous strategic priorities for state institutions in the security and defense sector.
Strategic NATO-driven planning
In 2009, Ukraine joined the initiative to launch the Annual National Programmes (ANP) under the auspices of the Ukraine-NATO Commission.[iv] The Ukrainian ANPs are national documents containing five standard chapters adapted from the MAP structure, engaging more than 70 national institutions and all ministries in its development and implementation, signed and therefore enforced by presidential decrees.
Unlike the usual annual tool to plan, monitor, and evaluate reforms aimed to fulfill the MAP, Ukrainian ANP became a substitute for a strategic framework. This was enforced by the need to bring Ukraine’s Euro-Atlantic reforms in line with internationally accepted policy development approaches, making the positive impacts of these plans measurable and more clear to citizens. For this, further methodological support was provided by international partners to the Government of Ukraine in 2019 (for ANP 2020 edition) in terms of the application of Results-Based Management principles (RBM) in the development of ANP.[v] RBM requires building a strategic level for outcome-setting in order to formulate the expected deliverables, map of activities, and key performance indicators to measure all outcomes and the impact of the reforms.
This annual document became a strategic five-year guideline outlining an entire package of national-level reforms and NATO-focused endeavours, starting with the interoperability of military units all the way down to human rights standards and energy efficiency.
It is important to note that the ANP 2020 was the only cross-sectoral document renewed and ready by the time the new president, parliament, and government came to power in mid-2019. Therefore, the ANP 2020 partially served as the background for other higher-level national strategic documents, especially for governmental planning and ministerial policy concepts (during the term of Prime Minister O. Honcharuk). Still, even with a package of additional NATO-Ukraine cooperation tools, ANP cannot solely serve as an extensive political and strategic dimension of integration with NATO, mainly due to the absence of an official MAP enforcement process for Ukraine.
Implementation of reforms and calculation of resources
Time is valuable, and missing it costs too much. The time exchange rate in Ukraine is lives, human rights and freedoms, and lost territories (e.g., the Crimean Peninsula and the occupied Donbas, which are illegally and temporarily annexed by Russia). As pointed out by the International Criminal Court in 2016[vi] in response to Ukraine’s case against the Russian Federation, there is direct military confrontation between Ukraine and Russia in Eastern Ukrainian territories. Since July 2014, there have been more than 13,000 deaths (25% of those civilians, including 298 passengers on the downed Boeing MH17) and 30,000 casualties officially reported by UN missions in Ukraine. As stated in the report, these are only approximate numbers, and the real numbers may be higher.[vii]
For a more stable national security and armed forces supply, the key issue is the duration of the transition to NATO standards and principles, and the way they are adapted in the defence industry. This component directly impacts the Armed Forces’ combat abilities and initial operational capabilities in general. Since 1991 until the end of 2019, Ukraine fully implemented 174 NATO standards.[viii] The most relevant announcement of this data is expected after the finalization of the first national Defense Industry Review (DIR) (the first in Ukraine’s history). The ongoing DIR, along with a package of other national-scale reviews of the security and defence sector, was put into force by the Law on the National Security of Ukraine. Among the DIR’s major tasks, data is collected on how many NATO standards need to be implemented and to what extent these have already been adopted in a number of defence enterprises, regardless of the type of business ownership in the defence sector. Overall, businesses have responded positively to the application of new technical standards, since this will greatly support national security and might also enrich markets. At the same time, the DIR results will only provide background data for a new Strategy of Defense Industry Development but not a clear political path regarding what is the next action plan and the list of STANAGs that Ukraine would need to adopt to move closer toward activating its MAP.
How much time and how many resources would it take to adopt the Continental staff system (also known as the general staff system) for the joint (multiple services) headquarters and lower MOD levels? There is no public access to any preliminary calculations on how much it might cost Ukrainian taxpayers to support, for example, the overall transition of the Ukrainian Armed Forces to NATO standards and principles. Would it then annually cost more or less to operate based on the Continental staff system? Would we be able to minimize all the risks of corruption in the defence sector if NATO standards and principles are enforced? These challenges constitute a major concern in face of the de-facto unfrozen conflict in the Donbas region. The recent February 2020 escalation proves that the assumption of a rapid end to war in Eastern Ukraine is wrong and misleading; Russian forces continue using heavy armaments that are prohibited by the Minsk Agreements. Considering the recent circumstances surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic, the escalation of the Donbas conflict is less likely, though there are no promises of peace.
Ukrainians still highly trust the Armed Forces, and in times of frontline fire gather additional resources to support the troops’ needs and join volunteer movements. At the same time, state expenses for the defence sector continue rising despite sectoral budget cuts and challenges brought by COVID-19: Ukraine’s 2020 security and defence budget is still the largest since the country’s independence in 1991. The 2020 security and defence sector budget was expected to be UAH 245.8 bn (5.45% of planned GDP, approximately EUR 8.5 bn), which is 16% more than it was in 2019.[ix] After the additional state budget revision due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and following the National Security and Defense Council decisions, the 2020 defence budget was implemented as initially planned, UAH 135.5 bn (approximately EUR 4.7 bn), and the security budget was actually raised. In general, civil society welcomed the decision to increase the national defence budget, surely in combination with the strong public demand to build better democratic oversight in the security and defence sector.
All of these developments show that despite the political uncertainty of Ukraine’s future in NATO, citizens are ready to make greater inputs and demand more to have a secure and stable future. NATO membership will not work as a unique antidote against all Ukraine’s problems, but it is very much needed for Ukrainians to be a part of the global security community. Like Ukraine’s perspective of EU integration back in 2013–2014, today Ukraine’s NATO membership is also depicted from an emotional angle. Therefore, the more precise, real, constructive criticism and support Ukraine receives from NATO and Alliance members today, the better it will feel while working to meet all necessary principles and standards tomorrow.
Public support for Ukraine’s Euro-Atlantic integration has been positive and gradually rising from year to year. The continuous and stable trust of Ukrainian society is the most valuable national resource for NATO and its global mission, and this credit may be given to the Euro-Atlantic endeavour for many years to come. This is the credit of public trust in Ukraine’s secure future, too. It is important to have NATO participating in and supporting dialogue with Ukrainian state institutions and civil society to facilitate security in the region and meet citizens’ positive expectations.
Regardless of the reality of Ukraine’s NATO membership currently, Ukrainian citizens continue to support and desire NATO membership as a critical need of the country, as if part of the hierarchy of needs in Maslow's pyramid, with the hope that Ukraine will also become a strong and reliable member of the Alliance one day.
About the Author
Mariam Symonova is a young professional from Ukraine working in the security and defence sector as a monitoring and evaluation expert.
[i] NATO, “Relations with Ukraine,” last updated on 4 November 2019, https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natolive/topics_37750.htm.
[ii] Ukrinform, 9 July 2019, https://www.ukrinform.ua/rubric-society/2736519-kilkist-ukrainciv-aki-pi....
[iii] The update to the Constitution of Ukraine dated 7 Feb 2019 defines the roles of the Parliament (art.85), the President (art. 102), and the Cabinet (art.116) in European and Euro-Atlantic integration. See “Ukraine’s parliament backs changes to Constitution confirming Ukraine’s path toward EU, NATO,” Unian Information Agency, February 7, 2019,
[iv] NATO, “Relations with Ukraine,” last updated on 4 November 2019, https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natolive/topics_37750.htm.
[v] News note, Cabinet of Ministers of Ukraine web page, 30 March 2019, https://www.kmu.gov.ua/news/richna-nacionalna-programa-ukrayina-nato-202....
[vi] ICC Report on Preliminary Examination Activities 2017, 4 December 2017.
[vii] Radio Free Europe, “Death Toll Up To 13,000 in Ukraine Conflict, Says UN Rights Office,” 23 February 2019,
[viii] Ihor Kozii and Taras Tarasiuk, “NATO standards: implementation progress in Ukraine,” Reanimation Package of Reforms, 25 September 2019, https://rpr.org.ua/en/news/nato-standards-implementation-progress-in-ukr....
[ix] News note, Cabinet of Ministers of Ukraine web page, 5 November 2019,
Image source: https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/topics_50319.htm