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How Realistic Are Ukraine’s Chances of NATO Membership?
30 October, 2018
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Ukraine recently affirmed its EU and NATO membership aspirations by introducing amendments to the constitution. And while the prospect of Ukraine joining the EU is especially unclear, the situation is slightly different, according to the new President of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly Rasa Juknevičienė.

“Of course it's realistic. Maybe not next year, I don't know when it will happen, but it's realistic,” Juknevičienė told Hromadske.

NATO accepted Ukraine’s NATO aspirations at the 2008 summit in Bucharest. Since then, the Alliance has had an “open-door” policy regarding Ukraine. However, if Ukraine is to achieve its NATO membership ambitions, then further reform progress is needed.

“You need reforms, not only because of membership in NATO, reforms in defense, reforms in security, reforms everywhere, to change your society a little bit,” Juknevičienė adds.

President of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly and former Latvian Defense Minister Rasa Juknevičienė speaks during an assembly session in Hague, Netherlands on November 23, 2017. Photo credit: EPA / Jerry Lampen

The new Parliamentary Assembly’s tentative optimism for Ukraine stems from her own experience in her home country Lithuania, where she served as a member of parliament and Defense Minister. Lithuania joined NATO in 2004, but announced intentions to pursue membership back in 1993.

“We thought we were intended to join NATO in 1999, when Poland, Czech Republic and Hungary were invited, but we got very similar messages as you are getting. But we were patient, we were just doing what we wanted to do and this time came for us,” Juknevičienė recalls.

Although NATO membership may still be a distant goal for Ukraine, it has already began participating in the alliance’s Parliamentary Assembly, which is an important part of the NATO structure. It involves delegates from NATO member states, as well as partner states, including Ukraine.

Juknevičienė believes that this in itself is a positive step towards NATO membership. According to her, the current Ukrainian delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly, led by Ukrainian MP Iryna Friz, are “totally different” from previous delegations, adding that “many [NATO] delegations accept them as the image of Ukraine.”

The Ukrainian will have a special opportunity to help try and convince NATO member states of its candidacy for membership in 2020, when a Parliamentary Assembly session will be held in the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv.

Ukraine is trying to fix NATO membership into its constitution. On the other hand, we have an open-door policy from NATO and the decision that Ukraine will become a NATO member state. Do you think it's realistic?

Of course, it's realistic. Maybe not next year, I don't know when it will happen, but it's realistic because you need reforms, not only because of membership in NATO, reforms in defense, reforms in security, reforms everywhere, to change your society a little bit. You have to understand that it was not easy to understand ourselves. I am Lithuanian, so we joined NATO in 2004. It was not easy to understand that NATO membership is not only membership for defense ministry or the ministry of foreign affairs, it's membership for the whole nation, for the whole statehood. And coming back to the reforms or constitutional amendments, it's very important. I support it very much because you need non-reversible process. Unfortunately, Ukraine has a very interesting history. The past two decades, you were announcing about NATO membership, and then we witnessed the visit of former president Yanukovych to Brussels and he said no, we would not like to go to NATO. Now you have again applied officially, your official position of your country is that you would like to become members of NATO, but it happened only a few years ago. So we were waiting, or doing reforms or trying to become members of NATO for 11 years after we officially applied for NATO membership. It will not happen tomorrow, so everybody has to be patient and most importantly united, to have this national goal as a national goal, not only one or another political party’s. That's why the constitution or law on national security, they are the utmost important. These fundamental things, I hope, I think, they will not be changed from one election to another election. That's why it's important.

President of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly and former Latvian Defense Minister Rasa Juknevičienė speaks during an assembly session in Hague, Netherlands on November 23, 2017. Photo credit: EPA / Jerry Lampen ​

But there is also the external factor. We know that NATO needs consensus to accept other countries. Do you think if Ukraine is consolidated and conducts reform, there will be consensus?

Of course. Mainly, I think 90% of your possible membership in NATO depends on yourself. If you, every time, one minister of defense from one country and the minister of foreign affairs from another country say no, it's not the time... It's not the case to be nervous, so to say, because we suffered the same. We went through the same. We thought we were intended to join NATO in 1999, when Poland, Czech Republic and Hungary were invited, but we got very similar messages as you are getting. But we were patient, we were just doing what we wanted to do and this time came for us. I would say even more – I was born when Lithuania was occupied by the Soviet Union. Imagine that, some three decades ago, that I could imagine that I will speak in front of you as the President of NATO parliamentary assembly. Nobody could imagine this, even myself. So what is today maybe seems not possible, in a few years, it could be a realistic approach. We don't know what will happen. But your aspirations is the most important thing.

When you think back about Lithuanian reforms, what was the most difficult thing to do to join NATO? And, if you look at Ukraine, what are its successes and failures in terms of reforms?

You know, we started in 1990. In 1993, we had former communist back turns the government, we were very much afraid that our country will change its geopolitical aspirations. But it didn't happen because, we had no opposition at that time, we pushed very much to sign the common agreement among different political parties for NATO membership. And that's maybe the difference with your country because you went through very complicated situation over the last two decades. So maybe you started what we started in 1993, you started just a few years ago with Euromaidan and with the new government, which is doing a lot. I see that they are doing almost the same necessary steps we were doing. For example, your delegation to the NATO parliamentary assembly, led by Iryna Friz member of parliament. I would not say that previous  delegations were good or bad, but this delegation, they are doing really... they are totally different. And many delegations accept them as the image of Ukraine, so you will have a NATO parliamentary assembly session in 2020. Hundreds of NATO member states members of parliament will come here. It will be a huge event and this delegation of the current parliament, we are very active to convince the NATO parliamentary assembly to do this and they succeeded, so it means that it looked like it was impossible maybe a few years ago, to have a session here, in Kyiv – today it is realistic. So maybe I didn't answer your question about the differences and similarities. You are doing reforms, you are fighting corruption. And again, I would like to stress that it's not only defense reforms. Everything, all messages coming from Ukraine to the NATO countries, bad messages that some people were not able without corruption to start businesses here. It's also something about NATO, it's like the image of the country. So that's why I support very much what your government is doing, and my advice would be for the people of Ukraine, of course, democracy is very important, maybe you will select other people to your parliament next year, or president, I don't know, but most important thing is not to look backwards. Just look forward and do what you have to do.

You mentioned the parliamentary assembly, and it's very interesting that the Ukrainian delegation can participate because it's an associate...

Yes, they are associates. Since 1991.

And it's very interesting compared to the EU because Ukraine cannot participate in the European Parliament, for example, and here in Ukraine, we sometimes hear the story that NATO is more difficult to join than the EU. But from this example, we can see that integration with NATO is, in a way, easier than that of the EU. Do you share this opinion?

You know, you need both, as we needed both. For me, it was like a mother and father. It's difficult to separate. The EU is doing its own job, we feel it's like soft power, and very important reforms: economic reforms, social affairs reforms, everything related with the preparation for membership in the European Union was useful for our people, useful for our country very much. So the perspective to become members of the EU  is very important. So that's what we Lithuanians, we are trying to convince our partners that it's very important to at least give perspective for that for the Ukrainian people. And we will do this as long as it’s possible, as it’s possible. NATO membership, of course, is maybe more [of a] political leadership decision, but not only. Not only because without stable democracy, without defense control by civil society, without standards, as we say, which are in NATO countries, it's also impossible to join NATO. So my suggestion is that it's maybe think less about when you will join NATO and think more about reforms and think more about how to fit into the standards of NATO. And when day X will come, and it will come, maybe not in five years or so, but who knows, you would be ready without any problems, you will be ready. So that's why this is so important. Look at Sweden and Finland – they are not members of NATO, but they are almost members of NATO when look to the standards of those countries to be members of NATO. So I think this is a good example, to just do reforms and try to be European and a country with democratic centers.

President of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly and former Latvian Defense Minister Rasa Juknevičienė (R) talks to American soldiers during joint NATO military drills at a training area near Pabradeė, Latvia on June 21, 2011. Photo credit: U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Ted Nichols

Let's talk about Russia and the threats it poses. What interests me is that, when we talk about EU countries, for example, there is talk in EU countries sometimes to lift sanctions, and so on. But when the same countries are talking within NATO, they seem to be much more stronger and tougher on Russia. Would you agree with this?

On sanctions?

On Russia.

Frankly speaking, I will be frank and open with you that I feel that we need more to do inside NATO and the European Union to have more common strategy on Russia. Still, some people still say that, for example, membership of Georgia, which is long aspirant country and they would like to have membership... They are not provided with such decision, we will provoke Russia, inviting them for NATO membership. Myself, I think opposite, and the security environment, environment or territories like greenzones in Europe. It's the biggest provocation for Russia to act because Putin is acting as an opportunist. He has opportunities, the Kremlin has opportunities, and they act, look, not only in the South Caucasus, not only eastern Ukraine, not only Crimea, but Syria as well. Syria was left almost alone, I would say, and this is why it happened. So these different opinions exist in NATO and the EU about Russia. Myself, maybe you will find me too naive and too optimistic, too idealistic, I think that we have to start to think about Russia after Putin. It doesn't mean that we have to intervene somehow and change the regime, not at all, what do I mean? I mean that we have to speak to find more contacts with the people in Russia, it's one thing, but most important thing is to help Ukraine to become a European country, because with that good example, I think Russians will start to think that they also can live in different, not aggressive, not a county which is fighting just with the west and trying to increase its empire around the Russian Federation. So this is what we, Lithuanians, would like to try to achieve, to have some common strategy because why do I say that? Maybe somebody will think that I am too naive because I do believe that Russians can live in democracy. Many people think that Russians cannot live in democracy at all because they have never lived in one. But why? If Ukrainians, Bulgarians, Lithuanians, the Balkan countries, they can try to live in democracy and they are doing this. So do you think Russians are less educated? Russians are less skillful people to help us? They didn't have any chance to do this, but I am a strong believer in another kind of Russia. Maybe I will not be able to see this in my life, I don't know, but this is the idea I would like to fight for.

/By Volodymyr Yermolenko