How Georgia and Ukraine Are Bolstering Their Chances to Join NATO
Last year, Finland and Sweden submitted formal requests to join NATO. Following a review of their official letters, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and the NATO Heads of State and Government extended an invitation to the two Nordic countries to join the Alliance. Twenty-eight of NATO’s thirty members have already ratified the respective protocols, and the NATO Parliamentary Assembly is closely monitoring the situation.
As this ratification process continues, other European countries have attempted to get involved. To date, five NATO partner countries have expressed their desire to join NATO. Finland and Sweden are currently in the ascension process. Meanwhile, Bosnia and Herzegovina is participating in a Membership Action Plan (MAP), a program that provides “advice, assistance and practical support” to countries wishing to join the organization.
That leaves the remaining two partner countries, Georgia and Ukraine. Both have sought to eliminate corruption within their political systems and modernize their militaries. Their militaries have participated in a variety of NATO exercises, and some of their soldiers were deployed to Afghanistan to assist NATO in its mission. Georgia and Ukraine are two of NATO’s six Enhanced Opportunities Partners, and both countries have established a framework of close dialogue and cooperation with the Alliance.
Despite these relationships, neither country has been granted a NATO MAP. Critics argue that Georgia and Ukraine have not addressed their corruption problems, and this is something that must be addressed before the Alliance entertains their potential membership. The Study on NATO Enlargement also states that candidates must resolve their international and territorial disputes before they are permitted to joint. In both instances, Russia is still illegally occupying territory in Georgia and Ukraine. It is likely that some of NATO’s traditional (and more dovish) members will not change their stance on these points.
But Georgia and Ukraine have made progress since Finland and Sweden applied for NATO membership in June 2022. Over the past six months, Georgia and Ukraine have made notable changes. They can also provide valuable knowledge and expertise to the Alliance.
First, both countries have been implementing crucial anticorruption reforms to improve their governments. While attempting to pursue NATO membership, both countries are also seeking to join the European Union. In the case of the EU, Georgia and Ukraine have begun implementing a framework provided by this European body. The success of these anticorruption reforms saw both countries granted visa-free travel to the EU. In addition, Ukraine was recently awarded EU state candidate status.
Meanwhile, the EU provided twelve recommendations to Georgia. If Georgia addresses these points, it too will be awarded EU state candidate status. These developments suggest that both countries are taking this democratization process seriously, although they have a way to go until they meet the EU standards. Nonetheless, pursuing these reforms will help guide Georgia and Ukraine toward true freedom and democracy.
Second, both countries are continuously involved in NATO training exercises. Their involvement has allowed Georgian and Ukrainian forces to learn from their NATO counterparts. They have been exposed to various Western military systems and operations. This has allowed both countries to implement key defense reforms. Continued participation has led to greater interoperability with NATO forces. That both countries are designated Enhanced Opportunities Partners suggests that the Alliance holds both countries in high regard. Beyond these reforms, both countries spend a considerable amount of their annual GDP on national defense. Through this resilience, dedication, and hard work in the defense space, Georgia and Ukraine could become important strategic partners to the Alliance.
Finally, each NATO member is unique in that it provides the Alliance with a unique skill set or perspective. Georgia and Ukraine have vast knowledge and experience in cybersecurity matters, something that would be welcomed by the organization. For decades, Russia has used these countries as its testing ground for cyber capabilities and other forms of hybrid warfare. Russian cyberattacks have ranged from shutting down power grids to crippling Georgian and Ukrainian infrastructure. These assaults have forced both countries to learn how to combat such attacks, and in doing so they have become some of the world’s leading innovators in the realm of information technology. NATO’s Cooperative Cyber Defense Centre of Excellence (CCDCOE) has taken notice of their contributions. For example, Georgia regularly cooperates with the CCDCOE on cyber-related matters. Meanwhile, Ukraine was invited to join the CCDCOE as a contributing participant.
Overall, Georgia and Ukraine still have some distance to go before they are formally invited to join NATO. They will need to continue their democratization efforts to meet NATO standards, and they will need to pursue additional defense reforms. But neither country has backed down. Instead, Georgian and Ukrainian citizens are committed to the tasks at hand. Overcoming these hurdles will suggest that both countries are willing to contribute to NATO’s mission, and with it, contribute to a more secure and democratic world.
The opinions expressed in this article are those solely of the author and do not reflect the views of the Kennan Institute.
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The Kennan Institute is the premier U.S. center for advanced research on Russia and Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, Central Asia, the Caucasus, and the surrounding region though research and exchange. Read more