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Note: This is somewhat related to this question

According to CNBC, one of the goals of Russia is to prevent Ukraine from joining NATO.

I am not sure if this is related to not having a direct border with NATO or because Ukraine is a former Soviet state. This map shows NATO's expansion since 1997 and after the Baltic States have joined NATO, Russia has a direct border with NATO.

I assume the fact that Baltic States are part of NATO makes a difference, despite being the former Soviet States. This makes me wonder what prevented Ukraine from joining NATO earlier and possibly benefiting from the membership nowadays?

I am specifically interested in the reasons why not joining in the early 2000s when Russia was more affected by the collapse of the Soviet Union than it is in the 2020s.

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    Closely related: politics.stackexchange.com/questions/15486/…
    – Allure
    Jan 23 at 8:29
  • @Allure The most upvoted comment provides some insight to support this question: "Timing I would guess. At that time Russia had more pressing issues to deal with".
    – Alexei
    Jan 23 at 8:37
  • Around 2004, Putin has suggested that Russia may join NATO.
    – alamar
    Jan 24 at 8:56
  • Short answer? That'd been war. Russia already was more than pissed about the expansion of NATO and the brokeen promises to NOT expand east-wards. Ukraine is a different game than the Baltic States.
    – Tom
    Jan 24 at 19:31
  • @Tom: What promises?
    – Vikki
    Feb 3 at 22:23

3 Answers 3

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They are not strictly comparable. For one thing, Ukraine did not ask for membership until 2008.

  • The Baltics are very separate from Russia and Russian culture. Their absorption in 1940 was a provision of the Molotov/Ribbentrop pact. Likewise, Poland's history with Russia has been of a distinct nation being oppressed by an outsider nation. Long story short: they were in the lump of countries that were forcibly absorbed into the Warsaw Pact without any wish to join and coerced into remaining.

  • Russia and Ukraine share much greater religious, cultural, historical and linguistic ties.

  • Ukraine has had a number of leaders since independence, some of whom were fairly closely aligned with Russian leaders.

So in 2004 did Ukraine request NATO membership in time to accede? It did not.

Relations between Ukraine and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) started in 1992.1 Ukraine applied to begin a NATO Membership Action Plan (MAP) 👉in 2008. Plans for NATO membership were shelved by Ukraine following the 2010 presidential election in which Viktor Yanukovych, who preferred to keep the country non-aligned, was elected President.4

Was it perceived to be important to all parties? No, probably remaining unaligned seemed more possible at the time. The West might have been more accommodating of Russia's fascination with its near abroad states, Ukraine's own political landscape was more divided on the subject and Russia had yet to invade Georgia in 2008.

Russia itself was more accommodating and the gradual collapse of its influence via the Orange revolutions had not started.

On the other hand, the 2004 accessor states were perceived to have been unfairly coerced into the USSR. They are also much smaller militarily and in fact NATO has been fairly careful to limit exercises there. Most are at the brigade level. There is nothing for example that ever compared to Russia's late 2021 massing of about 100k personnel near Ukraine.

Ukrainian accession would be very different as it would position a NATO country with a large home military force right next to Russia and saying "it's just like the Baltics" is missing a lot of subtleties. I suspect this is as true in 2022 as it was in 2004, the main difference is that Ukranians are much more distrustful of Russian intentions than they were then.

Last, Ukraine might have thought that their security needs were already covered by the Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances, signed in 1994 by which Ukraine agreed to give up its share of Soviet nukes in return for Russia guarantees.

  1. The United States of America, the Russian Federation, and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, reaffirm their obligation to refrain from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of Ukraine, and that none of their weapons will ever be used against Ukraine except in selfdefense or otherwise in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations.
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  • I like this answer enough that its not worth composing my own, but I'd like to further point out that saying it was "allowed by" the Molotv-Ribbentrop Pact is a weird way to put it, as only the USSR and Nazi Germany were parties to that pact. It was basically the USSR's bribe to not go to war over the Nazi invasion of Poland. The rest of the world looked at it as a unilateral invasion of neighbors, and the USA never recognized the legality of it. That attitude probably had a rather lot to do with why the Baltics were welcomed into NATO so quickly when it became an option.
    – T.E.D.
    Jan 23 at 20:58
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    Oh I mean that when you look at how the Baltics ended up in the USSR there is no doubt whatsoever about the sorry ethics that put them in that position. I've changed the wording though. And, yes, that's also my point - the quick 2004 accession was partially out of sympathy to the historical wrongs they had suffered. Jan 23 at 21:00
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    Not just in the Warszaw pact (that did not exist yet) but into USSR (which was just a new name for the Russian empire, despite being ruled by a Georgian) itself. Jan 23 at 23:18
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    TLDR: we, the West, along with them, the East, promised if Ukraine stayed neutral we'd look after it. It didn't take long for all of us to break our word.
    – RedSonja
    Jan 24 at 9:35
  • Ukraine did not have a large military force in 2004 or even 2008 as far as I know. Prior to the Russian invasion of eastern Ukraine and Crimea, their military was a token one, with their borders secured both Russia and the USA who promised it after Ukraine gave up their substantial nuclear arsenal. After the Russian invasion and occupation, Ukraine now has a non-trivial military. I mean, persuasive, but the more I know about what you are talking about, the less true your assertions seem.
    – Yakk
    Jan 24 at 14:25
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Ukraine and Georgia are seen as strategic buffer states against the EU-NATO by the Russian Federation in a way that the other states from ex-Soviet Union are not. Because of this, Gorbachev insisted that NATO not extend eastward to include these countries.

Now, according to Adam Tooze, a historian, the independence of Ukraine after the dissolution of the Soviet Union precipitated an economic disaster. GDP per capita halved between 1990 and 1996, recovering to 80% of its 1990 level by 2007, and has stagnated ever since. This contrasts painfully with its neighbours, Turkey, Poland and the Russian Federation.

Thus, given its struggling economy, the basic options before Ukraine was alignment with the Russian Federation, or with EU-NATO or balancing between the two. It was the latter option that was preferred until the colour revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine in 2007 when the decision began to look more stark.

In 2008, George Bush's administration attempted to force the issue. It encouraged both Georgia and Ukraine towards NATO membership and wrangled the other NATO members in the 2008 NATO Bucharest meeting to promising them membership. This realised the fears of the Russian Federation and when Georgia attempted to make good on this promise by first attempting to clamp down on the breakaway state of South Ossetia this precipitated a massive counter-attack by Russia. This was Moscow signalling to Washington and to regional actors not to make good on NATO's ill-judged promises at Bucharest.

This is more or less what is happening in the current crisis in Ukraine especially after one has noted the semi-autonomous Donbas province which is more aligned to Russia than the rest of Ukraine.

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    "Ukraine and Georgia is seen as a strategic buffer states against the EU-NATO by the Russian Federation in a way that the other states from ex-Soviet Union are not." -- If that's so, I wonder why. Latvia isn't that much farther away from Moscow than Ukraine, and the Baltics are also quite close to St. Petersburg.
    – ilkkachu
    Jan 23 at 17:11
  • So, if I understand correctly, this means that 2004 basically marked the closing of a "historical window of opportunity" for any ex-Soviet state to join NATO?
    – Alexei
    Jan 23 at 19:10
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    @ikkachu The Baltic states were independent before the second world war and annexed forcefully by Stalin during. The local non-Russian (and non-Slavic) nations are strongly opposed to Russian supremacy and were quick to request independence after 1990. There are much stronger ties between Russia and Ukraine, especially easter Ukraine. Many Ukrainians speak Russian and do not speak Ukrainian. Even many politicians of Ukraine maintained strong ties with Russia. Remember Maidan and Yanukovich. Jan 23 at 23:16
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At that time, NATO was engaged in some other conflicts, like Afghanistan and Iraq. Thus, restarting the Cold War with Russia was not a good idea at that time. Also, since Ukraine was more divided at that time, the whole eastern part could have split away, not just Crimea.

The problem is not just direct border with NATO, but rather the length of this border and, more importantly, the Ukrainian border being much closer to Moscow than the Baltic one. Theoretically, by placing missiles in Ukraine, NATO could destroy Moscow without getting a response, because of the very short flight time.

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    Welcome to Politics! Can you show that engagements in Afghanistan and Iraq were a consideration regarding Ukraine joining NATO? Are you sure that was a consideration? After all it was US President Bush who in 2008 supported Ukraine joining NATO. As for the border, it seems both Ukraine and Latvia are about 500 kilometers from Moscow. And the nuclear argument doesn't make a lot of sense either because of second strike capabilities and the Russian nukes in Kalingrad.
    – JJJ
    Jan 23 at 22:50
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    No what I meaned, Ukraine joining NATO is like declaring a new Cold War to Russia. A conflict with rusia could make some problems specialy regarding NATO engagement in Afghanistan. At the very begining Russia even suport NATO engagement in Afghanistan, but a conflict would defenetly put an end to this suport.
    – convert
    Jan 23 at 23:19
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    For Russia, the new cold war has been ongoing for many years. Turn on some Russian TV or read some Russian newspapers. It is full of anti NATO and anti US propaganda and full of military propaganda in general. Jan 23 at 23:24
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    I doubt nuclear bricksmanship is the concern here. Second strike doesn't rely on Moscow being intact, Siberia is huge, Subs are hard to track. And the West probably doesn't need nuclear weapons at this point to fight a war with Russia.
    – Yakk
    Jan 24 at 14:31
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    @Phillipp I think the comments may be used to request or suggest improvements an answer or to argue that points directly mentioned in the answer are not valid. Therefore mentioning that the distance from Estonia is not actually that different from the distance from Ukraine or perhaps that other very important military centers are much closer to Estonia were very much on topic. That is directly disproving the argumentation if the second paragraph of the answer. Jan 25 at 16:08

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