‘We deeply doubt it will help’ Kremlin warns that Ukraine joining NATO would exacerbate Donbas conflict
Following Ukraine reiterating its desire to take the next step toward joining NATO this week, the Kremlin has warned that this would only exacerbate the conflict in Donbas. Nevertheless, on Wednesday, April 7, Lithuania announced that it will call on its NATO allies to support a Membership Action Plan for Ukraine. This comes amid a growing escalation of the conflict in Donbas, and rising concerns as Russia amasses troops near Ukraine’s border. Though Ukraine doesn’t meet NATO’s membership standards as of yet, the United States has expressed its support for Kyiv’s ongoing efforts to carry out the necessary reforms.
Against the backdrop of escalating tensions in Donbas, Ukraine has reiterated its desire to join NATO. On April 5 and 6, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky held talks with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, as well as British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Zelensky asked Johnson and Trudeau to increase international pressure on Russia and support a NATO Membership Action Plan (MAP) for Ukraine. In conversation with Stoltenberg, Zelensky said that “NATO is the only way to end the war in Donbas. Ukraine's MAP will be a real signal for Russia.” On April 7, Lithuania announced that it will invite NATO allies to offer Ukraine a MAP.
The Kremlin has warned that Ukraine’s admission to NATO would exacerbate the crisis in Donbas. “We deeply doubt that it will somehow help Ukraine to deal with its internal problem. From our point of view, it will only exacerbate the situation further because people’s opinions cannot be overlooked in any way when you talk about joining NATO. And if you ask opinions of several million people in the self-proclaimed republics, you will understand that such a membership in NATO is deeply unacceptable for these people,” said Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov.
In turn, the U.S. said that it welcomes new NATO members, but they must meet the standards of the alliance. “We continue to urge the Government of Ukraine to implement the deep, comprehensive, and timely reforms necessary,” said the State Department’s spokesman Ned Price. Asked if the U.S. plans to accelerate the process of Ukraine’s NATO accession against the backdrop of Russia’s military build-up along the border with Ukraine, Price simply reiterated Washington’s support for Ukraine’s ongoing reforms. White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said that while the U.S. supports Kyiv’s NATO aspirations, the decision on Ukraine joining the alliance is for NATO to make.
As of yet, Ukraine doesn’t meet the necessary standards for joining NATO. According to experts, this is due in particular to Ukraine’s high-levels of corruption and lack of transparency in the defense sector, on top of its unresolved territorial disputes. According to the alliance’s “Study on NATO Enlargement” (which guides its decisions on accepting new member states), countries seeking to join NATO have to settle such disputes by peaceful means. The document also says that “there is no fixed or rigid list of criteria” for inviting new members to join NATO, and that these decisions are made on an individual basis.
Ukraine first announced its goal of eventual NATO membership under President Leonid Kuchma in 2002. However, during Viktor Yanukovych’s presidency in 2010, the country adopted non-aligned status, which meant not participating in any military-political alliances. Following Yanukovych’s ouster in 2014, and Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Ukraine resumed its course towards joining NATO. In 2019, the Ukrainian parliament voted in favor of having Ukraine’s “irreversible course toward European and Euro-Atlantic integration” stipulated in the country’s constitution. The Ukrainian authorities now expect to join NATO by 2030.
A growing escalation of the conflict in eastern Ukraine began in late March. Analysts from the Conflict Intelligence Team (CIT) called the recent concentration of Russian troops near the Russian-Ukrainian border the largest one seen since the war’s “hot phase” in 2014–2015. Kyiv also confirmed the build-up of Russian troops near its borders, saying that Moscow is “flexing its muscles.” The United States has asked Russia to explain the “provocations” on Ukraine’s border. Meanwhile, American President Joe Biden had a phone conversation with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, marking the first time the two have spoken since Biden took office. The Kremlin insists that Russia is moving troops within its own territory, and that “this shouldn’t cause concern to anyone” and that it “doesn’t pose a threat.”
Translated by Eilish Hart