Kiev’s prospects for joining NATO were never very good, and they have become even poorer amid the current security crisis between NATO and Russia, former MI6 chief Sir John Sawers has said.
“The prospect of Ukraine joining NATO has never been very strong, and after this crisis is probably even less strong than it was before,” Sawers said, speaking at a virtual event hosted by the Atlantic Council, a DC-based think tank.
“There was no prospect of Ukraine actually joining NATO. We would be incorporating into NATO a preexisting conflict between Russia and Ukraine, and NATO would never have done that,” Sawers added, speaking in a separate interview with the BBC.
The former spy suggested that Kiev could instead opt for “some form of neutral status between Russia and NATO,” like Austria did after World War II.
Sawers believes that getting to a pro-neutrality policy would be difficult for Kiev, and claims that Russia might try to “meddle” in its neighbour’s affairs. “I think more likely we’ll find [Vladimir] Putin going ahead with continued meddling inside Ukraine,” he said.
Sawers is the latest former Western official to mention a neutrality status for Kiev as a means for defusing the Russia-NATO security crisis. Last month, retired US Army Lt. Gen. Dell Dailey called on Washington to take on a strategy of “equilibrium,” rather than the traditional “containment,” toward Russia, and urged for NATO to keep Ukraine and Georgia out of the bloc.
On Thursday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky called for a referendum on possible NATO membership to be held before adding it as a priority to the country’s constitution. Zelensky also called on Germany and France to “do more” to bring Ukraine closer to joining the alliance.
On Wednesday, Moscow called on Kiev to proclaim “neutral, non-bloc status” if NATO refuses to publicly reject the country’s membership bid.
Ukraine’s Back and Forth on Relations With NATO
The idea of a bloc-neutral Ukraine is not new, and constituted the de facto foreign policy of Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma from the mid-1990s to the mid-2000s. Kuchma’s “multivector” strategy, ostensibly designed to balance eastern and western interests, was supported by Russian Presidents Boris Yeltsin and Vladimir Putin. This balance was upset with the victory of the Orange Revolution, a Western-backed soft coup in Kiev, which brought pro-NATO and pro-EU president Viktor Yushchenko to power in 2005. Yushchenko lost the 2010 election, and was succeeded by Viktor Yanukovych, a centrist who, like Kuchma, sought a non-bloc status for Ukraine. Yanukovych was overthrown in a second Western-backed colour revolution in 2014 after attempting to back out of an EU association agreement in favour of the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union.
The US and its allies have spent decades and billions of dollars seeking to pull Ukraine into the West’s orbit. In 2014, then-Obama-era assistant secretary of state Victoria Nuland (who now serves as undersecretary of state in the Biden administration) openly bragged about how the US had spent $5 billion to “promote democracy” in Ukraine since 1991 and the Soviet collapse.
It remains unclear whether Ukraine even could join the Western bloc under existing membership rules, which state that nations “which have ethnic disputes or external territorial disputes, including irredentist claims, or internal jurisdictional disputes must settle those disputes by peaceful means.” Eastern Ukraine remains bogged down in years-long civil conflict between the Kiev government and separatist forces refusing to accept the outcome of the 2014 coup. Kiev also continues to lay claim to Crimea – the Black Sea peninsula which held a referendum in March 2014 to break off from Ukraine and rejoin Russia.
Russia has expressed grave concerns regarding the prospects of Ukraine’s membership in NATO, calling on the West to halt the bloc’s continued push east, and recalling Washington’s broken promises from 1990 not to expand the alliance beyond the eastern borders of a reunified Germany after the end of the Cold War.