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At its summit in Vilnius in July 2023, NATO reaffirmed the commitment made in 2008 that Ukraine “will become a member” of the Alliance.

The question of Ukraine’s membership was a major talking point in the lead up to the summit, with Ukraine’s President Zelenskyy calling on NATO to provide a clear timeframe and security guarantees ahead of membership.

NATO said it will extend an invitation “when Allies agree and conditions are met”. NATO has waived the need for a Membership Action Plan for Ukraine. This process has been used in the past to help countries prepare for membership.

This paper explains NATO’s current position on Ukraine’s membership and what Ukraine wants. It also explains the requirements for countries wanting to join the Alliance.

What did NATO say in 2008?

In 2008, at its summit in Bucharest, NATO welcomed Ukraine, and Georgia’s, aspirations for membership, and agreed that they “will become members of NATO”. 

What does Ukraine want?

Ukraine has long aspired to membership of NATO. In 2019 the constitution was amended to include the goal of “fully-fledged membership” of NATO.

 In September 2022 President Zelenskyy said he had formally requested an “accelerated accession” to join NATO. He is also calling for concrete security guarantees from NATO allies until it can join the Alliance.

What happened at the NATO summit?

In the Summit Communiqué, NATO leaders said that “Ukraine’s future is in NATO” but that the alliance would be “in a position to extend an invitation to Ukraine to join the Alliance when Allies agree and conditions are met”.

NATO also said it recognised that Ukraine’s path to membership has moved beyond the need for a Membership Action Plan, noting that Ukraine has become “increasingly interoperable and politically integrated with the Alliance.”

NATO also established a NATO-Ukraine Council, a joint body to provide for joint consultations, decision-making and activities. 

NATO allies also agreed at the summit a “substantial package of expanded political and practical support” to bring Ukraine closer to NATO. Long-term security guarantees were offered outside of the NATO framework by the G7 member states on the sidelines of the summit. Commons Library paper Security guarantees to Ukraine (CBP 9837) discusses this in more detail.

What is the UK’s position?

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, addressing the House of Commons after the summit, said NATO “took a big step in Vilnius towards bringing Ukraine into the alliance”, shortening Ukraine’s path to membership by removing the need for a membership action plan. Sir Keir Starmer, the Leader of the Opposition, endorsed the Government’s position, saying “the question is not if Ukraine joins NATO, but when Ukraine joins NATO.”

How do countries join NATO?

NATO has an “open door” policy and any European country is eligible to join NATO.

The only requirement for any applicant is that they are in a position to further the principles of the founding 1949 Washington Treaty and to contribute to the security of the North Atlantic area.

Of particular relevance to Ukraine’s aspirations for membership is the need to settle territorial disputes.

Countries interested in joining the Alliance are usually invited to join the Membership Action Plan (MAP) process. This is not obligatory, and neither Finland nor Sweden used the MAP process for their recent applications to NATO

This paper discusses the views of NATO members ahead of the Vilnius summit and requirements for membership. 

Commons Library paper How do countries join NATO? (CBP 9813) explains the accession process in more detail.

Further analysis of the situation in Ukraine can be found on the Library’s Conflict in Ukraine webpage.

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