It's a problem for NATO. But in an alternative universe, the problem would be very different. That's because Ukraine would already be a NATO member, with its 2008 application to join the military alliance winning acceptance.
Ukraine's NATO application is worth revisiting, and not just to ponder theoretical "what if" scenarios. The application and the events that followed reveal a number of factors that are relevant to Ukraine's ongoing crisis.
Ukraine has had a partnership with NATO since the 1990s, sending troops to work with the alliance in Iraq and Afghanistan, but the nature of the partnership remained loose. President Viktor Yushchenko hoped to change that. He had been swept to power during the 2004-2005 Orange Revolution, protests that were prompted by reports of electoral fraud. Yushchenko promised the protesters a future that did away with Ukraine's corrupt, Kremlin-dominated past. Much like Georgia, another former Soviet state seeking to shake off Russian influence, Ukraine saw NATO membership as one route to independence and sought membership in 2008.
President George W. Bush was a supporter of Yushchenko's plan. "Your country has made a bold decision," he said during a visit to Ukraine in April, "and the United States strongly supports your request." Both Sens. Barack Obama and John McCain, who were candidates in the upcoming presidential election, announced their support.
Russia, however, was openly hostile to Ukrainian membership in NATO. The Kremlin opposed any eastward expansion of the alliance, and Russian President Vladimir Putin warned that NATO membership would force Russia to treat Ukraine as an enemy. "It is horrible to say and even horrible to think that, in response to the deployment of [NATO missile facilities] in Ukrainian territory, which cannot theoretically be ruled out, Russia could target its missile systems at Ukraine," Putin when Yushchenko visited the Kremlin in February 2008. "Imagine this just for a second."
Russia's opposition caused consternation among some NATO members. "We are opposed to the entry of Georgia and Ukraine because we think that it is not a good answer to the balance of power within Europe and between Europe and Russia," French Prime Minister François Fillon reportedly said in a radio interview. That consternation proved vital.
During NATO's 2008 summit in Bucharest, Romania, the issue was discussed and, after opposition from France and Germany, a decision was made to offer neither Ukraine nor Georgia a NATO Membership Action Plan (MAP) — essentially a path for Ukraine to receive membership — at that moment. Vague promises of NATO membership in the future were made, but the United States later appeared to drop its support for NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia. Russia's brief war with Georgia in August 2008 helped underscore the decision's importance, but NATO and Ukraine held further talks in December. Again, however, no specific MAP was announced.
Yushchenko seemed despondent after the Bucharest summit. "I am sure that the ball is not on the Ukrainian side of the field, Ukraine has done everything it had to do," the Ukrainian president told the Times of London in November 2008. "We are devoted to this pace. Everything else is an issue of political will of those allies who represent NATO."
Ukraine's hopes of joining NATO finally ended in 2010, when Yushchenko lost the presidential election to Viktor Yanukovych, the man he had helped oust during the Orange Revolution and the man forced out by protests earlier this year. Yanukovych announced that he didn't see a need for further integration with NATO: Speaking in May 2010, he explained that it was a "unrealistic prospect" for Ukraine. In June, Ukraine's parliament passed a bill that confirmed the country's nonaligned status and effectively canceled any prospect of joining NATO. Yanukovych began to pursue a more Kremlin-friendly foreign policy.
It's tempting to put Ukraine's failure to join NATO down to Russian subterfuge and European feebleness, but there's another important factor here — Ukrainian public opinion. Multiple polls conducted around that time showed that Ukrainians viewed NATO with suspicion: One Gallup poll from May 2008 found that 43 percent of Ukrainian adults viewed the alliance as a "threat." Yushchenko had avoided calls for a referendum on the issue, and when Bush visited in 2008, he was greeted by angry crowds carrying signs that said things such as "Yankee Go Home." NATO considers public support a key factor for membership. More recent polls have suggested that there is growing support for NATO membership, but to what extent is not entirely clear.
It's hard not to look back, however, and see Yushchenko's NATO dreams and their failure as a key point in Ukraine's recent history. "We don't want to return back to the Russian security system," Oleksandr Chalyi, a foreign policy adviser to Yushchenko, told The Post in 2008. If NATO rebuffs Ukraine, he added, it would mean that "the last page of the Cold War is not turned."