Ukraine’s President Promises a Referendum on NATO

Wikimedia Commons

Wikimedia Commons

Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko announced his plans on February 2 to hold a referendum on NATO membership, the German newspaper Berliner Morgenpost reports. As violence in Eastern Ukraine escalates and the new U.S. administration questions its commitments to existing NATO allies, the outcome of such a referendum will have significant consequences for Ukraine’s security.

Ten Western European nations, the U.S., and Canada founded NATO in 1949 in order to deter Soviet aggression in Europe. According to Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, “an armed attack against one or more [member states]…shall be considered an attack against them all”, and “if such an armed attack occurs, each [member state]…will assist the Party or Parties so attacked”. In practice, the agreement warned the Soviet Union that the United States would respond to any attack on its Western European allies.

The collective defense principle is still NATO’s most impactful provision. Though Article 5 has only been invoked once—on behalf of the United States after of 9/11—it still applies to all member states. Were Ukraine to join, all other NATO allies, including the United States, would theoretically be compelled to respond militarily to the Russian annexation of Crimea and invasion of Donetsk and Luhansk.

As the Moscow Times reported, President Poroshenko claimed that 54% of the Ukrainian population supported joining the alliance--up from just 16% four years ago. He said that he would do “everything in [his] power” to facilitate the process were the referendum to pass. Ukraine has had a relationship with NATO since 1994; since 1997, the NATO-Ukraine Commission has met to discuss common security issues, and Ukraine signed the NATO Membership Action plan, a step towards full accession, in 2008. The recent increase in public support is likely a direct response to the ongoing conflict in the eastern provinces.

The U.S., which provides the majority of NATO funding, has an unclear position on both the alliance and the conflict in Ukraine. U.S. President Donald Trump has previously called NATO “obsolete”, but recently pledged support on the condition that allies make larger financial and military contributions. His Secretaries of State and Defense have made statements in support of the alliance. Politico reports that in a readout of a call with President Poroshenko, President Trump stated that the U.S. “will work with Ukraine, Russia, and all other parties involved to help them restore peace along the border.” According to the New York Times, Trump has expressed uncertainty about the perpetrators of recent violence in Avdiivka, an Eastern Ukrainian city, and has pushed for a better U.S.-Russia relationship.

It remains to be seen whether questionable U.S. credibility and escalating conflict with Russia will affect the results of the vote. No date has been proposed for the referendum, and it is possible that both facts on the ground and diplomatic agreements will change before the government can set one. Though the NATO question will be put to the public, the possibility of collective defense for Ukraine is still far from answered.