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Ukraine still has much to do to meet the criteria for NATO membership. MAPs are intended to serve as guides for prospective members to fulfill those criteria. Objectively, Ukraine is as far along as countries that received MAPs in 1999.

What has blocked Ukraine's MAP ambition is Russia and the deference that some NATO members give to Moscow's views. Another reason for the alliance's reluctance to grant a MAP is that MAPs do not convey an Article 5 security guarantee. (Article 5, the heart of the NATO treaty, provides that an attack against one member will be considered as an attack against all.) "NATO lacks a good response to the question: What does the alliance do if an aspirant receives a MAP and then—before it becomes a full member—comes under attack?" former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Steven Pifer wrote for Brookings Institution.

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The Kremlin clearly wants to return Ukraine to Russia's orbit, though its actions over the past five years have had the opposite effect. Russia's illegal annexation of Crimea and its ongoing aggression in Donbas, which has taken more than 13,000 lives, have persuaded Ukraine's political elite and much of its population of the need to anchor Ukraine solidly in European and trans-Atlantic institutions and reduce relations with Moscow.

If the Kremlin cannot return Ukraine to its orbit, Plan B apparently is to break it, according to Pifer. That would explain Russia's hybrid war and economic sanctions against Kyiv as well as continued fueling of the fighting in Donbas. Moscow aims to pressure, distract, and destabilize the Ukrainian government in order to hinder its efforts to adopt a full set of reforms that would spur economic growth; to frustrate Ukraine's ability to implement the provisions of the Ukraine-EU association agreement; and to make Ukraine appear an unattractive partner for the West.

Russia pursues this course despite its professed adherence to the principles of the 1975 Helsinki Final Act. Those principles include "the right to belong or not to belong to international organizations, to be or not to be party to bilateral or multilateral treaties including the right to be or not to be a party to treaties of alliance." Moscow plainly does not want to allow Kyiv the right to choose whether or not to be a party to NATO.

Moscow plainly does not want to allow Kyiv the right to choose whether or not to be a party to NATO.

The Kremlin’s backing away from this (and other principles) of the Helsinki Final Act reflects a conclusion in Moscow that the post-Cold War European security order has evolved in ways that disadvantage Russia's interests. The Russian leadership thus has set out to disrupt that order (Crimea has its antecedents in Transnistria, South Ossetia, and Abkhazia). Russian officials may well have taken note of NATO’s September 1995 study of the how and why of enlargement.

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That study said: "Resolution of [ethnic disputes or external territorial disputes] would be a factor in determining whether to invite a state to join the Alliance." The Kremlin has sought to create territorial disputes in the post-Soviet space, and some NATO members fear that giving Ukraine membership now would confront the alliance with an immediate Article 5 contingency against Russia, the author believes.

According to Pifer, the best idea is that "Ukraine, Russia, and NATO agree that Ukrainian membership in the alliance is a matter of not now, but not never."

That would likely please neither Kyiv nor Moscow, but it could offer a way to kick a difficult can down the road, the author suggests.

"NATO membership for Ukraine is unlikely in the near term. For the foreseeable future, Ukraine should continue to deepen its practical cooperation with the alliance. Much, if not all, of a MAP can be put into Kyiv's annual action plans. Moscow's principal objection appears to be to the name of the plan, not the content. The focus then should be on implementation. Ukraine should seek to prepare itself as much as possible—not just in terms of defense and security reforms, but also in solidifying its embrace of the democratic and market economy values of the alliance. That will put Ukraine in position to take advantage if/when an opportunity emerges and NATO is ready to consider membership," the op-ed concludes.