KYIV, Ukraine — President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine responded to Russia’s claims to have annexed four Ukrainian provinces by announcing Ukraine is applying for membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
“We are taking our decisive step by signing Ukraine’s application for accelerated accession to NATO,” Mr. Zelensky said in a statement posted on the presidential website. He said Ukraine was already cooperating closely with NATO and argued that Ukraine’s army has already helped secure alliance members in Europe against Russian aggression by inflicting battlefield defeats on the Russian army in Ukraine.
“It is in Ukraine that the fate of democracy in the confrontation with tyranny is being decided,” he said. “It is here, with the firmness of our state borders, that we can secure the firmness of the borders of all European states. Mr. Zelensky said Ukraine’s application could be fast-tracked similarly to the applications of Sweden and Finland.
In Brussels, the secretary general of NATO, Jens Stoltenberg, said that Ukraine, like every democracy in Europe, has the right to apply for membership in the alliance, but he cautioned that a decision about accepting a new member is taken by all 30 allied countries by consensus.
NATO’s immediate focus is to continue providing support to Ukraine, so it can “defend itself against the Russian brutal invasion,” Mr. Stoltenberg said.
Ukraine’s desire to join the alliance has long been a source of conflict with Russia, which sees the eastward expansion of NATO as a existential threat. President Vladimir V. Putin has said the expansion of NATO would leave Russia hemmed in with Western missiles on its doorstep, and it appeared to be one of the pretexts for his invasion.
In February, Mr. Zelensky stressed his country’s ambition to be admitted into NATO, an aspiration fixed in Ukraine’s Constitution since 2019. But by March, as war with Russia raged, Mr. Zelensky had backed down, signaling that his country needed to accept that it might never join.
Ukraine’s application to join NATO likely faces big hurdles — which the Ukrainian president appeared to acknowledge, noting that he was aware that admitting a country requires unanimous consent from all of NATO’s 30 members.
“We know it’s possible,” Mr. Zelensky said in his statement, pointing to the recent examples of Finland and Sweden undertaking the accession process. “This is fair,” he added. “This is also fair for Ukraine.”
There is no question that Ukraine would benefit from NATO’s defining credo, which says that “an armed attack” against any member is considered an attack against them all. But, as an alliance predicated on the doctrine of mutual defense, it would be highly unlikely to admit a country ensnared in war.
U.S. officials have said that they will not appease Mr. Putin by quashing Kyiv’s ambition to join the alliance. But Washington and its European allies have also been wary of further antagonizing Russia and risking a wider war, and it remains to be seen how Mr. Putin’s annexation of parts of Ukrainian territory may alter the alliance’s calculus.
France and Germany, among others, have in the past opposed or been skeptical of Ukraine’s inclusion. And analysts say that President Biden, wary of further U.S. military commitments, has also been reluctant to support Ukraine’s membership in the past.
Even if Ukraine could overcome those hurdles, it could face other challenges.
NATO observes an “open-door policy” that says that any European nation that wants to join can do so, if it meets certain requirements. Among them is demonstrating a commitment to democracy, individual liberty and support for the rule of law. While Ukrainian leaders say their country meets that threshold, some American and European officials have argued otherwise.
Experts warned that Ukraine’s NATO membership at the moment seems elusive at best. The process could take at least several months, and even years.
“It will take time,” said Anders Fogh Rasmussen, a former NATO secretary general. “Until it happens, Ukraine needs cast-iron security guarantees from its allies.”
Monika Pronczuk in Brussels contributed reporting.
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