Why isn’t Ukraine already in NATO? Here’s what it takes to join the 30-country alliance

  • There are 30 countries that are currently part of NATO.
  • Aspiring nations have to meet certain political, economic, and military standards to join.


The North Atlantic Treaty Organization is having a moment in the spotlight as Russia’s ongoing assault on Ukraine pushes key longtime non-member nations to consider joining the alliance.

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Ukraine’s pursuit of NATO membership — a quest intrinsically aligned with Western expansionism — has been cited as a key factor in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to invade the former Soviet territory last week.

Read more: Has ukraine tried to join nato

In the days since Russia launched its attack, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has been vocal about his country’s ongoing desire to secure NATO membership, lamenting Friday that Ukraine is “alone in defending our country.”

“Who is ready to defend us together with us? Honestly, I don’t see any,” Zelensky said, according to CNN. “Who is ready to give Ukraine a guarantee of joining NATO? Honestly, everyone is afraid.”

But as the conflict rapidly escalates, simmering tensions suggest pro-NATO sentiment is spreading to other non-members as well.


Finland and Sweden, two of the most notoriously neutral countries on the continent, participated in an emergency NATO summit last week, signaling a new interest in potentially joining the alliance — a possibility that spurred Putin to threaten retaliatory measures.

What is NATO?

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization is a military alliance created in 1949 to provide collective security against Soviet expansionism and to encourage European political integration in the aftermath of World War II.

NATO serves as a collective security system, wherein its member states agree to mutually defend any attack on a member party — a pledge enshrined in the treaty’s most famous tenet, Article 5.

The alliance contained just 12 countries when it was founded but has more than doubled in size in the decades since. The body now consists of two countries in North America and 28 European countries, including several former Soviet nations.

What does it take to become a member of the alliance?

NATO employs an “open door policy” for aspiring members.


“Any European country in a position to further the principles of the Washington Treaty and contribute to security in the Euro-Atlantic area can become a member of the Alliance at the invitation of the North Atlantic Council,” according to NATO’s website.

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Thus, any European country that independently decides to pursue NATO membership may do so. But nations that wish to join must meet certain political, economic, and military standards.

Watch more: Was Ukraine part of Russia? History of the conflict explained amid escalating fears of Putin invasion

While there is no official checklist for membership, the alliance maintains a list of minimum requirements that aspiring countries should be able to meet:

  • New members must uphold democracy, including tolerating diversity
  • New members must be making progress toward a market economy
  • Their military forces must be under firm civilian control
  • They must be good neighbors and respect sovereignty outside their borders
  • They must be working toward compatibility with NATO forces

Once a country makes its desire to join the alliance known, NATO may invite the country to join the Membership Action Plan, which is a program that helps nations prepare for future membership, though participation does not guarantee membership, according to NATO’s website.

Why isn
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg speaks during a media conference after convening an online NATO leaders summit at NATO headquarters in Brussels, Friday, Feb. 25, Photo/Olivier Matthys

Why isn’t Ukraine a member of NATO already?

Ukraine has expressed a desire to join NATO but has never been formally admitted.


The alliance has, however, designated the former Soviet country as one of its “enhanced opportunity partners,” a title granted to non-member countries that have contributed to NATO-led operations and missions.

In 2008, the country applied to begin a NATO Membership Action Plan and the alliance welcomed Ukraine’s bid, pledging that the country would eventually become a member, though declining to offer a specific timeline.

When former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych was elected in 2010, plans to move forward with NATO membership were scrapped due to Yanukovych’s desire to remain non-aligned. But the leader fled the country in February 2014 amid Russian aggression and national unrest.

Since that time, Ukraine and its leaders have continued to make NATO membership a priority and public support for Ukraine’s inclusion has steadily grown over the years.

But ongoing unrest in parts of Ukraine, even before 2022, worried some NATO members — such as France and Germany, two countries that previously opposed Ukraine’s inclusion — and kept official membership out of Ukraine’s reach, despite the 2008 promise.


“The feeling was, and probably still has been, that Ukraine hadn’t completely taken care of political corruption, that it was still developing its democracy,” Stanley Sloan, an expert in transatlantic relations at Middlebury College and a former international security officer, told McClatchy News. “So there were some formal reasons why the Alliance could say that Ukraine was not ready yet to join the Alliance.”

Politics played a role, as well.

For years, Putin sought assurances that Ukraine would never join the organization, highlighting his concern that the alliance’s eastward expansion represents a direct threat to Russia. As such, some NATO members have remained staunchly against Ukraine’s inclusion because of the real or perceived consequences Russia threatened as a result.

And a new country can be inducted only if the full alliance, which employs consensus decision-making, is in agreement.

Could Finland and Sweden join NATO?

Watch more: What did Ukraines revolution in 2014 achieve?

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Both countries have a history with the alliance as members of its Partnership for Peace program, which allows partners to “build up an individual relationship with NATO, choosing their own priorities for cooperation.”


But since World War II, both Finland and Sweden have remained militarily neutral, a stance that keeps them out of NATO by choice. As recently as Thursday, leaders in both Finland and Sweden reiterated their intent to stay out of the alliance, despite Russia’s attack.

Finland, which shares an 830-mile border with Russia, has long maintained a security policy “designed to withstand times of crisis,” the country’s foreign minister Pekka Haavisto said last week.

But escalating Russian aggression in recent days has already pushed the country closer to NATO membership than ever before. On Tuesday, the country’s political parties will gather to discuss the Russian invasion of Ukraine, as well as the possibility of joining NATO, Politico reported.

That new NATO sentiment is accompanied by a spike in support from the Finnish population. A poll in 2017 found only 19% of Finns supported joining the alliance. But a new survey published Tuesday by a Finnish broadcasting company found 53% of Finns now support joining the alliance, and that percentage jumps to 66% if Finland’s western neighbor, Sweden, were to join as well.

Sweden, meanwhile, has long been a key example of European neutrality, relying on trade with both the West and Russia for decades. But in recent years, Russian aggression close to home has forced Sweden to pad its military capabilities and as a result, public support for NATO inclusion slowly began to creep upwards, according to iNews.


Following an emergency NATO summit on Friday morning, the alliance extended an invitation to both Sweden and Finland to be part of an intensified exchange of information regarding NATO’s strategic communications amid Russia’s assault.

While leaders said the arrangement does not necessarily mean NATO membership is on the horizon, the move was enough to draw Putin’s ire. Russian officials this weekend warned of “serious military-political consequences” from Moscow if Finland or Sweden joined the alliance.

A statement delivered by Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova suggested the countries’ possible interest in entering the alliance was a result of efforts by the US to “drag” the neutral nations into NATO.

But leaders from both countries this week brushed off Russia’s warning, with Finnish Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto saying “we’ve heard this before.” Finish President Sauli Niinisto said Moscow’s comments were not a military threat to Finland, but instead, hint at the sort of “countersteps” Russia would likely take if Finland joined the alliance.

In recent days, top officials from both Sweden and Finland have emphasized the importance of individual choice when it comes to NATO inclusion.


“It is very important that NATO keeps its open-door policy; that Finland keeps the right to apply, and that is our position for Ukraine and Georgia as well,” Haavisto said. “Every country should have that right.”

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