The halfhearted gesture reflected division within the West at the time. On one side, you had the administration of President George W. Bush, deeply unpopular abroad after the ruinous war in Iraq and eking out its final year in office, which sought to offer the two countries a formal NATO “Membership Action Plan.” On the other, a clutch of Western European governments, led by Germany and its chancellor, Angela Merkel, believed that neither Georgia nor Ukraine were politically ready to enter the alliance and looked askance at initiatives that may “poke the bear” of the Kremlin.
Their disagreement yielded an outcome that satisfied few. Depending on who you listen to, the summit in Bucharest made Georgia and Ukraine targets for Russian invasion either because it provoked Russian President Vladimir Putin into taking action against the threat of NATO on his border or because it precisely failed to clearly extend NATO’s collective security protections to these states. Just a few months later, Russian forces seized the Georgian regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, installing puppet regimes that few outside Moscow recognize to this day. In 2014, after protests brought down a pro-Moscow government in Kyiv, Ukraine, Russia illegally annexed Crimea and backed a separatist insurgency in Ukraine’s southeast.
Fifteen years ago, Putin was present in Bucharest, on NATO’s invitation, and is said to have privately told Bush then that he didn’t see Ukraine as a “real nation-state.” In a speech he delivered to the NATO crowd, he described membership in the alliance for Georgia and Ukraine as a “direct threat” to Russia. He also spoke of Ukraine as a Soviet invention and cast doubt on its sovereignty, suggesting a major chunk of its population were simply “Russians” and that Crimea itself was almost exclusively Russian.
Outliers Turkey, Hungary threaten NATO unity in standoff with Russia
Putin reprised such rhetoric last year before launching his nation’s invasion of Ukraine. Now, as NATO leaders convene this week in Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital, Ukrainian officials are demanding Western counterparts remember the legacy of Bucharest.
“‘The doors are open,’ they told us, but they didn’t show us where to find these doors, how to get in,” Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov told my colleagues, referring to the summit 15 years ago.
“Do not repeat the mistake Chancellor Merkel made in Bucharest in 2008 when she fiercely opposed any progress towards Ukraine’s NATO membership,” Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba told German newspaper Bild, saying that it “opened the door” for Putin to carry out his neo-imperialistic aggression. “The only way to shut the door for Russian aggression against Europe … is to take Ukraine in NATO,” he concluded.
Kyiv may not expect immediate NATO membership or all the protections the alliance affords — given that it’s locked in a state of war with Russia — but it does expect an invitation into the alliance and significant security guarantees from the West in the years to come. Last week, President Volodymyr Zelensky called on President Biden to invite Ukraine into the alliance “now.” His hopes are shared by many of NATO’s Eastern European member states and a significant proportion of Washington’s own foreign policy community.
Ukraine wants and expects an invitation to join NATO. Allies are not sure.
Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky said on Sept. 30 that his country formally submitted an “accelerated” application to join the NATO alliance. (Video: Volodymyr Zelensky)
But, in an inversion of the politics of 2008, the United States is now the nation moving more cautiously. During an interview with CNN’s Fareed Zakaria, Biden said Ukraine was “not ready” to enter the alliance, gesturing to the ongoing war as well as other political conditions, including concerns over corruption, that need to be resolved before entry. “We have to lay out a rational path for Ukraine to be able to qualify to get into NATO,” he said.
U.S. officials insist this tempered approach is important for the unity of the alliance and hardly reflects a lack of commitment to Ukraine. Biden “has been clear that we are going to support Ukraine for as long as it takes and provide them an exceptional quantity of arms and capabilities — both from ourselves and facilitating those from allies and partners — but that we are not seeking to start World War III,” Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security adviser, told reporters Friday. “That is the course that we’ve been on since the start of this conflict.”
The leaders gathering in Vilnius will be convening after months of complex, delicate wrangling. “They will seek agreement through two parallel quests,” the Economist explained. “One is to reach a linguistic compromise signaling that Ukraine is moving closer to NATO membership — without promises of quick accession. The second concerns a lattice of enduring bilateral and multilateral security commitments to bolster pledges to support Ukraine ‘for as long as it takes.’”
Analysts in favor of NATO fast-tracking Ukraine’s accession argue that the lesson of 2008 is that the West can no longer be afraid of “poking the bear,” as Putin’s aggression unfurled in the absence of a NATO membership process.
“Since the very creation of NATO, strategists, as prominent as George Kennan, have been worried about provoking Moscow with our alliances in Europe,” wrote Michael McFaul, a former U.S. ambassador to Russia. “Kennan opposed the creation of NATO. But strikingly, from the very beginning of the alliance until today, Kremlin leaders — from Stalin to Putin — have never attacked NATO members. And NATO, of course, has never attacked the Soviet Union and will never attack Russia. War in Europe has only come to where NATO is not.”
That’s a reality that has dawned on some of the principal actors at Bucharest in 2008. In a joint op-ed published last month, Stephen Hadley, Bush’s national security adviser, and Christoph Heusgen, then Merkel’s top foreign policy and national security adviser, acknowledged their differences 15 years ago. But they now see eye-to-eye on the need for Ukrainian membership in NATO after the war ends.
“Prior to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2014, we had some sympathy for the idea that Ukraine could be a bridge between Russia and the West,” Hadley and Heusgen wrote. But, they added, “Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2014 destroyed that idea, especially for Ukrainians. With its aggression, Russia brought about the very things that it later saw as compromising its security interests. It put NATO enlargement back on the agenda.”