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The High Stakes of NATO’s Vilnius Summit

When NATO leaders gather in Lithuania in July, they will return to a question that has haunted the alliance ever since its ill-fated Bucharest summit in 2008. While articulating a process for Ukrainian accession is not the most urgent matter, doing so has become unavoidable.

STOCKHOLM – With NATO’s mid-July summit in Vilnius fast approaching, the question on everyone’s mind is how to avoid another debacle concerning Ukraine’s prospective membership in the alliance. When NATO leaders addressed the same issue in Bucharest 15 years ago, they failed to reach a credible agreement about how to address Ukraine and Georgia’s aspirations for membership. We have all been living with the consequences.

In the run-up to the 2008 summit, Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko and Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili persuaded US President George W. Bush that NATO membership was the best option for their countries. Bush, in turn, promised that he would deliver a NATO decision in Bucharest. It didn’t end well. French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel were hostile to the idea, arguing that Ukraine and Georgia were not ready for membership, and that one should not risk alienating Russia.

The first point was undoubtedly valid with respect to Ukraine, not least because large segments of Ukrainian society firmly opposed to NATO membership. It had been only a decade since NATO bombs fell on Belgrade, so the question of joining the alliance was still highly divisive. Had membership been put to a referendum, it is unclear what Ukrainian voters would have decided.