Home / Articles / Off the MAP: Ukraine and the Problems of Expanding NATO
The North Atlantic Council’s decision at the 2023 Vilnius summit to exempt Ukraine from obtaining a Membership Action Plan (MAP), the formal institutional mechanism used by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to guide chosen applicants toward membership, is a turning point for the alliance’s expansion in the post-Cold War era.
NATO has now undercut its own established procedure to ensure that candidates have met the alliance’s standards for membership.
This could have serious repercussions for Ukraine, other potential members, and Euro-Atlantic security. By removing the MAP for Ukraine but not other countries in the membership queue, NATO exposes itself to accusations of double standards, while drawing closer to direct war with Russia.
To join NATO, prospective members typically must follow a MAP, or membership action plan. The MAP has been NATO’s standard bureaucratic procedure to convert applicants into members for over two decades. After Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic joined NATO in 1999, this plan was created to streamline the process. The idea was based on the feeling that the initial set of candidates had been promised membership before the military and political reforms outlined in the alliance’s own 1995 “Study on NATO Enlargement” had been finished. The MAP acronym was intentional, as explained a former U.S. National Security Council official. Candidates were told “if you follow the map, you will get there.”
Nearly all countries that have joined NATO in the twenty-first century have first finished a MAP, beginning with the so-called big-bang expansion in 2004 which involved seven countries, including the three Baltic states. The Balkans region was the focus of subsequent expansion rounds in 2009, 2017, and 2020, all of which included nations that had MAPs. At the moment, the one exception to the rule is Finland, which joined in April 2023. It was not necessary for Helsinki to obtain a MAP because it was already a member of the EU, which has more stringent political, economic, and legislative admission requirements than NATO. Another reason Finland did not need a MAP was that it already has a capable military that is interoperable with NATO in most respects. This partly explains why all countries that have joined both organizations since the end of the Cold have joined NATO first.
After the Vilnius summit, it now seems Sweden and Ukraine will both follow Finland’s example. Sweden’s case is obviously more straightforward. Like Finland, it is an EU member. So, unlike Ukraine, nobody questions Sweden’s place within the West’s premier security institutions. While NATO has waived MAP for Ukraine, it has signaled that membership cannot happen until the war is over. It will be difficult to implement further political and security sector reforms, as the summit’s communique specifies, while there is active fighting. While understandable from the alliance’s perspective, this, unfortunately, creates an incentivize for Russia to keep fighting. Bosnia & Herzegovina was granted a MAP in 2010, and is the only prospective NATO member to have one.
At the April 2008 Bucharest summit, NATO declared that Ukraine and Georgia would join the alliance at an undefined time in the future. However, MAPs were not granted due to a lack of consensus on the issue. This outcome denied the two countries a clear path to membership. In the intervening years, the allies, led by the United States and the major European powers, have provided Ukraine and Georgia with advice, funding, arms, and training while forgoing MAPs.
The MAP triggers the Annual National Program, a yearly progress report the allies use to evaluate whether a candidate has implemented reforms in accordance with NATO standards. NATO responded to Russia’s invasion of Georgia in August 2008 by permitting both Ukraine and Georgia to develop Annual National Programs, which was unprecedented. The Bush administration pushed for the move, which circumvented the normal applicant membership procedure via a MAP by enabling direct consultation with the two countries about their progress toward membership. This was a stealthy way of integrating Ukraine and Georgia into the alliance outside of the conventional MAP process.
The December 2008 decision to give Annual National Programs exemplified the sorts of “consolation prizes” NATO would award to both Ukraine and Georgia over the next fifteen years. Earlier, NATO and Georgia established a special bilateral commission with Georgia less than two weeks after the end of the August war. Likewise, Ukraine had been given its own joint consultative body, created in July 1997 under a so-called distinctive partnership agreement with the alliance. That move followed the announcement that NATO and Russia decided to form a “permanent joint council,” which was later rebranded as the “NATO-Russia Council.” Ultimately, these were hollow structures which failed to give Russia a meaningful voice in European security affairs. In a tragic turn of events, NATO’s decision at Vilnius to “elevate” the relationship with Ukraine by changing the status of the joint institution from a “commission” to a “council” leaves Russia and Ukraine as the only two countries to share such a structure with NATO.
NATO’s practice of giving consolation prizes continued after Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March 2014. In the years that followed, both Ukraine and Georgia were given special defense capacity-building packages, integrated into Western procurement networks and offered expanded opportunities for military education, training, and exercises. From NATO’s perspective, the goal was to modernize the two countries’ militaries and enhance “interoperability” with allied forces. Membership was effectively off the table since the allies could not agree on offering MAPs. As a result, the moves were small gifts meant to compensate for NATO’s refusal to give Ukraine and Georgia what they truly desired–a MAP, which was seen as the key to unlocking the membership door.
Waiving the MAP requirement for Ukraine complicates Georgia’s situation. Like Ukraine, Georgia was promised NATO membership at Bucharest in 2008 but was denied a MAP. The current Georgian Dream-led government continues to formally support NATO membership, despite recent rhetoric and actions that could imply otherwise. In March, the Georgian government withdrew legislation purportedly fashioned after Russia’s “foreign agents” law, amid intense opposition. In May, the prime minister attributed Russia’s invasion to the prospect of NATO expanding to Ukraine. Given the country’s fragmented territorial condition and geographic location, one way to look at the current government is that it is employing a more pragmatic, restrained approach to foreign policy than its predecessor.
NATO’s decision to waive a MAP for Ukraine could have been interpreted, hypothetically, by a more assertive pro-West Georgian government as a green light to try again to reclaim lost territories. In light of the Vilnius decision, a future Georgian government might therefore anticipate NATO to remove the MAP requirement if it were at war with Russia over Abkhazia and South Ossetia. NATO would risk being accused of applying double standards if it refused. This would play directly into the narrative that Russian officials from Putin on down have been promoting for years, which holds that the West demands the rest of the world to play by a set of rules that it does not follow. On the other hand, NATO has consistently made clear that membership decisions are made on a case-by-case basis.
With the admission that Ukraine has “moved beyond” the need for a MAP, NATO has publicly acknowledged what has been known in private for many years–namely, that MAP was an obsolete concept in the Ukraine case. Even in the absence of it, NATO has repeatedly stated for years that Ukraine already had all the necessary tools to prepare itself for membership, including an Annual National Program. By refusing to issue a MAP for fifteen years, the allies had been able to put off incorporating the country into the alliance. After Vilnius, NATO has now moved Ukraine one step closer to membership by removing the MAP roadblock. This sends conflicting messages to other potential allies, particularly Georgia. Moreover, the move could draw NATO closer into a direct conflict with Russia.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.