To protect Europe, let Ukraine join NATO – right now. No country is better at stopping Russia
- Posted by: CDS
- Categories: CDS in foreign media, News, War Impact
Andriy Zagorodnyuk, Chairman of the Center for Defense Strategies
In July, the heads of NATO’s 31 countries will convene in Vilnius, Lithuania, for a summit—their fourth one since Russia invaded Ukraine. Like each of the last three, the proceedings will be dominated by how to address the conflict. The countries’ leaders will consider what Kyiv needs to keep fighting and what their states can offer. They will welcome Finland, which joined in April, prompted by the invasion. They will discuss Sweden’s pending application. They have invited Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, so they will discuss Ukraine’s bid as well. If past is prologue, they will affirm that Kyiv is on track to join the organization.
“All NATO allies have agreed that Ukraine will become a member,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said in April. “Ukraine’s future is in NATO.”
Ukrainians, however, have heard that many times before. For the better part of the last two decades, Kyiv has sought NATO membership. And for the better part of the last two decades, NATO has left it twisting in the wind. In 2008, the alliance promised to eventually let Ukraine in, but it has never seriously considered Kyiv’s application. Instead, it first concluded that admitting the country was not worth the damage to Western-Russian relations. Then, after the Kremlin annexed Crimea in 2014, NATO decided that Ukraine’s membership would demand too much of the alliance and for too little in return.
But that was before Russia launched its full-scale invasion. In the 15 months since, everything has changed. The West’s ties with Russia have rapidly unraveled. NATO states began pumping Ukraine full of military aid. Kyiv has used this assistance to halt Russia’s attacks and push the country back. It has forced the Kremlin to burn through ammunition and gear at an astounding rate, degrading Russia’s overall strength. In doing so, Ukraine proved that it is not a drain on NATO but, in fact, an incredible asset. NATO exists to help protect Europe, and since Moscow’s invasion began, no other state has done more to keep Europe safe.
And yet there is still no real movement toward letting the country join the organization. European governments may have stopped worrying about maintaining good relations with Moscow, but they are worried about widening the war into their countries, and they view NATO admission as a surefire way to escalate. The organization’s treaty, after all, declares that an attack on one member must be treated as an attack on all. And Russian President Vladimir Putin has made it clear that the organization is his archnemesis. They fear that he might widen the war if Ukraine is brought in.
These fears, however, are completely misguided. Contrary to a popular misconception, NATO’s treaty does not require that members send troops to defend a NATO state that has been attacked. And the idea that Putin would meaningfully escalate because Ukraine joined the alliance reflects a misunderstanding of recent history. European states spent years ignoring Ukraine’s NATO application precisely to avoid antagonizing Moscow—and to precisely zero effect.
It is time, then, to let Ukraine join—not sooner or later, but now. By entering the alliance, the country will secure its future as part of the West, and it can be sure the United States and Europe will continue to help it fight against Moscow. Europe, too, will reap security benefits by allowing Ukraine to join the alliance. It is now apparent that the continent is not ready to defend itself and that its politicians have largely overestimated its security. Indeed, Europe will never be secure from Russia until it can militarily stop Moscow’s attacks. And no state is more qualified to do so than Ukraine.
With its massive support for Ukraine during the past 15 months, the alliance has in essence already paid all the costs of admitting Ukraine. By allowing the country to join now, NATO could begin reaping the benefits. Ukraine is the continent’s best hope for reestablishing peace and the rule of law across NATO’s eastern flanks. It should be welcomed and embraced.
FROM UNTHINKABLE TO INDISPENSIBLE
Ukraine did not always want to be part of NATO. When the country gained independence in 1991, it actively eschewed military alliances. The state’s constitution formally declared that it would be neutral, and the Ukrainian government then did not aim to build a large standing army. The Ukrainian government even disbanded its nuclear arsenal, inherited from the Soviet Union. In exchange, Kyiv signed a one-page agreement with London, Moscow, and Washington in which the signatories all promised to respect Ukraine’s sovereignty.
It was quickly clear that Moscow’s promise was meaningless. Russia began conducting covert and hybrid operations in Ukraine in the years just following the turn of the millennium. It escalated its activities, which included bribery and spreading misinformation, over the course of the aughts. As a result, the country approached NATO in 2008 and asked if it could join. In the 2008 Bucharest Declaration, the alliance gave a tentative yes. But the pathway it offered was deliberately vague. There was no timetable or deadline for Ukrainian ascension, just a promise that it would happen someday.
This hesitance came courtesy of Putin, who attended the Bucharest conference and lobbied NATO to reject Kyiv’s bid. It was a time when the West and Russia were forging deep economic ties and the former was trying to woo the latter. By integrating with Russia, many European states believed that—in addition to growing their own economies—they could temper Moscow’s worst behavior. Even in 2010, NATO categorized Russia as a close partner and hoped it could collaborate with the Kremlin. These hopes continued even after Moscow annexed Crimea in 2014 and started a war in Ukraine’s east. So did Ukraine’s long wait. Russia’s actions made it apparent that Ukrainian neutrality would not maintain peace in Europe—Ukraine was nonaligned at the time Moscow attacked—but the annexation still only made Washington and western European countries less likely to admit Kyiv. Now, they feared, accepting Ukraine would not only upset Moscow but also pull NATO into a conflict.
Ukraine has demonstrated that its military is no charity case.
The West’s calculations shifted, however, the moment Russian forces began marching toward Kyiv in February 2022. The Kremlin’s full-scale invasion made it abundantly clear that Russia was not a status quo power with which Europe could trade, and that economic relationships would not stop Moscow from violating international law. NATO, once hesitant to give Ukraine weapons that it could use for self-defense, began offering it sophisticated offensive systems. Today, NATO states have armed Kyiv with top-line tanks, short-range rockets, and long-range missiles. Ukraine even seems poised to receive Western-made fighter jets.
In exchange, Ukraine has demonstrated that its military is no charity case. In the process of routing Russian forces, it has created hundreds of thousands of highly trained soldiers. The military has also given its commanders and civilian staffers deep knowledge of how to defeat Russian forces. The country has a massive industrial base that, despite Moscow’s best efforts, remains intact. It is no exaggeration to say that, given their experience and land warfare capabilities, the Ukrainian armed forces might be the best in all of Europe.
For NATO, then, Ukraine should be an extremely attractive member for a whole host of reasons—especially given that the organization’s security architecture has so many recognized and unrecognized flaws. Consider, for example, its defense industry. Despite years of mounting Russian aggression, European states allowed their military supplies and manufacturers to atrophy after the Cold War. As a result, when the war in Ukraine broke out, most of them discovered that their weapons and ammunition stockpiles had fallen to dangerously low levels. Some states, including Germany and the United Kingdom, said that they only have a few days’ worth of supplies. Their military contractors are also reluctant to hire personnel, and so they struggle to ramp up production. As a result, these states may need Ukrainian manufacturers to help replenish their stocks.
NATO clearly needs a bigger and better-equipped force.
They could also need Ukrainian forces. Most European militaries are designed around having small numbers of highly trained troops that use high-tech, precision-guided equipment to defeat their enemies. But the war in Ukraine has shown that this system is not effective against an adversary such as Russia, which fights by throwing men and munitions at its targets (and which is proficient at destroying high-tech systems). Russia’s Wagner paramilitary company has also pioneered a style of fighting that involves sending hordes of infantry troopers at targets, which limits the effectiveness of large firepower equipment, including aviation and artillery. Ukraine has had to deploy large numbers of troops to hold off this onslaught, and the rate at which both Russia and Ukraine have burned through ammunition and weapons has far surpassed initial estimates. NATO clearly needs a bigger and better-equipped force if it wants to make sure it won’t be the victim of future Russian aggression. Ukraine’s large and talented military must be a part of it.
Ukraine has another advantage that, to NATO, is invaluable: it is physically close to Russia. Under the organization’s current strategy, frontline states would have to hold out against a Russian attack until western Europe and the United States could arrive and flood the east with their soldiers. It is a risky gambit. As Moscow’s invasion has shown, even Russia’s poorly trained forces can sometimes take large amounts of land in just a few days. If Moscow tried to seize control of territory in Estonia, Latvia, or Lithuania, American troops might not arrive until it is too late. Ukrainian units, by contrast, are nearby. They could make it to the battlefield fast and then do what they’ve done with great success for the last 15 months—stave off Russia.
Talk of Kyiv helping other countries fight against Moscow might seem wildly premature, given that Ukraine is currently tied up fighting Russia at home. It is true that, right now, Kyiv does not have many troops to spare. But neither does Moscow. If Russia attacks elsewhere in Europe, it will likely come once the war in Ukraine has reached a lull, when both states have soldiers on standby.
NO GOOD REASON
Western leaders are aware that the Ukrainian military is very powerful. “Ukraine forces have formidable capability and courage, as we have seen throughout,” U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin told reporters in April. Stoltenberg told journalists that he “absolutely” believed Kyiv could defeat Moscow, citing “the courage, the skills, and the determination of Ukrainian armed forces.” Even Yevgeny Prigozhin, the murderous leader of Wagner, said that Ukraine is “one of the strongest armies” in the world. Ukrainians, he declared, are “like the Greeks or the Romans at their peaks.”
And yet Western policymakers are still not taking Ukraine’s NATO application seriously. In May, for example, Stoltenberg cautioned that although Ukraine would eventually join, becoming a member “in the midst of a war is not the agenda.” German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius said that although the door for Ukraine has opened, it was just “a crack.” Now, he continued, “is not the time to decide.”
Neither Stoltenberg or Pistorius has said exactly why they are opposed to expediting Ukraine’s application, as the bloc did with Finland. But their reasoning is easy enough to infer. NATO may no longer harbor any delusions about the nature of Russia, and it is no longer underestimating the power of Ukrainians. But NATO members do not want to go to war with Russia. And in their minds, admitting Ukraine to NATO in the midst of this conflict could do exactly that.
Ukraine may as well already be a NATO state.
This fear stems, in part, from NATO’s Article 5 provision, which declares that an armed attack against one of the organization’s members “shall be considered an attack against them all.” Most casual observers believe that means that NATO states are obliged to send troops to defend a member state that’s been attacked. But it does not. What Article 5 stipulates is that each member must take “action as it deems necessary” to help an attacked party—language that gives NATO members a great deal of flexibility. When the United States invoked Article 5 after September 11, for instance, many NATO states did not send troops to fight the Taliban in response.
By this standard, Ukraine may as well already be a NATO state. It receives tens of billions of dollars in help from partner nations in the form of sophisticated armaments. It has been the beneficiary of extensive Western military training. It receives detailed U.S. intelligence. And it has never asked for NATO to deploy troops on the ground. It has no reason to: unlike smaller NATO states, Ukraine has a vast military force that can handle the Russians all by itself.
Some Western analysts still fear that admitting Ukraine to NATO would result in escalation. Putin has repeatedly declared that Russia will never allow Ukraine to join NATO, and so some policymakers fear that admitting Kyiv might provoke Putin to widen the conflict. But this is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of Putin’s motivations. The Kremlin’s ultimate concern has never been that Ukraine will join NATO, despite what Putin may say in public. It is, instead, that Ukraine is resisting Putin’s colonial aspirations. And Russia has already escalated in response to that fear—by invading Ukraine. The West’s repeated assurances that Ukraine would not join NATO did nothing to stop him.
Ukraine should join NATO right away. But unfortunately, it will almost certainly have to wait. It takes a unanimous vote to add a country to the alliance, and there are still far too many governments that remain opposed to the country’s ascension.
But in Vilnius, NATO should at least move beyond vague promises about Ukraine’s future and get down to the specifics of helping Kyiv join the organization. It is time for Western states to stand firm against bullies and stop giving Russia (or any other outside state) a voice in the security architecture of an organization that considers it an adversary. Instead, now is the time for NATO to start strengthening itself, and bringing in Ukraine is essential to accomplishing this task. No state, after all, knows more about how to fight back against the Kremlin. In fact, no country has more current experience fighting large-scale wars anywhere. Ukraine’s only peer is Russia itself.
And fundamentally, the West needs to accept that the threat from Russia is not going away. Russia’s imperial ambitions extend beyond just Ukraine. They go deeper than just Putin. Russia’s entire top leadership is steeped in hatred toward the West and oriented around recreating an empire. It will menace eastern Europe even if Kyiv attains a complete victory, and even if Putin is kicked out of office.
To hold off Russia, the democratic world needs an integrated military to stop and deter the Kremlin’s aggression. NATO can be that force. But in order to do so, it needs to stop seeing Ukraine as a harassed neighbor that is trying to enter its safe house. It needs to instead recognize Ukraine for what it is: the world’s best enforcer and a state that can do much to ensure Europe’s safety. NATO, then, needs to admit Ukraine.
Source: Foreign affairs