Let Ukraine In

A former U.S. ambassador to NATO makes the case that the alliance should welcome Kyiv.

The Ukrainian flag with the NATO insignia impressed on it
Getty; The Atlantic

After suffering embarrassing defeats in the past couple of months, Vladimir Putin is doubling down on his war. He is rearming, resupplying, and repositioning Russian forces for a major new onslaught in eastern Ukraine. Even if his troops are finally able to dislodge Ukraine’s, however, that’s unlikely to be enough to satisfy him. He may agree to a cease-fire or a negotiation to give his military time to regroup. But as long as Putin is in power, Russia will continue to do whatever it can to reverse the post–Cold War settlement that has animated Putin ever since the Soviet Union collapsed.

At the same time, the United States and its NATO allies are speeding up delivery of heavier weapons to help Ukraine withstand the coming Russian onslaught, if not actually win the war. There is a larger question that both sides, particularly the West, will need to address soon, though: What happens to Ukraine once the fighting slows or the war stops?

The answer is straightforward: For Ukraine to be truly free and independent, it will have to be a member of the European Union and NATO. Although Moscow will no doubt object, Putin’s brutal aggression makes clear that only European countries that are members of NATO can be truly secure. And NATO should welcome Ukraine into the fold.

Ironically, Moscow’s unprovoked aggression is proof that its long-standing complaint about NATO moving too close to its borders was little more than a convenient excuse for its revisionist aims. The alliance posed no threat to Russia, and prior to the war, President Joe Biden and other NATO leaders made clear that they would not come to Ukraine’s defense. Had Ukraine been a member, however—alongside the Baltic states and all non-Soviet members of the Warsaw Pact—Russia would have been unlikely to invade for fear of a wider military confrontation that it would surely have lost. Far from NATO being the proximate cause of war, NATO’s absence enabled Putin to act.

Since February 24, when Putin invaded, many European nations have undergone a wholesale reevaluation of their security needs. Germany now understands that dialogue and trade are no substitute for deterrence and defense when it comes to dealing with an autocratic country like Russia. Finland and Sweden are on the verge of joining NATO, something few experts had thought possible before the invasion, given their centuries of neutrality and independence. Others are increasing defense spending, dispatching weapons to Ukraine, and bolstering the forward military presence in NATO’s eastern flank.

This transformation in thinking about European security and the threat Russia poses should also guide the Western approach to the future of Ukraine. Already, the EU has moved swiftly. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen traveled to Kyiv on April 8 and assured President Volodymyr Zelensky that the first major step for Ukraine’s accession would take “a matter of weeks,” rather than the usual years. Although Ukraine’s application still faces many hurdles, considerable momentum has built to bring the country into the EU as swiftly as possible.

As part of its membership in the bloc, Ukraine will receive a security guarantee from other EU members: The Treaty of the European Union includes a mutual-defense clause of the type that Ukraine has demanded as part of any peace negotiation or cessation of hostilities with Russia. Although this is important, there are two problems with relying on this alone to ensure Ukraine’s long-term security against Russian aggression. First, even if fast-tracked, EU accession will likely take many months, if not a year or two. Second, although the EU’s security guarantee is significant, it doesn’t bind the U.S., Europe’s ultimate protector, to Ukrainian defense.

Fortunately, both of these shortcomings can be overcome with NATO membership. Joining the alliance itself is straightforward, requiring the unanimous agreement of NATO’s 30 member states and their ratification of NATO’s governing treaty, including its Article 5 collective-defense provision. And because the U.S. is a leading member, bringing Ukraine into NATO also extends America’s security guarantee to its territory.

We have been here before. In 2008, Ukraine sought an invitation to apply for NATO’s Membership Action Plan (MAP), which prepares aspirant nations for membership in the alliance. Sharp disagreement among allies blocked a decision, leading to the vague commitment that Ukraine (and Georgia) “will become members of NATO.” Until now, key allies such as Germany and France have rejected inviting Ukraine to join NATO, for fear of provoking Russia. Now that Moscow has demonstrated that it need not be provoked to commit aggression, NATO must reverse course and bring Ukraine into the alliance as soon as possible.

There are, of course, numerous obstacles, practical and otherwise, to bringing Ukraine into NATO. Zelensky has suggested that he would be willing to forgo NATO membership, but only, his advisers have said, if Kyiv received legally binding security guarantees that were even “stronger than NATO’s.” Zelensky’s stance represents his understandable disillusion with the alliance, which has failed not only to deliver on membership but to come to Ukraine’s defense even when it has been subject to an unprovoked attack. That is why an initiative, led by the U.S. and other major military allies such as Britain, France, and Germany, to offer Ukraine swift entry into NATO would reassure Kyiv that the alliance’s security guarantee is serious and real.

Putin would undoubtedly object to Ukraine’s NATO membership and threaten “political and military consequences,” as Russia has in the case of Finland’s and Sweden’s prospective accession to the alliance. But he has already invaded Ukraine and committed grievous atrocities against its population. He could escalate further, using chemical or nuclear weapons, but that would risk widening the conflict. Ultimately, there is not much that Russia can do to prevent Ukraine from entering NATO.

Perhaps the biggest practical obstacle is that part of Ukraine’s territory is likely to be contested, if not, as in the case of Crimea, under foreign occupation for the foreseeable future. Indeed, if the current aggression settles into the kind of back-and-forth fighting that has characterized the conflict in the Donbas for the past eight years, NATO would be inviting into its ranks a country actively at war. That would be unprecedented, but it need not be impossible. Kyiv and its new NATO allies could agree that Ukraine would continue to bear the brunt of fighting in the east, and that NATO countries would continue to supply it with the weapons and intelligence it needed to defend itself. They could also agree that NATO would not directly intervene in the conflict unless Russia again threatened Kyiv or the viability of the Ukrainian state. Similar arrangements could be made with respect to any occupied territory in Ukraine.

Strong advocacy and careful diplomacy will be necessary to bring this about. The U.S. will be key to both. So far, the Biden administration has done a terrific job of building a powerful, united coalition of Western states to weaken and isolate Russia, and assist Ukraine militarily and financially. Washington has led this effort from the start. It now needs to do the same to unite NATO members behind the idea of inviting Ukraine to join.

Fortunately, many of the top people in the administration, including the president himself, are likely to look favorably on the effort. Biden has a strong record of supporting both NATO’s enlargement and Ukraine’s development as a democracy free of corruption. The war and its brutality have affected the president to his core, and he will see the value of deterring Putin from ever again invading Ukraine. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan share the president’s perspective and predilections on this score. Although Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s views on Ukraine’s potential NATO membership are less certain, he has shown a determination to support the commander in chief. Others within the administration, including Victoria Nuland, the No. 4 at the State Department, who as the U.S. ambassador to NATO in 2008 pushed forcefully to give Ukraine a MAP, could no doubt use their considerable skills to advance that cause.

A strong U.S. commitment to support Ukrainian membership in NATO is vital to persuade other members to follow suit. Because the key to success will be Germany and France, early, high-level engagement with Berlin and Paris will be important. Their opposition in 2008 doomed progress on Ukrainian membership, and without their consent a new effort will go nowhere. Both countries, however, are strong advocates for bringing Ukraine into the EU. NATO membership would represent a small additional step and would bring the U.S. in as a guarantor as well.

Putin invaded Ukraine ostensibly because NATO was moving too close to Russia’s borders and threatened its security. That argument never held any water. But even if it did, the invasion of Ukraine has brought NATO still closer to Russia’s borders. The alliance is set to permanently station large numbers of troops on its eastern frontier. Finland, which shares an 830-mile border with Russia, will join NATO, as will Sweden. And Ukraine, which prior to the invasion faced the longest odds of ever joining NATO, might well enter the alliance after all.

Few modern leaders have miscalculated as badly as the Russian president has. Ukraine’s acceptance into NATO would represent the final defeat of his failed strategy.