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Would Russia Go to War to Stop Ukraine from Joining NATO?

A French Leclerc battle tank fires its main gun during Exercise Furious Hawk in Ādaži, Latvia. The French tanks are deployed to NATO’s enhanced Forward Presence Battlegroup in Estonia.

In his recent visit to Ukraine in late October, U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said that “no third country has a veto over NATO’s membership decisions.” His comment came as a response to a journalist’s question about Russia’s opposition to Ukraine joining NATO.

“Ukraine has a right to decide its own future foreign policy, and we expect that they will be able to do that without any outside interference,” Secretary Austin continued.

This is not only the opinion of the United States. At the June 2021 NATO summit, the allies reiterated their decision that “Ukraine will become a member of the Alliance with the Membership Action Plan (MAP) as an integral part of the process.” MAP is the guiding document for any country’s NATO accession.

The Ukrainian people also seem to be in favor of such a move, with 64% expressing their approval in a recent survey conducted by the Ukrainian Institute for the Future (UIF).

Yet, if Ukraine joins NATO, Europe will become more insecure, the Alliance will be weakened, and the Ukrainian people will suffer.

A Brief Pause

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, NATO quickly expanded to include Central and Eastern European countries that had formerly been part of the Warsaw Pact or of the Soviet Union itself.

Russia objected. “This is the first sign of what could happen when NATO comes right up to the Russian Federation’s border. The flame of war could burst out across the whole of Europe,” Russian President Boris Yeltsin said during the NATO bombings of Bosnia.

Warnings also came from America. In an interview in 1998, in response to the U.S. Senate approving a further round of NATO expansion, the brilliant George Kennan expressed his belief that “the Russians will gradually react quite adversely and it will affect their policies.”

“I think it is a tragic mistake. There was no reason for this whatsoever. No one was threatening anyone else,” Kennan added.

However, Russia was too weakened to do anything but object. That changed in 2008.

One Too Many

Since coming to power following 2003’s Rose Revolution, Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili aspired for Georgia to join NATO as part of its effort to veer towards the West and away from Russia.

Russia strongly expressed its opposition to its former partner being allowed to join the Alliance.

NATO’s expansion to Russia’s borders “would be taken in Russia as a direct threat to the security of our country” Russian President Vladimir Putin warned at the time. He simultaneously offered an olive branch and appealed to the West to consider Russia’s security concerns.

Putin’s comments came immediately after April 2008’s NATO summit in which President George W. Bush pushed for Ukraine and Georgia to be allowed to begin the accession process. They went unheeded.

In August the Russo-Georgian war broke out resulting in Georgia losing control of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. A few years later, a very similar scenario would unfold.

Georgia Version 2.0

In 2014, the Maidan protests in Ukraine led to the overthrow of Ukraine’s pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych.

Fearing that Ukraine would shift westward after Yanukovych, Russia did not risk losing the strategically important Crimean Peninsula with its port of Sevastopol, home to Russia’s Black Sea fleet. With the dust of the Maidan still in the air, Russia engineered the annexation of Crimea.

Further, with the backing of Russia, anti-government protests in Ukraine’s southeastern region of the Donbass soon escalated to open conflict. Eight years later, the region is controlled by the Russian-backed separatists and Russia has frequently amassed large troop formations on its border with the Donbass.

The situation in Ukraine looks similar to that in Georgia, as does Russia’s reaction.

Following Secretary Austin’s comments about Ukraine’s potential NATO membership, Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Andrei Rudenko said that “this would be an extremely dangerous step that would force Russia to react accordingly.”

Given past experience, Russian pronouncements should be taken at face value — but they are not.

It’s About Understanding

American foreign policy tends to disregard or belittle the interests of its adversaries — even if they are made explicit — as manifestations of an era of international relations in which realpolitik reigned supreme.

Instead, through the liberal international order, the U.S. champions free trade, democratic institutions, open societies, and condemns force between nations.

Russia is a clientelistic plutocracy centered around the president. Its elections are dubious and its institutions aim at sustaining Putin’s rule. That is not to say that the Russian president is unpopular: His approval ratings, even as reported by independent sources, would be the envy of any Western leader. Nevertheless, the liberal order is still perceived by the Russian government as a mortal threat to the country’s political and economic status quo.

The path to NATO membership requires a candidate country to undertake political, legal. and economic reforms bringing it closer to Western systems. Russia fears that if its neighbors adopt the liberal order, its own political system will be undermined. Through that prism, it considers Color Revolutions, such as the ones in Georgia in 2013 and Ukraine in 2004, as Western hybrid attempts at social and political engineering. The 2014 Maidan protests were likewise seen by Russia as orchestrated by the West. This notion was given credence by the vocal support of the U.S. government to the protesters.

A Need for Space

Ukraine, like Georgia, borders Russia and was a constituent republic of the Soviet Union.

It is mostly a flat open space. Coupled with Belarus, it used to provide Russia with a wide buffer zone to its west. Ukraine joining NATO could mean U.S. troops and missile installations right on Russia’s border. Preventing that is a vital Russian interest.

On the flip side, Ukrainian accession to NATO will not offer any added security benefits to the U.S. and its European allies. Should Ukraine join NATO, a Russian attack against it would trigger the Alliance’s Article 5. Failure to invoke Article 5 in such an event, would be NATO’s end. But even if NATO were to invoke Article 5, the Alliance’s record is mixed and never tested against a superpower.

However, Putin will not wait for Ukraine to join NATO and cross his “red line.” If accession processes progress he will attack preemptively. At that point, Ukraine will not be covered by NATO’s defense umbrella. It is doubtful that Western nations will rush to the defense of a non-allied country that is not linked to their vital interests. This will leave Ukraine exposed.

Secretary Austin is correct: Ukraine does have a right to decide its own future foreign policy. But to pretend that it can do so in a geostrategic vacuum is foolish and will only lead to suffering.

For the sake of everyone involved and especially the Ukrainian people, Ukraine should not be allowed to proceed with its NATO aspirations.

Constantine Atlamazoglou works on transatlantic and European security. He holds a master’s degree on security studies and European affairs from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.

Constantine Atlamazoglou works on transatlantic and European security. He holds a master's degree on security studies and European affairs from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.



  1. Frank Blangeard

    November 8, 2021 at 11:10 am

    The article claims that the United States “condemns force between nations”. I could not continue reading after seeing that brazen lie.

  2. Donald Link

    November 8, 2021 at 11:13 am

    The author is looking at the question through the wrong end of the tube. First; it should be acknowledged that the fall of Russian communism was handled rather poorly by the West/NATO. There was little real attempt to integrate Russia with Europe. Second; Russia itself did not move forward under Yeltsin the way it should have. Consequently, there was a vacuum to be filled and, as is often the case, it was filled by those on both sides with less than principled and competent people. The present situation is probably best handled in a manner similar to the relationship of NATO and Sweden. Membership was not necessary but it was understood that Soviet aggression would generate a strong response. Finally, the present situation with Ukraine and Russia is untenable for both sides as a permanent arrangement. Neither country is, nor will be, satisfied with it in the future. In the normal diplomatic sphere, a negotiated way forward would probably be sought. Because of the leadership in both countries, and NATO Europe, that is not an immediate prospect.

  3. Clifra Jones

    November 8, 2021 at 3:43 pm

    Ukraine joining NATO is the dumbest of the 1000’s of dumb ideas put forward by our dumb and dumber western leaders. The Obama administration orchestrated the over-through of the elected government or Ukraine just because it was apposed to this dumb idea!

    Let me ask you this? Would you support Mexico joining a military alliance with Russia or China!? No one in this country would support that! Would we be willing to go to war over it? Probably yes, we almost went to war over the same situation in Cuba!

    Russia is not the elephant in the room when it comes to world powers, that is China! If we keep pushing the Russians (Because the American Left wants to take the focus off China, and well Trump!) the Russians will move closer and closer to China. Is that what we want?

  4. David Chang

    November 8, 2021 at 8:45 pm

    Trump said that the general secretary of Socialism Party is the king.

    After disbanding from the Soviet Union, Russia do not abide by Ten commandments and promote idol worship. The idol worship is like Hitler, Marx, Lenin, and Mao Zedong.

    Democratic Party is doing the same thing, violate Ten commandments.

    Therefore, Putin, Biden, and the western countries of E.U. will bring war to the people.

    God bless us.

  5. Matthew Jacobs

    November 8, 2021 at 9:48 pm

    I don’t think NATO will ask Ukraine to join after Biden Put Russia in charge of supplying Europe with Natural Gas…So Putin has those Countries by the short hairs and I’m sure the phone lines are burning up with calls from Russia saying don’t do it or else

  6. MoreEuropeanFreebieDefense

    November 8, 2021 at 11:35 pm

    Until the European members of NATO meet their minimum defense spending commitment – which they haven’t for decades – the answer on NATO expansion should not only be “no”, but “hades no”.

    It’s time the U.S. stop subsidizing rich Europe’s military defense. Bring the U.S. troops home. Let Europe take on its own defense and pay for it.

  7. Frank M

    November 9, 2021 at 1:32 am

    Our country flat out lied to the Russians when we told them NATO would not expand towards them. I’m a Cold War vet & hate Communists, but Russia is no longer Communist & NATO, per the great Kennan,is only antagonizing a great power. Putin has been more than clear, taking the same position we would in our sphere of interest. We continue to ignore that at our peril, while pushing Russia closer to the Communists left that are most certainly an existential threat to us. As with all things in life we should ask, who stands to benefit from this course? Eisenhower warned us about them.

  8. Yura Timoshenko

    November 9, 2021 at 3:16 pm

    Exactly! And also, when Warsaw pact was difssolved, NATO should have been dissolved in the same logic, but no, it only gotten stronger, even though where was no other direct threat. There seems to be another raison d’etre than the official one…

  9. Michael Fox

    February 8, 2022 at 5:59 am

    Firstly, the article is strongly biased on Russian interests. The author (with a supposed Greek first name and a Turkish last name – that can’t be found anywhere) is making a “fair” effort to stop the war and salvage some pain for everyone involved.

    But Russia is just a regional power and that says something about US strategists. Russia is a scapegoat for keeping both Russia and Europe busy at bay. Only 2 major questions at hand. What is Europe’s issue with Russia? What is Russia’s issue with Europe? Answer! None really!

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