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Could Ukraine Someday Join NATO?

Su-27. Image Credit: Creative Commons.
Su-27. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

In September 2021, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky visited Washington, and I wrote a piece in 19FortyFive assessing Ukraine’s NATO aspirations. At the time, I concluded that Kyiv was unlikely to join the alliance, given the disparity in Russia’s strategic prioritization of Ukraine compared to the West’s. The argument was that Putin sees Ukraine as a core strategic interest and is obsessed with returning Ukraine to Russia. On the other hand, the West showed little commitment to Kyiv, and its response to Russia’s 2014 aggression in Crimea and the Donbas made clear that it would not use military force to defend Ukraine. For an alliance based on Article V, accepting a member already engaged in hostilities with Russia that the allies likely wouldn’t defend would undermine NATO’s collective defense.

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But things have changed in just over a year. Only a month after that article’s publication, the U.S. government began to declassify intelligence indicating that Russia was planning a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, aimed at taking most of the country and installing a Kremlin-friendly leader in Kyiv. On Feb. 24, Russian President Vladimir Putin launched a three-front invasion that ultimately proved disastrous for the Russian military. In ten months, Russia has suffered an estimated 100,000 casualties, with Ukrainian defenders rebuffing Russia’s attempt to take Kyiv, routing Russian forces in Kharkiv, and forcing the Kremlin to abandon Kherson, the only regional capital Russia had successfully occupied. Most observers, including in the United States and most evidently Putin himself, had underestimated Ukraine’s military capability and willingness to fight, as well as the West’s resolve to support Ukraine’s defense. 

Zelensky’s December 2022 visit to Washington is an opportunity to revisit Ukraine’s NATO aspirations. Though NATO membership is not the top priority for Ukraine or the alliance as the war rages on, the question may become relevant in negotiations to end the war. The unsatisfying conclusion is that while Ukraine has proven that it deserves to be a NATO ally, alliance politics are likely to forestall Kyiv’s accession. 

Flawed Assessments

Much of the West’s hesitation toward Ukraine’s NATO aspirations was based on assessments of the Ukrainian and Russian militaries that have proven incorrect. Many analysts believed that despite significant post-2014 Western training efforts, Ukraine’s military stood little chance against Russia’s larger and better-equipped forces and would collapse within days. With concerns of burden-sharing already creating rifts in the alliance, there was little appetite for adding a new member who was perceived to add little security capability while significantly increasing the risk of war with Russia.  

Ukraine’s performance in the war to this point has drastically altered these perceptions. Ukrainian forces have proven far more effective than their Russian opponents, demonstrating the ability to conduct effective combined arms maneuvers. Ukraine’s military is now the world’s most experienced force in modern large-scale combat operations against a conventional opponent. Though NATO allies will study the war closely, they will not be able to replicate the intimate knowledge Ukrainian forces now hold. In addition, with massive flows of modern Western armaments into Ukraine, the materiel gap dividing it from more modern Western militaries has narrowed considerably. Ukraine’s accession to NATO would likely improve the alliance’s military capability and security.

Assessments of Russia’s military capability have also been proven wrong in ways that make Ukraine’s NATO accession more plausible. Before the war, Russia was widely considered the world’s second-most formidable military, behind only the United States. Conventional thinking assumed that Russia’s post-2008 military reforms after its failures in the Russo-Georgia War had resulted in a more professional force with modernized equipment. This improvement was supposedly evidenced by Russia’s success in taking Crimea and its 2015 intervention in Syria. 

What analysts largely overlooked, however, were profound levels of corruption in the Russian military that siphoned off vast percentages of the intended investment in the force. Russia’s soldiers have proved to be poorly trained, equipped, and employed. While successful, Russia’s operations in Crimea and Syria were limited in scope and were not good indicators of how Russian forces would fare when employed in large-scale conventional operations, especially given Putin’s remarkably flawed assumptions about Ukraine’s willingness to fight. 

The war has been proven disastrous for Russian forces, with heavy casualties in some of its most formidable units, and massive materiel losses. For example, it is estimated that Russia has lost at least 1,500 tanks, 700 armored fighting vehicles, and 1,700 infantry fighting vehicles, and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin has stated that Russia is running low on munitions. In all, it will likely already take Russia’s military at least a decade to reconstitute its conventional capabilities, and heavy Western sanctions may prolong this timeline significantly.

Predicting how the war may end at this point is difficult, but Ukraine’s NATO aspirations could play a role in future negotiations. It is possible that Ukraine will see little prospect of joining the alliance and will formally declare its neutrality. But if Russia continues to lose badly, it is also possible that Ukraine will receive another guarantee from NATO that it will become a member. Kyiv might even receive a more specific timeline than what the alliance offered at the 2008 Bucharest Summit. NATO may see an opportunity between the war’s end and the Russian military’s rebuilding to grant Ukraine a Membership Action Plan and welcome it into the alliance while Moscow is weak and has less ability to push back. Some allies may argue that welcoming Ukraine into the alliance, and granting the country Article V guarantees, is the best way to reduce the likelihood of future Russian aggression.

Allied Resolve – Glass Half Full or Glass Half Empty?

An analysis of how open the allies will be to this argument depends on one’s reading of the West’s response to the war. Over the first ten months, the resolve of the United States and Europe to withstand high costs to support Ukraine has been remarkable. The West, led by the United States, has pumped billions of dollars of military and other assistance to Kyiv, with Europe bearing the heaviest economic repercussions. Though there has been some concern that Western unity may fracture given inflation and the financial pressures of winter, Western governments appear poised to continue supporting Kyiv in the coming months. 

Some observers may interpret this commitment as a fundamental change in the West’s prioritization of Ukraine. This response stands in stark contrast to the West’s tepid reaction to the annexation of Crimea, which drew minimal military aid and belated sanctions. The West has been much more committed to Ukraine’s defense than Putin – and even many in the West – predicted.

Below the surface, though, there are signs that the alliance would hesitate to offer Ukraine formal membership. In the lead-up to the invasion, U.S. President Joe Biden was unequivocal in stating the United States would not send troops to fight in Ukraine, so as not to cause World War III. Throughout the war, the West’s primary concern has been escalation, a concern reflected in limits on the weapons it is willing to give Ukraine. 

Even when the war ends with Russia’s conventional ground forces badly degraded, these escalation concerns are unlikely to disappear. Some allies may point to Russian military capabilities that remain intact – most notably its nuclear arsenal, navy, and suite of asymmetric capabilities – as reasons to continue to tread lightly in areas sensitive to the Kremlin. Given the desire to avoid war with Russia over Ukraine at seemingly any cost, it is far from clear that all allies would be willing to grant Ukraine Article V protections against future Russian aggression. 

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Ultimately, the most significant factor in Ukraine’s NATO aspirations will not be Ukraine’s military capability or whether it deserves to join, but alliance politics. NATO expansion has been a double-edged sword. While it has significantly increased the alliance’s capability and improved deterrence, it has also resulted in an alliance that is at times unwieldy. It must corral all 30 members (potentially soon to be 32) to achieve unanimity. Take Sweden and Finland’s NATO accession, which has been held up by Hungary and Turkey, despite both Nordic nations already being well integrated into the alliance, militarily capable, and at much less acute risk from Russia compared to Ukraine. It is easy to imagine how much more contentious an intra-alliance debate over Ukraine’s accession would be. It might be impossible to reach unanimity. 

Ukraine has proved its combat capability and will only become more formidable as it integrates advanced Western weaponry. Its sacrifices will make some allies more open to its eventual accession. But the war gives little evidence that all NATO allies will be willing to prioritize Article 5 protections for Ukraine over escalation risks with Russia. Though much changed in the time between Zelensky’s visits to Washington, his country’s hopes for NATO membership have probably not changed as much as they should have. 

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Charles McEnany is a National Security Analyst at a non-profit in Northern Virginia. He holds a Master’s in Security Policy Studies from George Washington University.

Written By

Charles McEnany is a National Security Analyst at a non-profit in Northern Virginia. He holds a Master’s in Security Policy Studies from George Washington University.