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Could Ukraine Really Join NATO?

NATO Leopard 2 Tank. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

Could Ukraine join NATO?

Henry Kissinger made headlines last week when he raised this possibility at the World Economic Forum in Davos. Appearing by video link, the elder statesman went so far as to call Kyiv’s membership of the alliance an “appropriate outcome” of the war.

It is desperately hard to imagine.

Vladimir Putin ordered the invasion of Ukraine 12 months ago on the pretext that NATO expansion constituted a grave national security threat to the Russian Federation. Assuming that Russian leaders will not budge from this view (nor lose the capacity to menace Ukraine in some form or another), it seems implausible that NATO will want to make Moscow’s nightmares come true when the current war is over. If people in the West want the postwar era to be defined by anything close to a stable peace with Russia, then Ukraine’s membership of NATO can hardly be viewed as a prudent course of action.

Why poke the bear?

After all, NATO is a defensive alliance that exists to keep its members safe. It is worth emphasizing that, for the past year, the organization has performed this function remarkably well. Despite the high-profile (and provocative) endeavors of NATO members to assist Ukraine’s war effort, there have been zero Russian attacks on NATO soil. On the contrary, the alliance continues to serve as a deterrent against Russian aggression and the ultimate guarantor of its members’ safety and survival.

It strains credulity to argue (as some do) that the addition of Ukraine would add to the overall security of the alliance. While Kyiv would obviously breathe a heavy sigh of relief at finally obtaining a meaningful set of security guarantees, this would come at the cost of the other 30 members of the alliance (32 if Sweden and Finland are ever granted accession) being placed in much greater jeopardy of war with Russia, a nuclear-armed state. Such chronic insecurity is not something that NATO members will choose lightly.

For these reasons, Kissinger’s musings ought to be taken with a healthy dose of salt. Membership in NATO is nowhere near the horizon for Ukraine.

But nor is it entirely out of the question.

The most obvious circumstance under which NATO membership would become plausible is if the present war breaks decisively in Kyiv’s favor. Ukraine would have a strong case for triumphant entry into NATO, for example, if its forces manage to expel the Russian invaders from every inch of Ukrainian territory, if Moscow descends into political turmoil and perhaps even undergoes a change in government, or if the Russian economy begins to collapse, plunging the country into an all-consuming crisis. In such scenarios, there might be little to fear from Russia (for the time being) and so a window of opportunity would exist during which Ukraine’s accession could be attempted.

Even if the war ends in a stalemate with Russia, NATO membership for Ukraine could still be feasible. Indeed, NATO expansion might appear logical and even inevitable if the war ends with both Russia and the West coming to realize that, contrary to earlier suppositions, the survival of Ukraine as an independent state is a core security interest of the Western alliance. Few people on either side of the East-West divide believed this to be the case before February 2022, least of all Putin. But now that the West has gone to such lengths to support Ukraine (and has risked a potentially ruinous conflict with Russia by doing so), it might reasonably be concluded that Ukraine matters more to NATO than was previously understood. The question would then become: why not provide Kyiv with a formal security umbrella?

The point here is that all defensive commitments must be credible (believable) and that credibility rests upon a shared understanding of material interests. Ukraine’s admission into NATO was a non-starter so long as nobody believed that the other NATO members would actually follow through on any security commitments made to the country. If the experience of this war reveals that, in fact, NATO members are willing to fight and die for Ukraine—which, to be clear, has not happened yet—then the case for formal membership of the alliance will be made stronger.

To be sure, there is a world of difference between arming Ukraine in its fight against Russia and promising to wage World War III on Ukraine’s behalf. But after this war is over, it is at least conceivable that NATO leaders will be persuaded that formal security guarantees are the best way to prevent another war from recurring. That is, they might conclude that only the threat of mutual destruction will stop Russia from invading Ukraine again. This seductive logic is already evident in the frequent calls for the United States to declare “strategic clarity” over Taiwan.

Right now, of course, it is impossible to envisage what the eventual settlement will look like between Russia, Ukraine, and NATO. Part of the problem is that, even if Russia ends the war in a much stronger bargaining position vis-à-vis Ukraine (and thus in a position to demand concessions from Kyiv), it is all but guaranteed that Moscow will emerge from this conflict as a much-reduced power in comparison to the West. This means that members of the transatlantic alliance will have the most say over a postwar peace settlement that is “regionalized” rather than “localized” to Ukraine. It is all too easy to imagine that NATO expansion could be part of such a big restructuring of the European security architecture.

All analysts can do is try to delineate the universe of possible future scenarios. On balance, it is still far more likely than not that Ukraine will remain outside of NATO once this war has concluded. Indeed, it is probable that Kyiv will fail to garner formal security guarantees from any foreign power for the foreseeable future. Armed neutrality remains the most straightforward path to ensuring Ukrainian security against another Russian invasion.

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But Kissinger has not lost his mind. Ukraine’s membership of NATO might yet be viewed as an “appropriate outcome,” as he put it. It all depends upon the progress of the war, and how violence on the battlefield is converted into political change in Europe and North America. Not much of this can be anticipated with any degree of accuracy today.

Author Expertise and Experience: Peter Harris is an associate professor of political science at Colorado State University, a non-resident fellow at Defense Priorities, and a contributing editor at 19FortyFive.

Written By

Peter Harris is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Colorado State University, where his teaching and research focus on international security, International Relations theory, and US foreign policy.