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Could Ukraine Really Join NATO?

NATO Leopard 2 Tank
NATO Leopard 2 Tank

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.



  1. Fabrice SEGURA

    January 26, 2023 at 8:04 am

    Well, there are only two options in fact.
    Either Ukraine is granted admission in NATO, and this is the deterrent for Russia to invade them again

    or, they have to find something else. And that else can only be, since Budapest memorandum is dead, developping their own nukes.

    No agreement with Russia can be considered, given what they’ve done with the previous Budapest memorandum (and all the international treaties in general). At least for some decades even after a regime change

  2. 404NotFound

    January 26, 2023 at 8:26 am

    Yep, ukros joining NATO but after it has endured its version of hiro & nagasaki.

    Hiroshima endured a 5kt hit on the head while nagasaki took a 16kt whack on the jaw.

    After which they joined the shield of the US umbrella.

    The minsk agreement for peace was never implemented. Instead, ukros aided by deep seated shady political shenanigans and expert foreign military operatives forged bloody attrition warfare against donbass inhabitants.

    The result was open all-out war after provocative & loud dogbarking by biden and stoltenberg.

    To end the charade and let ukros have what they wish for, END THE CURRENT WAR via the august 1945 way. The way employed by the USAAF and its amazing high flying high speed b-29s. Hiroshima and nagasaki.

  3. Harmen Breedeveld

    January 26, 2023 at 9:20 am

    Whether or not Ukraine should join NATO is a huge decision, and one which I guess NATO leaders will slowly make in the years to come.

    One big argument in favor of Ukraine joining NATO is the effect it may have on Russia: it may force Russia to accept the end of its imperial dreams. Or to put it otherwise, it could be what the Suez crisis of 1956 meant for the UK: the end of empire.

    Russia sees Ukraine as the core part of a “Greater Russia”. Ukraine was the jewel in Imperial Russia’s and Communist Russia’s empire. Its manpower, natural resources and location strengthen Russia immeasurably.

    So to lose Ukraine definitively would be a huge shock to Russia. A shock commensurate to Britain’s Suez crisis in 1956. France’s losses in Vietnam and Algeria combined. The Dutch losing Indonesia.

    It is the kind of loss that may move a nation to change.

    And Russia needs to change. It needs to somehow move away from its paranoid nationalism, from its traumatic past, from its murderous dreams of empire, from its brutal aggression, from its endless authoritarianism.

    The definitive loss of Ukraine may be a crucial step in the process of doing at least some of that.

    Therefore I think Ukraine joining NATO may be a worthwhile investment in the security and stability of Europe.

  4. Whodunnit

    January 26, 2023 at 10:02 am

    Kissinger initially mused that Kyiv should hand over territory to bring the conflict to an end. Now he thinks that joining NATO is a possibility.
    Maybe he needs to spend more time in his garden.

  5. Jim

    January 26, 2023 at 11:08 am

    Ukraine should be neutral… just like Austria.

    Nato was formed as a defensive alliance.

    It has morphed into an offensive alliance… see Libya, Afghanistan, Yugoslavia, Iraq.

    Russia has a vote… as expressed by this war.

    Frankly, Ukraine is the most corrupt country in Europe, it has banned opposition political parties, disappeared critics of the regime, the largest black market in the world, oppressing religious orders, consolidating TV media into one state controlled channel… no free press.

    And the regime has a murderous ideology… kill Russians which was the ideology of Stephan Bandera, the Kiev leadership celebrates Bandera, as demonstrated by the Ukrainian Rada, their parliament, sending out a Tweet celebrating Bandera on his birthday, January 1st, then deleted it upon complaint from Poland.

    Face it Ukraine war supporters… you bet on the wrong horse… not just the wrong horse… but a sick, neo-Nazi regime.

    Supporters of the Ukraine Project show they are bankrupt morally.

    Ukraine in Nato?

    No, the regime needs to pass into the dust bin of history… and supporters need to look into the mirror.

  6. GhostTomahawk

    January 26, 2023 at 12:28 pm

    NATO should disband. The USSR is gone mission accomplished. If we weren’t breaking our deal with Russia regarding bringing in former eastern bloc nations into NATO, Russia wouldn’t be so bent.

    Time to end these alliances that only stoke global tensions by determining who is friend or foe. These only serve the military industrial complex.

    Let the euro trash defend their own borders.

  7. TheDon

    January 26, 2023 at 1:51 pm

    Zelensky purging government top officials…
    Isnt that what vequipmentoters are for?

    I see another castro.
    Learn from the past.
    Equipment comes with conditions.
    Free elections.


  8. Cheburator

    January 26, 2023 at 6:26 pm

    If Ukraine is winning, then why is Victoria Nulland howling with her pack demanding negotiations? After all, just a few months ago, she stated that there could be no negotiations and the war should go on until the victory of Ukraine?

  9. Sofronie the Monk

    January 26, 2023 at 8:54 pm

    “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.”
    Prigozhin regarding the US elections: “we interfered, we are interfering and we will interfere”. And who supports all the anti-EU, anti-NATO, anti-anything-non-Russian parties all over Europe? Santa Claus, obviously. But yeah, zero attacks.

    “On the contrary, the alliance continues to serve as a deterrent against Russian aggression and the ultimate guarantor of its members’ safety and survival.”
    Hence Putin’s openly declared desperation to roll back NATO borders to 1997 and be given a free into anything East of Germany. We can see how magnanimous he is by tolerating a unified Germany. Who said Vladimir is a bad man?

    Jim, my boy, afraid uncle Yevgeny’s going to send you to defend the Motherland on the front line if you don’t fulfill your message quota?

  10. Harmen Breedeveld

    January 27, 2023 at 2:31 am

    Hi Jim, I see you are deeply critical of Ukraine and western support for Ukraine.

    I have a question for you: why should Ukraine or the west listen to anything Russia says or wants?

    Yes, Russia is violent and brutal and all too willing to launch a brutal war of conquest kill hundreds of thousands of people – both Russians and Ukrainians – to get what it wants.

    But that is the behaviour of a murderous bully. You do not negotiate with murderous bullies, you punch them in the face. With a hammer. Until they stop bring murderous bullies.

    So what is the positive case for Russia? Is there anything good and moral about Russia’s choice to launch a murderous war of conquest and destruction of Ukrainian sovereignty? How can we ever again trust a man like Vladimir Putin and those around him, after all their lies and all their murderous rhetoric about Ulraine and about the so-called glory of a greater Russian empire?

    As for Bandera, undoubtedly he was a hard and brutal man. But he fought in the Russian civil.war, which was overall hard and brutal and murderous. The communists sought to destroy Ukrainian independence then, just as now.

    And only 10 years after Bandera, Stalin murdered millions of Ukrainians through starvation and persecution in the Holomodor.

    Ukrainians have never forgotten that horrific act of genocide from Moscow. It is part of the reason why they utterly distrust anything Moscow says now.

    You never mention the Holomodor and the millions of Ukrainians who died.

    So again the question: after the Holomodor, after Putin’s brutal, murderous invasion, why should Ukraine – or the west for that matter – trust or listen to anything that Putin says when it comes to Ukraine??

  11. Simon Beerstecher

    January 27, 2023 at 6:36 am

    I completely disagree,Kissinger is right.Russia would not have attacked Ukraine had it been part of NATO.Any peace accord must include Ukraine automatically being made a NATO member,period.That is the only garantee that Russia will not be back for more the following year!

  12. Bertram

    January 27, 2023 at 1:07 pm

    NATO is a defensive alliance designed to protect member states from attack, exactly the situation Ukraine has found itself in when it was invaded by an opportunistic Russian dictator looking to establish his imperialist legacy before he dies from cancer. There is a reason Russia didn’t invade the Baltic States, or Poland or Romania. Russia pledged to respect the independence of Ukraine when it divested itself of its nuclear forces, and promptly double crossed them as soon as they no longer had a deterrent. If Ukraine had been a member of NATO already, this war would never have started.

    This aggressive imperialist Russia must be put in its place, and free peoples must have the right to live in peace without facing aggression from second rate dictatorships like Russia.

    It is entirely appropriate that the mistake in keeping Ukraine outside a defensive alliance of free peoples be rectified by first assisting the Ukrainians to destroy and expel all Russian invaders from their 1991 borders by all means necessary, and then grant them membership in NATO to protect the peace going forward.

  13. Dave Nelson

    January 27, 2023 at 3:39 pm

    Article and comments are probably moot. NATO’s position on admission includes:

    “States which have ethnic disputes or external territorial disputes, including irredentist claims, or internal jurisdictional disputes must settle those disputes by peaceful means in accordance with OSCE principles. Resolution of such disputes would be a factor in determining whether to invite a state to join the Alliance.”

  14. Yrral

    January 28, 2023 at 6:35 am

    Ukraine is hot mess,they being carved up like the Thanksgiving Day turkey,they cannot do basis thing for themselves as a nation,and list of people put their delusional hope in them

  15. Kevthepope

    January 28, 2023 at 8:54 am

    The bear poked, and found himself poking a bigger bear. Are you kidding me, we are still on the path to worrying about a country that is nothing more than a nuclear terrorist? Time to poke them hard, support Chechen independence, Buryat independence, and let the Russian people themselves decide if being broke and cast out not because of their lies that it’s a George Soros grand plot (probably a billion would like to shoot that SOB too), but the fact they crossed the final line and were found more than wanting, and at some point, if they want to survive as a country that people want to do business with and trust, they need to change. They are not becoming China, rather, North Korea.

  16. ATM

    January 28, 2023 at 6:41 pm

    Kissinger is saying that Biden screwed this up and Ukraine will by default get the benefits of NATO. He is speaking in his diplomatic voice.

  17. Johnny Ray

    January 28, 2023 at 7:59 pm

    It’s way to soon to start talking about Ukraine joining NATO. After all, there IS a war going on. But, to play along…
    There is no rule or law preventing the countries closest to Russia, and under the highest threat of war and annexation, from creating their own alliance.
    As a suggestion, I would offer Poland as the centerpiece of such an alliance and invitations would go out according to perceived threat with Ukraine high if not the highest on the list of signers.
    Frankly, it seems the NATO treaty is HOLDING BACK Europe from assisting Ukraine in response to Russia’s idiotic extortionary threats of nuclear Armageddon.
    An entirely new and voluntary European mutual assistance and defense treaty seems plausible, possible and potentially effective in my view.
    With such a treaty Poland et al could be sending TROOPS and all manner of military aid to the eastern front, as we speak.
    That’s what is needed at the moment: Boots on the ground to man the battle to retake Crimea. It will be one hell of a fight if it happens; historically high magnitude, no matter who wins or loses.

  18. Vitalik

    January 29, 2023 at 3:43 am

    To make it clearer. In Ukraine, Russians are white. In Ukraine, Ukrainians are African-Americans. African Americans say we kill all whites. What will the Russians do?

  19. Dave Nelson

    January 29, 2023 at 9:37 pm

    Vitalik, you say Ukraine is a hot mess that cannot do basic things. They’ve done a damn good job of killing 100,000 Russians (no doubt the Poles are envious).

    The real mess is what Putin is doing to Russia: 700,000 young men have fled the country to avoid the call up to military duty. The world knows and will not likely forget that Russia is kidnapping tens of thousands of Ukrainian children to be raised in Russia as-if they are Russian, largely because you Russians are producing so few children. Any oil well that stops pumping from lack of demand will freeze; last time that happened you had to import the fix from the west. That isn’t going to occur again.

  20. Andrei

    January 30, 2023 at 2:31 am

    Why the author even not consider the possibility of Ukraine’s boundary delimitation (official cessation of Crimea and some Donetsk and Luhansk territories) in exchange for NATO membership? Ukraine needs to regulate some heated debates over territory (esp. Crimea) with Russia in order to achieve possible defense options.
    IMO, if USA will provide an obligation of “closed sky mode” for Ukraine after the boundary delimitation it will be the best option of escaping from future russian aggression. But, whether the USA is ready for such dangerous obligation?

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