After Putin announced his illegal annexation of four Ukrainian regions on September 30, President Zelenskyy formally submitted an application for Ukraine's accelerated accession to NATO. In his speech, Zelenskyy stated that “De facto, we have already completed our path to NATO.... Today, Ukraine is applying to make it de jure...”. But Ukraine is still not in NATO. Out of its 30 member-states, only 9 backed Ukraine's admission. So what is the reason for Ukraine not being accepted, and what does it take to join the alliance?
One of the most popular explanations mentioned in the press is that NATO does not want to be drawn into a war with Russia and therefore into a third world war. Member states, it is believed, are not ready to be responsible for sending their troops. “As a NATO member, fellow members would be compelled to actively defend it against Russia – a commitment that goes well beyond the supply of weapons,” wrote the Guardian. “In practice, the chances of Ukraine joining NATO have only grown slimmer in the course of the Russian invasion. Member countries, including the United States, have drawn clear lines: They arm Ukraine, but they don’t have their own troops on the ground out of concern for triggering a World War,” says The Washington Post.
While some of these explanations are useful, they often remain simplistic and superficial, say international security experts Oleksiy Melnyk from the Razumkov Center and Dr Taras Zhovtenko, member of MFA of Ukraine Public Advisory Board, who provided comments for this article.
That is, it does not oblige them to send troops or close the sky at the request of the member being attacked. It only states that a threat to one should be taken as a threat to all:
“Article 5 provides that if a NATO Ally is the victim of an armed attack, each and every other member of the Alliance will consider this act of violence as an armed attack against all members and will take the actions it deems necessary to assist the Ally attacked.” - states NATO itself.
While it can certainly be argued that current NATO members are reluctant to do more, a further deep dive into NATO's bureaucracy makes it clear that it is up to the member states collectively to decide how they help a threatened member. NATO is, after all, a political alliance based on the will of its members and candidates, and the rhetoric of NATO's main document, the North Atlantic Treaty, is quite flexible in that it allows states to adapt to different situations and exercise their agency accordingly.
What is no less important is that “we often forget that NATO is a defensive alliance,” says Oleksiy Melnyk. Its main function is to deter and defend. Thus, new members are accepted based on the criteria of whether a state’s accession contributes to NATO’s main aim, the stability of Euro-Atlantic security, and their intermediate goal, to continue strengthening the alliance.
Russia’s war in Ukraine is not only a threat to Ukraine. It is a threat to democracies and their allies. Russia’s invasion this year shows that if the international order is not protected and if steps are not taken to actively deter violations, a state like Russia could easily violate all international norms and hope to do so with impunity.
NATO openly calls Russia a threat. Its Strategic Concept, the document that outlines the position of the alliance and which was revised this past June states that ‘the Euro-Atlantic region is not at peace’. This is in contrast to the previous Concept, last published in 2010 which said the region was ‘at peace’. The new Strategic Concept also states that "a strong, independent Ukraine is vital to the stability of the Euro-Atlantic region." The document is permeated with a tone that is reminiscent of the Cold War, and Russia is directly named as a country that can no longer be considered an ally. It can be seen that Western countries have taken measures to reduce their interdependence with autocracies and hybrid regimes, and are making attempts to isolate Russia.
“Ukraine is already receiving assistance at the level of NATO member countries, without having the official status of member,” says Taras Zhovtenko. It is a de facto member of NATO.
Why is Ukraine officially not in NATO?
The West, terrorized by the nuclear arsenal and the possibility of further Russian escalation, is not interested in officially accepting Ukraine into the alliance. The admission of Ukraine would only put a spotlight on the weakness of the Putin regime, making it obvious to Russian and international audiences. Though the humiliation of Russia is certainly warranted, it can have several consequences. First, it may encourage Putin to use chemical or nuclear weapons. Second, it will strengthen the Kremlin's propaganda within Russia and may lead to more radical sentiments within Russian society.
It is naive to neglect the importance of Ukraine for Russia. Putin did not write an essay on Russia’s historic unity with Sweden or Finland, and it could be why he let go of them so easily. He built his regime and personal image around the idea of a Russian Ukraine, and the failure of that idea is therefore the failure of his entire political career. He has staked too much on this war. NATO must therefore be very careful when dealing with Putin, but the situation might change.
Russia’s ultimatum that Sweden and Finland’s accession to NATO is a red line turned out to be empty words. In April this year, Dmitry Medvedev, Deputy Chairman of the Russian Security Council, announced that if Finland and Sweden join NATO, “there can be no more talk of any nuclear-free status for the Baltic, the balance must be restored”.
Many argue that the possibility of Ukraine’s accession to NATO is unlikely or even undesirable, because it would mean a direct clash between NATO and Russia.
Rhetorically, it would become a direct clash between NATO and Russia, but the war is already a fight between the West and Russia – even if it is hard to admit. In 2014, the West did not recognise that Russia’s attack was not only about Crimea, Donetsk and Luhansk. It was about challenging the territorial integrity of an independent state. Russia’s full scale invasion is not only about the sovereignty of Ukraine, it's about undermining the stability of the current security order.
NATO members have gotten it right this time by supporting Ukraine. After the war, it is highly likely that the national, regional, and global security orders will be reformed and updated, and Ukraine will probably be recognised as a close ally.
So why do Ukrainians need to stand their ground, and continue striving for NATO?
Over the past 8 months, the leaders of NATO member countries have spoken out about the courage of Ukraine and the banditry of Russia. This rhetoric makes Western support irreversible in the short term.
But staying out of the alliance can be too risky. As the 2016 general elections in the United States showed, foreign policy decisions can change with the country’s leader. A country can also withdraw its support despite previous long-term commitments, such as President Biden’s decision to leave Afghanistan, which led to the collapse of the democratic regime.
Ukraine can choose three ways to seek security guarantees: neutrality; guarantees from individual countries; and NATO.
Option 1. Neutrality
I often hear fellow Ukrainians question why we cannot be like Switzerland, a neutral state that benefits from playing all sides. Can we not be left alone?
Ukraine is not suffering because it is stuck between Russia and the West. It suffers because its neighbour is an authoritarian state that uses dirty tactics and manipulation to achieve its goals. “...the first thing you learn from Russian history is that it always comes back, ready for more” says Professor Neil MacFarlane, International Relations and Russia expert from Oxford University. Ukrainians know what it is like to make deals with Russia like no other. In 1994 it gave up its nuclear weapons in return for security guarantees.
Option 2. Guarantees of individual countries
It is often argued that Ukraine could seek Israeli-style security guarantees: bilateral support outside any alliance. The problem with security guarantees is that individual countries are unlikely to provide them. In 2016, Donald Trump said that America was tired of paying the collective security bills and that Europeans were free riders. In a 2019 interview, Emmanuel Macron said that America was showing signs of "turning its back on us", and that Europe would have to develop strategic autonomy. Countries are increasingly signaling that they do not want to pay for free riders.
Option 3. NATO
Today, it may be too risky for Ukraine to join NATO, as it may give Russia impetus to further escalate its violence. But this option should always be on the table. Ukraine is de-facto part of the alliance and must continue to hold on to it. Ukraine's accession would be beneficial to both. NATO would have a strong regional player, and Ukraine would continue to receive NATO support, without which victory over Russia would be extremely difficult if not impossible. This would be a guarantee of security regardless of the elected leaders in NATO member countries. Ukraine must be ready to use its chance.
It is important to emphasize to our western counterparts that Ukraine is an integral part of Euro-Atlantic security. Ukraine joining NATO would not consume more security but help to continue providing it.