Giving Ukraine NATO membership is the best way to prevent World War III in Europe

Opinion piece (Encompass)
10 June 2023

When they met in Bucharest in April 2008, NATO leaders discussed the membership aspirations of Georgia and Ukraine and declared “these countries will become members of NATO”. Fifteen years later, as NATO leaders prepare to meet in Vilnius on July 11th and 12th, neither country seems any closer to membership. Vladimir Putin’s war against Ukraine may have cost Russia dearly, but he can feel satisfied about one thing: few in NATO seem to want to give membership to countries that are under attack or do not control all their territory. Even those like the UK and US that backed Ukraine’s membership bid in 2008 have got cold feet.

Western leaders should think again, however. Four months after the Bucharest Summit, Russia invaded Georgia – not because NATO’s offer of membership provoked Russia, but because its perceived indecision did. Bringing Ukraine and other countries caught between the alliance and Russia into NATO would be a better way of stabilising the region than the various alternatives mooted, such as neutrality, a ‘hedgehog’ strategy, or guarantees provided by a ‘coalition of the willing’.

Even after the war started, Ukraine explored neutrality as a possibility, and some Western analysts promoted the idea. There have been various models of neutrality in Europe, some of which have worked better than others. The problem is that neutrality would not address Putin’s belief that Ukrainians are really Russians and that Ukraine has no right to exist as a sovereign entity independent of Russia.  

Some Western analysts have suggested that Ukraine’s best option is to emulate Israel’s ‘hedgehog strategy’ – deterring future attacks through military power. Western governments might even promise it a ‘qualitative military edge’ – something which the US is obliged by law to give Israel, ensuring that it always has access to better weapons and more advanced military technology than its Arab neighbours.

There are two problems with the Israel model. One is financial: Ukraine, with its economy in ruins, could hardly maintain the kind of defence budget needed. Israel’s military spending exceeded 10 per cent of GDP in every year from 1967-1994. The other is that Israel has its own nuclear deterrent, while Ukraine does not. None of Ukraine’s partners would encourage Kyiv to follow Israel down the nuclear path.

If Ukraine cannot benefit from a NATO guarantee, perhaps a coalition of the states most interested in its success could provide an alternative? The UK and Sweden, for example, agreed in May 2022 that in the event of an attack on one of them, they would “upon request from the affected country assist each other in a variety of ways, which may include military means”. That does not constitute a legally binding guarantee of help, but such an agreement would give Ukraine more certainty than it now has. The question is whether Putin would take a guarantee seriously, unless the US stood behind it – which it has so far shown no interest in doing.

NATO membership would have clear advantages over any of these options. Unlike the neutrality option, it does not leave Ukraine reliant on Russia’s good will for its future security. By sharing the burden of defending Ukraine and deterring further Russian attack among all the NATO allies, it makes the costs bearable for all, rather than forcing Kyiv to devote an excessive proportion of its GDP to defence. And by bringing Ukraine under NATO’s nuclear umbrella, it removes any incentive for Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy or a successor to develop a national nuclear weapons programme. A NATO defence guarantee can be put in place as quickly as allies can be persuaded to ratify Ukraine’s accession to the alliance (with bilateral guarantees from interested allies as a stop-gap until the ratification process is complete).

The main objection to taking the plunge seems to be the fear that it will automatically trigger World War III. In a good example of the Russian technique of ‘reflexive control’, Putin has used Russian propaganda to increase this fear, with a view to getting the West to act in line with his interests rather than its own. The reality is that Putin is no more interested in being drawn into World War III than his NATO counterparts.

Still, accidents happen. So one option for reducing the risk of an ‘unintentional’ Russian attack on NATO forces in Ukraine would be to apply the Article 5 guarantee for the time being only to the territory currently under Ukrainian administration. NATO would be able to move air defence forces, logistic support and the like into Ukraine, and tell the Kremlin that an attack by Russian forces on Ukrainian-administered Ukraine would trigger Article 5. NATO could put in place a ‘ratchet’ arrangement to extend the guarantee automatically to newly liberated areas once Ukrainian administrative control was firmly re-established there.

NATO membership would not in itself end Russia’s assault on Ukraine. But – despite repeated bouts of nuclear sabre-rattling – Putin has been reluctant to confront the West directly. He has not forgotten that NATO has powerful conventional and nuclear forces of its own. The US worried in the early stages of the war that Russia might attack facilities in Poland from which Ukraine was being supplied, but Putin has not done so, even though the flow of weaponry has significantly increased over the last 15 months.

Making a bold offer of membership for Ukraine (and ideally for Georgia and Moldova too) is what NATO should do at Vilnius, but all the indications are that it will not. Its hesitation gives Putin hope that one day, with a friendlier US president in the White House, the West will stop supporting Ukraine militarily and Russia will be victorious NATO should disabuse him of that idea. If it does not, it will show that when it comes to understanding how to stabilise parts of Eastern Europe threatened by Russian imperialism, it has not learned the lesson of its disastrous mistake in Bucharest.

Ian Bond is director of foreign policy at the Centre for European Reform.