After suffering embarrassing defeats over the past two months, Vladimir Putin is stepping up his efforts in his war. It rearms, resupplies and repositions Russian forces for another major attack in eastern Ukraine. Even if his troops finally manage to dislodge those of the Ukraine, it is unlikely that this will be enough to satisfy him. He can accept a ceasefire or a negotiation to give his soldiers time to regroup. But as long as Putin is in power, Russia will continue to do all it can to reverse the post-Cold War settlement that has driven Putin since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
At the same time, the United States and its NATO allies are accelerating the delivery of heavier weapons to help Ukraine withstand the coming Russian onslaught, if not win the war. However, there is a larger question that both sides, especially the West, will soon have to address: what will happen to Ukraine once the fighting slows down or the war ends?
The answer is simple: for Ukraine to be truly free and independent, it will have to be a member of the European Union and NATO. Although Moscow will no doubt oppose it, Putin’s brutal aggression clearly shows that only European NATO member countries can be truly secure. And NATO should welcome Ukraine into the fold.
Ironically, Moscow’s unprovoked aggression is proof that its longstanding complaint about NATO moving too close to its borders was little more than a convenient excuse for its revisionist goals. The alliance posed no threat to Russia, and before the war President Joe Biden and other NATO leaders had made it clear that they would not come to Ukraine’s defense. If Ukraine had been a member, however – alongside the Baltic states and all non-Soviet members of the Warsaw Pact – Russia would have little chance of invading for fear of a wider military confrontation than it surely would have. lost. Far from NATO being the immediate cause of the war, the absence of NATO allowed Putin to act.
Since February 24, the date of Putin’s invasion, many European countries have undergone a comprehensive reassessment of their security needs. Germany now understands that dialogue and trade are no substitute for deterrence and defense when dealing with an autocratic country like Russia. Finland and Sweden are on the verge of joining NATO, which few experts believed possible before the invasion, given their centuries of neutrality and independence. Others are increasing defense spending, sending weapons to Ukraine and bolstering the forward military presence on NATO’s eastern flank.
This transformation in thinking about European security and the threat posed by Russia should also guide the Western approach to Ukraine’s future. Already, the EU has acted quickly. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen visited Kyiv on 8 April and assured President Volodymyr Zelensky said Ukraine’s first major step towards membership would take “a few weeks”, rather than the usual years. Although Ukraine’s application still faces many obstacles, considerable momentum has been created to bring the country into the EU as quickly as possible.
As part of joining the bloc, Ukraine will receive a guarantee of security from other EU members: the European Union Treaty includes a mutual defense clause of the type that Ukraine has demanded as part of any peace negotiations or cessation of hostilities with Russia. While this is important, there are two problems with relying on this alone to ensure Ukraine’s long-term security against Russian aggression. First, even if fast-tracked, EU membership is likely to take several months or even a year or two. Second, while the EU security guarantee is important, it does not bind the United States, Europe’s ultimate protector, to Ukrainian defence.
Fortunately, both of these shortcomings can be overcome with NATO membership. Joining the alliance itself is simple, requiring the unanimous agreement of all 30 NATO member states and their ratification of the treaty governing NATO, including its Article 5 collective defense provision. And because the United States is a leading member, Ukraine’s integration into NATO also extends the American security guarantee to its territory.
We have been here before. In 2008, Ukraine applied for an invitation to apply for the NATO Membership Action Plan (MAP), which prepares candidate countries for membership in the alliance. A sharp disagreement between allies blocked a decision, leading to the wave commitment that Ukraine (and Georgia) “will become members of NATO”. So far, key allies such as Germany and France have refused to invite Ukraine to join NATO for fear of provoking Russia. Now that Moscow has demonstrated that it is not necessary to provoke it to commit aggression, NATO must backtrack and bring Ukraine into the alliance as soon as possible.
There are, of course, many obstacles, practical and otherwise, to Ukraine’s integration into NATO. Zelensky hinted that he would be ready to give up NATO membership, but only his advisers mentioned, if kyiv received even “stronger than NATO” legally binding security guarantees. Zelensky’s position represents his understandable disillusionment with the alliance, which has not only managed to honor its membership, but to come to Ukraine’s defense even when it has come under attack. an unprovoked attack. That is why an initiative, led by the United States and other major military allies such as Britain, France and Germany, to offer Ukraine an early entry into NATO would reassure kyiv. that the security guarantee of the alliance is serious and real.
Putin would undoubtedly oppose Ukraine’s NATO membership and to menace “political and military consequences”, such as Russia had in the case of the potential adhesion of Finland and Sweden to the alliance. But it has already invaded Ukraine and committed serious atrocities against its people. He could still escalate, using chemical or nuclear weapons, but that would risk widening of the conflict. In the end, there is little Russia can do to prevent Ukraine from entering NATO.
Perhaps the biggest practical hurdle is that part of Ukrainian territory is likely to be contested, if not, as in the case of Crimea, under foreign occupation for the foreseeable future. Indeed, if the current aggression were to settle into the kind of back-and-forth that has characterized the conflict in the Donbass for eight years, NATO would invite into its ranks a country actively at war. This would be unprecedented, but it is not necessarily impossible. kyiv and its new NATO allies could agree that Ukraine would continue to bear the brunt of the fighting in the east and that NATO countries would continue to provide it with the weapons and intelligence it needed to defend itself. . They might also agree that NATO would not directly intervene in the conflict unless Russia again threatens kyiv or the viability of the Ukrainian state. Similar arrangements could be made for any occupied territory in Ukraine.
Strong advocacy and careful diplomacy will be needed to achieve this. The United States will be the key to both. So far, the Biden administration has done a tremendous job building a powerful and united coalition of Western states to weaken and isolate Russia and help Ukraine militarily and financially. Washington has led this effort from the start. It must now do the same to unite NATO members behind the idea of inviting Ukraine to join.
Fortunately, many senior administration officials, including the president himself, will likely view the effort positively. Biden has a solid reputation for supporting both NATO expansion and Ukraine’s development as a corruption-free democracy. The war and its brutality have deeply affected the president, and he will see the value in dissuading Putin from invading Ukraine again. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan share the president’s views and predilections on this point. Although Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s views on Ukraine’s potential NATO membership are less certain, he has shown a determination to back the commander-in-chief. Others in the administration, including Victoria Nuland, the State Department’s No. 4, who as US Ambassador to NATO in 2008 pushed forcefully to give Ukraine a MAP, could no doubt use their considerable skills to advance this cause.
A firm US commitment to supporting Ukraine’s NATO membership is essential to persuading other members to follow this example. Because the key to success will be Germany and France, early and high-level engagement with Berlin and Paris will be important. Their opposition in 2008 doomed Ukraine’s progress towards membership, and without their consent further effort will go nowhere. Both countries, however, are strong supporters of Ukraine’s entry into the EU. NATO membership would represent a small additional step and would also bring the United States as a guarantor.
Putin invaded Ukraine apparently because NATO was getting too close to Russia’s borders and threatening its security. This argument never held water. But even if that were the case, the invasion of Ukraine brought NATO even closer to Russia’s borders. The alliance is about to permanently station a large number of troops on its eastern border. Finland, which shares an 830-mile border with Russia, will join NATO, as will Sweden. And Ukraine, which before the invasion faced the greatest chances of joining NATO, may well enter the alliance after all.
Few modern leaders have made as many miscalculations as the Russian president. Ukraine’s acceptance into NATO would represent the final defeat of its failed strategy.