By ALEXANDER J. MOTYL
Russian President Vladimir Putin ironically appears to have greatly increased Ukraine’s chances of joining NATO. He has thereby achieved the opposite of what he claimed was his goal: keeping Ukraine out of the alliance.
Before Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, everyone — Americans, Europeans, Ukrainians and Russians — knew that Ukraine had no chance of becoming a NATO member for at least two decades. Putin’s decision to go to war had nothing to do with Moscow’s fear of the supposed threat to Russian security of Ukraine’s theoretical NATO membership. Instead, the aggression was, as Putin admitted in several of his missives, a direct consequence of his imperial ambitions on the one hand and visceral hatred of Ukrainians on the other.
NATO did contribute to the outbreak of the war, but not in the manner that many analysts think. NATO expansion posed no threat to Russian security — even if it entailed broken promises by the West — for three reasons. First, few Europeans would fight to defend Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Second, even if NATO members agreed to fight, the miserable condition of most of their armed forces would do little to push back a possible Russian assault. Third, the famed Article 5 of the NATO Charter does not obligate members to respond militarily. They can, in fact, respond any way they deem necessary — from military assistance to outright intervention to assembling a peace conference to organizing a demonstration.
NATO enlargement contributed to the war by leaving Belarus, Moldova and Ukraine in a precarious no-man’s land between an indifferent Europe and a rapacious Russia. Belarus adapted to these dire circumstances by aligning with Russia; Moldova, by attempting to maintain a balance; and Ukraine, first by balancing and then, after the revolutions of 2004 and 2014, by aligning with the West — which, much to Ukraine’s chagrin, remained more or less indifferent until war broke out in 2022 and Russia’s imperial and genocidal designs became manifestly clear.
In effect, NATO’s mistake was not to have enlarged and thereby threatened Russia, but to not have enlarged enough.
The conditions for Ukraine’s membership have now changed radically, thanks to Putin’s war. The arguments against Ukraine’s membership were severalfold, and none applies today:
- Ukraine’s population was opposed to membership. That was true until the 2014 Revolution of Dignity. Thereafter, the tide turned toward membership. After Russia’s genocidal war broke out this year, Ukrainians overwhelmingly have supported NATO membership for their country.
- Ukraine had a long way to go to become a rule-of-law state and democracy. The war has changed that. Despite the enormity of the destruction caused by Russian troops and the mobilization of all Ukraine’s resources, Ukraine’s government has performed democratically, liberally and tolerantly — even though wartime conditions might have justified more severe measures. It’s unclear that all NATO members would have responded similarly. Certainly, Hungary and Turkey would not.
- Ukraine’s armed forces were not up to NATO standards. Everyone expected Ukraine to suffer defeat within a few days or weeks. Instead, Ukraine’s armed forces have performed heroically and effectively, demonstrating that they are arguably far better than those in many NATO countries. Ukraine used the years since the 2014 revolution to learn from, and ultimately outclass, NATO.
- Ukraine was unstable. As the war has shown, Ukraine’s political, social and economic institutions have remained remarkably intact. Most of the population supports the government and the war effort. And the number of collaborators and traitors has been remarkably small.
- Russia would attack and start a war, rather than permit Ukraine to join NATO. Russia already has engaged in a genocidal war against Ukraine. Putin may even decide to use tactical nuclear weapons, but if he does it’ll be because of the animus he bears toward Ukraine, and not because of NATO.
- NATO members would have to get involved in Ukraine’s conflicts with Russia. They already are involved, adopting painful sanctions against Russia and providing Ukraine with significant financial, humanitarian and military aid. In effect, if not in intent, NATO members are acting according to the mandate given them in Article 5.
- Countries with territorial disputes are excluded from NATO membership. As a study on NATO enlargement says, “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.” Ukraine’s dispute over Russian-occupied Crimea and the Donbas would be an obstacle to membership, but not an insurmountable one. After all, resolving the disputes “would be a factor,” but not necessarily the decisive one.
Extending immediate NATO membership to Ukraine would not change the geopolitical status quo. The war will continue. Russia will continue to engage in atrocities. Ukraine will continue to drive out the Russian troops from its territory. True, Russia would now be at war with a NATO member, but NATO’s collective decision not to send troops into Ukraine would remain in force, as would the West’s massive financial and military assistance.
So, why include Ukraine in NATO? Partly because it would be a form of NATO’s atonement for placing Ukraine in an untenable security position two decades ago. But mostly because it would accelerate Ukraine’s integration into the West, promote Ukrainian values in the West, and
provide Ukrainians with an enormous moral boost as they seek to save their country from Putin’s predations.
The West has nothing to lose and a loyal member to gain.
Alexander J. Motyl is a professor of political science at Rutgers University-Newark.