Kyiv Needs the Alliance and the Alliance Needs Kyiv
By Dmytro Kuleba
April 25, 2023
On April 4, I sat at the great round table inside NATO’s headquarters in Brussels and applauded as Finland was formally admitted to the alliance. I am happy for my Finnish friends, and I welcome this shift in the tectonic plates of European security. But my country, Ukraine, is not yet a NATO member, and this shift will not be complete until it is. Luckily for us, the wheels of history are turning, and there is nothing anyone can do to stop them.
Russia’s war on Ukraine is about more than killing Ukrainians and stealing our land. President Vladimir Putin is trying to destroy the very foundations of the European security order formed after 1945. This is why the stakes are so high, not only for Ukraine but for the entire Euro-Atlantic community.
Ukraine did not choose this battle. Nor did the United States and its NATO allies. Russia started this war. But it falls to Ukraine and its Western partners to bring the conflict to an end, winning a just victory that guarantees peace and stability in Europe for generations to come.
Doing so requires accepting the inevitable: that Ukraine will become a NATO member, and sooner rather than later. It is time for the alliance to stop making excuses and start the process that leads to Ukraine’s eventual accession, showing Putin that he has already failed and forcing him to temper his ambitions. Throughout the course of this war, we have demonstrated that we are more than ready for membership and that we have much to offer the alliance. What we need is a clear written statement from the allies laying out a path to accession.
As the most successful defensive alliance in history, NATO is both a guarantor of security and an expression of a shared political future. But the alliance’s strength derives from the political will of its members, which has been sorely lacking when it comes to admitting Ukraine.
At NATO’s 2008 summit in Bucharest, members agreed to make Ukrainian membership an objective but spent more time signaling to Russia that this would not happen (at least at any point in the foreseeable future) than taking practical steps to make it a reality. The alliance expressed its will to keep the door to membership open, in other words, but only on the assumption that Ukraine would not darken NATO’s doorstep any time soon. Three wars later—in Georgia in 2008, in Ukraine in 2014, and now again in Ukraine—it is clear that ambiguity is Putin’s best ally.
In the 15 years since the Bucharest summit, Ukraine has heard many arguments about why it cannot join NATO. Alliance members have claimed that admitting new members that share a border with Russia might provoke Moscow. This argument was always wrong, but repeating it now is laughable. At the time Russia occupied Crimea in 2014, Ukraine was officially a nonaligned country with no ambition to join NATO. In 2022, when Russia started its terrible all-out invasion, NATO still had not opened a real path for Ukrainian membership. As I write these lines, an air raid siren is sounding in Kyiv, and Russia is in the midst of a months-long assault on the city of Bakhmut. Moscow is also preparing to repel a series of Ukraine’s counteroffensives. So I have a simple response to anyone who argues that admitting Ukraine to NATO would provoke Russia: Are you serious?
Amazingly, opponents of Ukrainian membership have continued to make this argument even after more than a year of all-out war. Yet Finland’s accession demonstrates once and for all why it does not hold water. Russia responded to NATO’s latest enlargement—which puts a member directly on Russia’s border—not by lashing out at Finland but by downplaying the significance of the country’s accession, presumably to avoid highlighting its own failure to keep Helsinki out of the alliance.
Those who oppose Ukrainian accession have also argued that Ukraine itself is divided over whether to join NATO. In the past this was true, but no longer. Ukrainians have grown steadily more supportive of joining the alliance since 2014, when Russia illegally seized Crimea and ignited a war in the Donbas. In 2019, Ukraine formally amended its constitution to enshrine its commitment to join NATO. The vast majority of Ukrainians—82 percent, according to a February 2023 poll by the International Republican Institute—now support joining. And there is no longer a regional divide on the issue: a majority of Ukrainians are pro-NATO in all parts of the country.
The residents of NATO countries increasingly see Ukraine as part of their broader community. According to an EU-wide survey conducted in February 2023, 68 percent of EU citizens consider Russia’s attack on Ukraine an attack on Europe as a whole. This is the view of 80 percent of Poles and Spaniards, 70 percent of Dutch people, and 65 percent of Germans and the French. Both the leaders of most NATO countries and their publics view Ukraine as an integral part of Western security architecture. It is time to act on these beliefs.
The newest argument against Ukrainian accession is that the issue divides the alliance. But in Europe, this same objection was raised by those seeking to block Ukraine’s path toward membership in the European Union. A little more than a year ago, we were told that the EU was divided over whether to grant Ukraine candidate status. In June 2022, however, all 27 EU member states supported granting Ukraine this status, giving the bloc a new sense of unity, purpose, and strength. The same will happen to NATO when a decision on Ukraine’s path to membership is taken.
Russian aggression against Ukraine has reinvigorated the alliance and given it a new raison d’être. Finland joined after resolving its differences with NATO countries. Sweden will follow suit, and Ukraine can, too. It’s just a matter of political will. If we focus on division, we will be divided. But if we look for practical solutions, NATO will be stronger and more unified. It’s time to drop this excuse and finally accept that there is no alternative to admitting Ukraine if NATO’s goal is to ensure the security of the Euro-Atlantic community.
I am not questioning NATO’s current commitment to Ukraine. Alliance members have delivered vital assistance to Kyiv since the beginning of Russia’s full-scale invasion. But I am questioning NATO’s strategy when it comes to Ukraine and the long-term security of the Euro-Atlantic area. Fear has clouded the alliance’s judgment, leading it to adopt an overly cautious strategy that has had grave consequences for thousands of Ukrainians who have been kidnapped, raped, tortured, displaced, or killed. NATO’s flawed strategy has also allowed Russia to undermine the security of the West with cyberattacks, espionage, and political interference.
The current leaders of NATO countries did not make the misguided decisions that brought us here, but they can make the bold decision to expand the alliance and thereby safeguard the Euro-Atlantic. Leaving Ukraine exposed will only lead to further instability and Russian aggression.
Ukraine seeks NATO membership and with it the protection of Article 5, which requires members to treat an armed attack against one or more members in Europe or North America as an attack against them all, and “to take such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force, to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area.” Who in our position would not seek such protections? But we are realists. We are not seeking to drag the United States or other NATO countries into a war. This is our war, and we are fighting it successfully with the generous support of our partners and allies.
We have never asked anyone else to put boots on the ground, and we do not intend to make such a request. We don’t seek a magic wand that will miraculously end the war and eliminate the need to win it on the battlefield. What we are asking for is a concrete timetable for Ukraine’s accession to NATO.
At the alliance’s upcoming summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, NATO members should send a written signal to Russia that the game is over: Ukraine is part of the West, it is on NATO’s doorstep, and it will soon walk through the door. To avoid any misunderstandings, we in Ukraine are not talking about immediate membership at the Vilnius summit but about NATO allies taking a historic step toward admitting the country.
There is no need for a membership action plan that would set out certain benchmarks for the country to meet before accession; Finland and Sweden have shown that such programs are unnecessary and Ukraine is more than qualified to join. The time has come to offer clarity instead of reiterating the open-door policy and letting Putin exploit its ambiguity. NATO must resist the temptation to make additional demands of Ukraine that would further delay its membership.
Instead, NATO should make a political decision to put forward a timetable for Ukraine’s accession, either at the Vilnius summit or by the end of 2023. Accession will be a process, and achieving the ultimate goal of Ukrainian membership in the alliance will depend on the security situation, but this process needs to start without delay.
It would be reasonable for NATO members to decide what kinds of security guarantees they wish to offer Ukraine right now, pending the accession, and which of these guarantees will continue to apply after Ukraine becomes a NATO ally (in addition to those enshrined in the NATO treaty). If NATO fails to act at the Vilnius summit, however, it will continue to carry the shame of Bucharest. The time to act is now.
AN ASSET, NOT A LIABILITY
Ukraine has much to gain from NATO, but it also has much to offer in return. Ukraine is defending NATO’s entire eastern flank and sharing what it learns with alliance members. For instance, the Ukrainian military has shown that although the NATO principle of decentralization—which delegates decision-making authority to subordinates—works well with small units of professional soldiers and contractors, it is ill suited to a full-scale war in which drafted soldiers make up as much as 70 percent of units. Ukraine’s experience has also shown that, contrary to NATO practices, the commanders who train units should be the same commanders who lead those units into battle. Other lessons that Ukraine has taught NATO include the value of innovation, ingenuity, local initiative, civilian support for the military, and civil defense.
During the course of the war, Ukraine has helped strengthen NATO’s rules, standards, and procedures, improving the alliance’s ability to fight modern, high-intensity wars. Ukraine also possesses unparalleled experience in countering hybrid threats, conducting information warfare, and ensuring the resilience of state institutions and critical infrastructure. Today, millions of Ukrainians are honing their skills in Europe’s bloodiest war of the twenty-first century. Tomorrow, they will use those skills to bolster NATO’s collective security.
The best way to ensure Euro-Atlantic security is to welcome Ukraine into NATO. Politicians, diplomats, and analysts can always be counted on to come up with new arguments for keeping Ukraine outside the alliance, as they have been doing for years now. The good news is that each new argument is weaker than the last. The bad news is that constantly having to disprove them wastes precious time at the expense of people’s security. Ukraine needs NATO, and NATO needs Ukraine.