KYIV, Ukraine — For decades, discussions about whether or not Ukraine should be admitted to NATO have revolved around the risks — to both Ukraine and member nations — of Ukraine being in the alliance. And at the core of those risks had been one overriding fear: that Ukraine’s membership might push President Vladimir Putin of Russia into a corner, prompting him to escalate his war.
The question of Ukraine’s potential NATO membership has been revived once again as the bloc’s summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, approaches this week, and Ukraine has stated its ambition to the leaders gathering there to be granted a political invitation to join.
To be clear, Ukraine is not asking for immediate NATO membership. The Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky now acknowledges that it should join after the war ends, and doesn’t want to drag NATO members into its war with Russia by invoking Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty. What Ukraine wants is a political invitation that will end the so-called “strategic ambiguity” at play since the 2008 NATO summit in Bucharest, Romania, where the alliance decided Ukraine should eventually become a member but offered no clear path for it to do so. By giving Ukraine a destination but no itinerary, NATO left the nation uniquely vulnerable and ultimately opened the door for Mr. Putin’s invasions.
Now, as in previous years, the hand-wringing over the attendant risks of inviting Ukraine into NATO has cropped up again. And again, it is focused on the danger of further provoking Mr. Putin.
But for the 78 percent of Ukrainians who have close relatives or friends who have been killed or wounded in Mr. Putin’s war, and for those who suffer from continuous Russian missile and drone strikes, this argument sounds ridiculous.
And any thought of keeping Ukraine out of NATO to forestall further Russian aggression makes no sense. Mr. Putin threatened to dip into his nuclear arsenal long before Ukraine requested a political invitation at Vilnius, and he will continue to do so regardless of whatever decision is made there. Perhaps more to the point, nobody is more reluctant to escalate Russia’s war against Ukraine into World War III than Mr. Putin himself. The Russian Army has no chance in a military confrontation with NATO; it is barely coping with the armed forces of Ukraine.
So what about the risks of not inviting Ukraine to join NATO?
Anything except a political invitation for Ukraine at Vilnius will surely be perceived by Mr. Putin as a victory, allowing him to retain his de facto veto on the process of NATO enlargement and giving him confirmation that his policy of waging wars and occupying other countries to prevent them from joining works. As long as Ukraine remains in NATO limbo, Putin will attack Ukraine again and again with the hope of creating a new Russian Empire. There is no better insurance for Ukraine against new attacks than the guarantee of future NATO membership.
Further delaying the decision will also have a negative impact on the democratic transformations underway inside Ukraine. While Ukraine is required to conduct some of these reforms as part of its accession to the European Union, such as strengthening its judiciary and anti-corruption measures, others, like moving Ukraine’s military under civilian control, are more likely to succeed if they are included as a precondition to joining NATO. If that process stalls, NATO might face the reality of a million-strong army operating indefinitely outside full democratic civilian control. The army, which is emerging as one of the strongest at the European continent and the only one with recent battlefield experience fighting Russia, should be a part of the collective security structure, not acting alone.
Finally, should NATO members fail to act this week on Ukraine, the alliance will be discredited in the eyes of Ukrainians and millions of other residents of NATO member states who support inviting Ukraine to join. According to a recent opinion poll, 70 percent of Americans, 56 percent of the French and 55 percent of Dutch citizens who expressed opinions on Ukraine’s NATO membership support the idea of inviting Ukraine into NATO in Vilnius this week, even if some of them would prefer actual accession to happen after the war.
Maintaining the status quo will send the wrong signal to the Ukrainian mothers of teenage boys, who are frightened about having to send their sons into a series of endless conflicts with Russia. It would demotivate Ukrainian soldiers who are already fighting in extremely difficult conditions to liberate Ukrainian land. It would scare away investors who might be interested in participating in Ukraine’s postwar reconstruction. And it would discourage the millions of Ukrainian refugees who consider a commitment on Ukraine’s future membership as the only solid precondition for them to consider returning home.
Some reluctant NATO leaders might say that they don’t have anything against Ukraine’s invitation to the alliance in general, but the timing is not right. But is there any such thing as perfect timing? Next year, at the Washington NATO summit while the United States is in the midst of a presidential campaign? That seems doubtful.
Ukraine’s bid for NATO membership will not go away. Ukraine will be knocking at NATO’s door again and again to remind Western capitals that it was precisely their fear of escalation from Putin’s side that led to Europe’s largest war since World War II.
America put an end to Mr. Putin’s plans to recreate a Russian empire by helping Ukraine to defend itself. Now it’s time to bury Moscow’s imperialist dreams. There is no better way to do it than by granting Ukraine a political invitation to join NATO in Vilnius now.
Alyona Getmanchuk is the founder and director of the New Europe Center think tank in Kyiv and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center.
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