NATO and Ukraine: The Less Said About Them, the Better

Neither Membership nor Neutrality Is the Correct Course of Action.

With Russia massing troops on Ukraine's border and demanding a halt to NATO expansion, a fierce international debate has erupted over whether limiting future alliance membership might settle the situation and avoid conflict. Some think that it is time to lock the door to new members, while others contend that allowing Russian President Vladimir Putin to dictate European security conditions would be a dangerous mistake. However, one critical topic has been left out of the discussion: what membership in NATO – or exclusion from it – would imply for Ukraine itself.

Instead of focusing on what is at risk for Ukraine, most of the discussion has focused on the alliance's foundational norms and ideals, particularly the open-door policy. The nations who formed NATO at the outset of the Cold War anticipated additional members to join gradually, and this has served the alliance well. NATO became stronger with the additions of Germany, Greece, and Turkey in the 1950s and Spain in the 1980s. Following the demise of the Soviet Union, the potential of EU and NATO membership provided an additional motivation for eastern European nations to establish Western-style institutions.

Nonetheless, the rationale for leaving the door to membership open to everyone forever—just because that strategy worked well in the past—is unlikely to convince those who feel peace is now in jeopardy. After all, the alliance had already made a well-publicized exception to the principle in the belief that doing so would boost European security. In 1955, the World War II winning powers—France, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, and the United States—signed a pact ensuring Austria's lasting neutrality. Those who wish to keep Ukraine out of NATO are questioning why, if this deal demonstrated imaginative Cold War statesmanship in 1955, anything like is forbidden in 2022.

Another point of contention is whether Ukraine qualifies for membership, despite the fact that no one says the nation does. US President Joe Biden and other Western officials often remark that Kyiv has failed to meet the conditions that would make it a viable contender by failing to address entrenched corruption. Some alliance members are skeptical that Ukraine will ever be eligible to join—and have hinted that they would never vote to admit it. This approach to the problem simply strengthens the resolve of those who support an explicit and permanent ban to keep Ukraine out. If war can be avoided simply by agreeing not to do something that no one wants or expects to do in the first place, they reason, why not agree?

In the discussion over Ukraine's potential NATO membership, neither side is taking the other seriously. Those who support the open-door policy seem to opponents to be supporters of a meaningless ideal rather than real diplomatic problem solvers. Meanwhile, those in favor of a permanent ban seem to be enabling Russian aggression. Each side says the other is a danger to Europe's peace and security.

Both viewpoints might be correct. Understanding why, on the other hand, requires a new debate—one that considers what admission to NATO or exclusion from NATO might imply for Ukraine. A final settlement of its status, any way, would do considerably more damage than good to the country. It would exacerbate Ukraine's internal tensions, destabilize its stability, and prolong the region's turmoil. A meaningful effort to improve European security must concentrate not just on how to appease the major powers, but also on how to keep the nation they are so furiously battling over together. Proposals that overlook Ukraine cannot improve European security.


Consider the implications of Ukraine joining NATO on the country's internal politics. Putin's famous comment to US President George W. Bush in 2008 that Ukraine is "not a genuine nation" was an absurd exaggeration of the country's linguistic, ethnic, and religious divisions. Even split nations may have robust institutions, devoted populations, and national identities. Still, effective policy should unify rather than divide, and there is no doubt that many people in Ukraine's east, where Russian religion, language, and culture are greatest, do not want to be cut off from Russia or in a state of perpetual animosity, much alone war, with it. If they believe they are being driven into conflict with their eastern neighbor, they will be more open to radical political arguments, more likely to justify violent resistance to Kyiv's administration, and more tolerant of Russian intervention. In other words, individuals are more inclined to believe they are not citizens of a genuine nation and owe nothing to it.

NATO membership has sadly become a kind of civilizational marker for many Ukrainians. Polls currently show that 60 percent or more of Americans favor joining the alliance, a huge rise from a decade earlier, when opinion was equally split. Russia established itself as the primary external danger to Ukrainian unity, sovereignty, and security by taking Crimea in early 2014 and waging a separatist conflict in eastern Ukraine. Those who claim that Putin has united Ukraine and pushed it westward are correct.

Nonetheless, the country's pre-2014 divides have not vanished. Attitudes about NATO continue to differ greatly from place to region, and the fervor with which they are held has undoubtedly intensified. After eight years of the separatist conflict in eastern Ukraine, some locals have plainly turned against Russia for causing them so much pain. Others, however, criticize Kyiv's leadership for its inability—or, more accurately, unwillingness—to resolve the war. In this context, the US and its allies should strive to keep the latter group as small as feasible. The destiny of Ukraine is determined by how many of its residents desire to be a part of it.

These facts, not Biden's list of NATO membership requirements, and especially not Putin's allegation that a few of US advisors helping train and equip Ukraine's army pose a danger to him, are the genuine reasons why bringing the nation into NATO any time soon would be a horrible idea. Those who support the Austrian neutrality paradigm, on the other hand, should take a big breath here. Permanently blocking Ukraine from NATO membership may destabilize the nation in the same way that admitting it would, and for roughly the same reasons.


As many Ukrainians in the east worry that joining Western institutions would turn them into opponents of Russia, many in the rest of the nation are adamant about continuing to integrate with the West. A lasting impediment to NATO membership would shatter their ambitions. Worse, it seems to relegate them to a Russian zone of influence in which all major national choices would be subject to Moscow's veto.

Some Ukrainians may blame timid, unsupportive Western officials in their outrage at this result. Many more, though, would vent their rage at their fellow citizens who they believed had betrayed their nation and exposed it to Russian exploitation. Ukraine would become more difficult to rule. Partisan politics would become more racially motivated and consumed by the quest for an internal adversary. And extreme militias, which Kyiv has been attempting to suppress in recent years, would flourish once again.

Previous attempts to sever Ukraine's connections with the West have resulted in exactly this sort of instability. The Maidan movement that toppled President Viktor Yanukovych in 2014 started when he abandoned his vow to pursue deeper ties with the European Union and instead opted to unite with Moscow. Although Ukraine has made strides toward national unity since then—all three main presidential contenders in 2019 were from Russian-speaking regions, for example—other symptoms of division have grown. Politicians and bureaucrats who are seen to be overly eager to work with Moscow are often accused of treason. (This is the shocking new claim leveled against former President Petro Poroshenko, who is accused of supervising coal imports from separatist territories in order to keep the lights on in the rest of the nation.)

The majority of Western debate about Ukraine's permanent postponement of NATO membership seems to presume that its inhabitants would swallow their sadness and go on. This is almost certainly incorrect. They are significantly more prone to vent their frustrations on one another. Austria had been a member of the Third Reich just eleven years until declaring neutrality in 1955. Its citizenry were not split by competing allegiances to Moscow and Washington. The fact that they were kept out of the Cold War did not destabilize their nation. No one in Ukraine should take such an outcome for granted.


If neither permanent exclusion from NATO nor early admission are viable possibilities, some Western officials may decide that the wisest course of action is to maintain—or perhaps increase—strategic uncertainty about how open the door to membership really is. In diplomacy, double speak is often a useful strategy. However, the best strategy to avoid the consequences of leaning too much in either direction is to pay as little attention to the subject as possible. NATO's Bucharest summit proclamation in 2008, which said that Ukraine will eventually become a member, demonstrated how easy policy sleight of hand may backfire. The statement exacerbated Moscow's frustrations while strengthening Kyiv's unity. It would have been much better to have said nothing at all.

Furthermore, at this time of national emergency, Ukraine does not need any more ambiguity. It requires definite assistance. It must survive in the near term in order to survive and grow more united in the long run. It need weapons and training, as well as commerce and investment, as well as unity. It need international recognition as a legitimate country struggling to stay afloat. It requires champions to stand up to Putin's threats and his false allegations that Western assistance endangers Russian security.

However, neither linguistic ambiguity nor unwavering support will result in a successful, long-term strategy toward Ukraine. This necessitates more open, honest, and direct discussion about why the nation is not a suitable candidate for either NATO membership or Austrian-style mandated neutrality. Three essential and clarifying outcomes would follow from such an approach.

The first concerns how the United States and its allies see European security. A stable Europe—"whole and free," as President George H. W. Bush put it in 1989—depends on the stability of smaller nations as much as it does on the consent of major countries. A agreement that exacerbates divisions inside Ukraine—a state with almost 40 million people that is far from small—undermines the security of all of Europe. The most compelling argument against a Russian sphere of influence including Ukraine is that it would be disruptive.

Greater candor regarding Ukraine and NATO may also help Western leaders engage Putin in more meaningful dialogue. He will be frustrated if the problem of alliance membership is not resolved permanently. He may take offense if he hears that one justification for a neither-in-nor-out posture on Ukraine's membership is to minimize Russian involvement and malfeasance. But, if he so desires, Putin may find some solace in a Western perception of Ukraine's differences that, at least in part, parallels his own. Putin will continue to deny that this split nation is worthy of respect; Western countries must continue to urge that it does. But they'd eventually be talking about the same thing. Let Moscow and Washington fight about whose ideas will lead to the most security and stability.

Finally, open conversations regarding NATO membership may help to place negotiations with Ukraine's authorities on a more solid platform. They also understand – and should hear from their friends – that the country's divides are its most vulnerable point. Ukraine must better integrate itself with Western institutions if it is to become a member of them. Western nations should give increasing economic, diplomatic, and possibly military assistance to Ukraine in order to help it accomplish this aim. However, true national unification, which is likely to be a generational endeavor, must be Ukraine's own effort. Nothing else can bring the country's other objectives closer to reality.

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