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Only Geopolitical Consolidation Could Bring Ukraine into NATO

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Historically, NATO enlargement has always been aimed at consolidating a given geopolitical order, not proactively creating a new one. For Ukraine, unfortunately, this means membership only when and if its borders become clear and Russia no longer forcibly contests them.

Disappointment in Vilnius

The outcome of the Vilnius Summit in the summer of this year was disappointing for the majority of the Western punditry, which had recommended that Ukraine be given a clear path toward NATO membership (see, e.g., here, here, here and here). Saying that it will be in a position to extend an invitation to join when Allies agree and conditions are met, NATO gave Ukraine nothing further than the existing pledge of membership at some undefined point in the future. Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelensky expressed Ukraine’s disappointment with NATO’s sparse wording, which he called ‘absurd’.

NATO’s continued hesitance to honour its formal commitment to bring Ukraine in requires an evaluation of the deeper – and overlooked – factors explaining why this is the case. The answer lies in an overview of NATO’s nearly 75 year-old history.

NATO’s History

NATO was never a revisionist alliance in the way it allowed new members in. NATO was created in 1949, when it was already clear that the Cold War against the Soviet Union had become unavoidable. West Germany was added to NATO in 1955 to anchor it militarily within the transatlantic West against the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact. Spain became a member in 1982 after the death of General Franco. A reunified Germany was incorporated into NATO in 1990 with explicit, albeit reluctant consent from Moscow. NATO’s big enlargements in 1999 and 2004 consolidated the post-Cold War order after the emergence of post-communist democracies in Central and Eastern Europe without real Russian resistance. NATO’s subsequent enlargements in the Western Balkans, similarly, filled a geopolitical vacuum after the collapse of Yugoslavia, although the democratic transitions there proved more difficult. The recent accession of Finland and the expected accession of Sweden are also geopolitical consolidations of countries otherwise deeply integrated with the Western community.

What makes Ukraine different from the previous NATO enlargements is obviously that the country is at war with Russia, a nuclear-armed great power that occupies a significant part of its territory and which contests its very nationhood. Making Ukraine a member – or giving a roadmap with concrete steps for how to achieve that – would differ from NATO’s historical record on enlargement. Under current circumstances, the integration of Ukraine would equal undertaking to create a new geopolitical reality – namely, testing whether NATO’s security commitment could actually deter Russia from continuing to pursuing its expansionism, or whether the result would be an armed confrontation between NATO and Russia. Russia has a de facto veto over Ukraine’s NATO accession to the extent that its members are fearful that this would bring them into a war against it. This reality cannot be denied and must be taken into account.

Under current circumstances, the integration of Ukraine would equal undertaking to create a new geopolitical reality – namely, testing whether NATO’s security commitment could actually deter Russia from continuing to pursuing its expansionism, or whether the result would be an armed confrontation between NATO and Russia.

To be sure, there are four examples in NATO’s post-Cold War history when the alliance did (try to) change a given geopolitical reality. In 1995, NATO’s military intervention in Bosnia-Herzegovina successfully imposed the conditions for the conclusion of the Dayton Accords that brought an end to the war. In 1999, NATO’s bombing of Serbia caused the latter to withdraw its troops from Kosovo over Russian objections. In 2003, NATO deployed to Afghanistan to transform the country into a more responsive and democratic state, although ultimately failing with the farcical withdrawal in 2021. In 2011, NATO’s intervention in Libya removed Muammar Gadhafi from power in the context of the Arab Spring.

What unites the four above-mentioned examples is that they were all so-called crisis management operations: they involved the use of military force not linked to the defence of NATO territory. The stakes against militarily inferior adversaries were clearly much lower than the stakes would be if NATO today were to go into brinkmanship against a nuclear-armed Russia over Ukraine. NATO is not a particularly bold military alliance in that sense – it has always defined itself as defensive.

Stating the Obvious

For Ukraine, this is bad news as there does not seem to be a way for it to achieve NATO’s collective defence guarantee under current geopolitical circumstances. In the raw state of affairs of international politics, there is no such thing as partial collective defence guarantees: either a state has allies committed to come to its rescue in case of external aggression, or it does not. Wars can develop in unpredictable ways, but the current situation is not conducive to issuing security guarantees to Ukraine. In fact, not much has changed since the infamous Bucharest Summit 2008, when NATO’s members hesitated to bring Ukraine closer to membership. Today’s hesitation about bringing Ukraine in comes notably from the United States and Germany, whose political and military support is crucial for an enlarged eastward alliance. But even for a country like Poland, one of Ukraine’s greatest supporters, the violation of EU trade rules through its ban on grain imports shows that it is not willing to sacrifice its own national interest for Ukraine.

NATO’s decision to increase its own high-readiness and in-place forces on the border with Russia shows that membership is not just about issuing a paper guarantee to defend allies. NATO is a nuclear alliance but it is hard to imagine it agreeing to respond to a Russian conventional attack through nuclear escalation. Deterrence, therefore, hinges on NATO’s capability to repel an attack before Russia could seize territory and to bring in reinforcements in a timely manner. In this regard, it should be noted that it has required a certain level of negotiation among members for how to implement the NATO decision of last year to deploy ‘up to brigade-size’ contingents in the Baltic States. The United States wanted the burden to fall on the European allies, Germany and Canada have agreed to lead a brigade in Lithuania and Latvia, respectively, while the United Kingdom agreed only to lead a smaller presence in Estonia. The integration of Ukraine into NATO would obviously require a much greater in-place multinational deterrence effort on Ukrainian territory than what is required in the Baltic States. It is not insurmountable but comes at an additional cost that allies appear unwilling to bear.

The Imperative of Stability

NATO’s history suggests that Ukraine will not be able to join before NATO members believe this entails a low likelihood of actually ending up in an armed conflict with Russia. The integration of Ukraine would have to be an expression of a geopolitical consolidation rather than change. Ukraine’s situation does not compare to West Germany’s accession in 1955, as is often done. Ukraine has a similar ambition of reintegrating its entire national territory, but (unlike West Germany) does not have a clear border that should be defended. Not only are the frontlines moving during war but Russia’s continued aggressive intent and claim to (parts of) Ukrainian territory poses a more fundamental problem.

NATO’s history suggests that Ukraine will not be able to join before NATO members believe this entails a low likelihood of actually ending up in an armed conflict with Russia. The integration of Ukraine would have to be an expression of a geopolitical consolidation rather than change.

NATO members will not be sufficiently assured that their extension of membership to Ukraine will entail geopolitical consolidation in the absence of a peace or at least a ceasefire agreement between Russia and Ukraine similar to the one between North and South Korea that give assurance of geopolitical stability. A return to low-conflict lines of contact similar to what used to exist in the Donbas between 2014 and 2022 would not suffice. As long as stability is unachieved, NATO is unlikely to offer Ukraine anything closer to membership. Western punditry should adapt to this reality and, if they wish to support Ukraine, better focus on how to convince decision makers to increase Western weapon supplies. Here, decision makers have proven less risk averse than on the membership issue.

Written By:
Henrik Larsen
Henrik Larsen is a Research Fellow at the Institute for Peace & Diplomacy.
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