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It’s Time to Close the Door on NATO Membership for Ukraine

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NATO leaders are meeting next week in Washington, DC to mark the alliance’s 75th anniversary. Yet despite the fanfare, in a repeat of what transpired at last year’s summit in Vilnius, allies will undoubtedly fail to provide Ukraine with a clear pathway to membership.

More than two years since Russia launched its war of aggression against Ukraine, the West still has no strategy. Given that Kyiv’s maximalist demands appear increasingly out of reach, the United States and key allies should turn the page on this lengthy – and dangerous – chapter of indecision and begin to shift their focus toward devising a pragmatic compromise to the question of Ukraine’s security status.

What Is It We Want?

Thus far, regarding the war in Ukraine, the Biden administration has only managed to make clear what it does not want: it does not want Ukraine to lose the war and it does not want a direct military confrontation between NATO and Russia.

As the tide of the war has turned and Ukraine begins to face up to its manpower shortage, the tension between these two goals has become more manifest: without more direct NATO involvement, Ukraine risks losing the war, but such an intervention obviously risks a direct NATO-Russia clash. The resulting “strategy”, which is not durable, centres on providing continued sizable commitments to Ukraine but without offering it tangible steps toward NATO membership.

Beyond its two bottom-line goals, what the US does want remains uncertain. One plausible answer is some kind of Russian strategic defeat – one that largely knocks Moscow out of today’s burgeoning great power competition and allows the US to focus more of its resources on China. Indeed, the current vague policy of supporting Ukraine for “as long as it takes” while leaving the endgame unclear lends itself to an open-ended conflict aimed at attritting Russian manpower and weakening its economic power base.

From today’s vantage point, whether Russia has been weakened by the combination of Western sanctions and the Ukrainian war effort remains very much uncertain. But this consideration aside, the Western refusal to entertain a genuine diplomatic solution to the war has, on its own, proven self-defeating.

The Western refusal to entertain a genuine diplomatic solution to the war has, on its own, proven self-defeating.

Not only has the Western approach necessitated tightening the screws on China over its support for Russia – which only deepens the Sino-Russian alignment – it has also come at the expense of Western influence in the Global South, where competition with China will partly play out. Leading democracies from the Global South – Brazil, India, Indonesia, Mexico and South Africa – refrained from signing the joint communiqué at the recent Ukraine “peace summit” in Switzerland (which itself only covered three of the more uncontroversial points of President Zelensky’s decalogue), dealing a possible lethal blow to the Western effort to frame competition with China as a struggle between democracy and authoritarianism.

Furthermore, if the American focus on negatives – no Ukrainian defeat and no NATO-Russia war – is aimed at limiting escalation of the conflict, then this, too, may fail.

Thus far, Washington has focused on providing Kyiv with material support, eschewing the difficult political choices associated with addressing Ukraine’s security status. This is partly because each of the three ideal-type options presents a major drawback: NATO membership risks war with Russia, the US cannot countenance leaving Ukraine to a restored Russian sphere of influence, and Washington cannot impose neutrality on Kyiv while simultaneously claiming to defend Ukrainian agency.

But far from respecting Ukraine’s agency, leaving this issue unresolved has produced a situation in which Washington is de facto haggling with Moscow over Ukraine’s future security status – a contest which will be determined on the battlefield. This, in turn, risks providing Kyiv with an incentive to escalate, with the aim of drawing Washington deeper into the conflict to tilt this contest in its favour.

Adjusting U.S. Policy to Reflect American Priorities

Since the beginning of Russia’s full-scale invasion, the Biden administration has not minced words: nothing less than the “rules-based international order” itself is at stake. Yet despite the lofty rhetoric, in reality Ukraine remains a comparatively low priority for the administration.

President Biden opted to skip the recent Ukrainian peace summit, choosing instead to attend a campaign fundraiser in California. An even more damning fact: Secretary of State Antony Blinken has travelled to the Middle East eight times since the Israel-Hamas war broke out in October 2023. By contrast, the secretary has travelled to Ukraine just five times since Russia issued its ultimatum draft treaties to the West in December 2021 – and only once since Hamas’s attack on Israel.

This gap between rhetoric and reality should encourage the administration to take more seriously the task of finally ending Ukraine’s status as a security grey zone on the map of Europe. Ukraine’s security status – the size and capabilities of its military, the degree of its alignment with the West, and the extent of the foreign troop presence on its soil – is arguably of greater importance to Russia than territorial gains, the latter of which are more of a means to an end. This explains Russia’s stated war aims of “demilitarization and denazification”, as well as its decision to launch the war with a run on Kyiv.

Compromise will be an unavoidable feature of a European security order that can no longer be based on the premise that NATO enlargement is coterminous with the spread of security writ large.

The war in Ukraine is a nested conflict: not just a direct confrontation between Russia and Ukraine but also a competition between NATO and Russia over the future shape of the European security order. Settling Ukraine’s security status will prove extremely challenging and will necessarily involve compromise – something that does not jibe easily with Western assertions that Ukraine has a right “to choose its own destiny”. But compromise will be an unavoidable feature of a European security order that can no longer be based on the premise – encouraged by the belief that Russia would either liberalize or fade away as a power of significance – that NATO enlargement is coterminous with the spread of security writ large.

Whether by choice, by inertia, or by reactiveness, NATO and the European Union have become the dominant institutions of the post-Cold War European security order – institutions in which Russia has no say and which it has no prospect of ever joining. This created a tension at the core of the continental order: either Russia is accorded a veto on issues affecting European security, thereby undermining the membership privileges and decision-making processes of these two institutions; or Russia is denied a veto, in which case nearly every country in Europe holds a veto save for the continent’s most militarily powerful state.

This dynamic has produced perverse outcomes, encouraging, for example, the 2008 NATO Bucharest Summit decision that Ukraine and Georgia “will become members of NATO”. This not only antagonized Moscow without providing Kyiv and Tbilisi with any tangible guarantees, but also prioritized alliance unity and the principle that Russia should not be accorded a veto over NATO decisions ahead of actual strategic sense. Of course, whether the West accords Russia a veto or not is irrelevant – it automatically retains one, to the extent that allies are not prepared to risk war with it as the price of bringing Ukraine into NATO.

Toward a Post-NATO-centric Europe

In a post-Cold War Europe marked by NATO-centrism, unipolarity and the “end of history”, NATO enlargement could be undertaken without verily considering how new members would be defended. This was no longer the case when it came to Sweden and Finland’s recent accession, but these countries were already EU members with deep defence and intelligence ties to the West and whose contributions to allied defence are easy to articulate. None of the above applies in the case of Ukraine.

NATO’s dithering over Ukraine’s promised accession for the past 16 years, combined with the hesitancy we have seen when it comes merely to equipping (to say nothing of defending) the country to resist Russian aggression, guarantee that Moscow would not view any extension of Article 5 to Kyiv as credible. If Moscow were to test to West’s commitment to upholding its guarantee of Ukraine’s security, allies would be forced to choose between stumbling into a great power war or undermining the credibility of their collective deterrent.

Repeatedly dangling the prospect of NATO membership before Ukrainians, without any veritable prospect of fulfilling it, has created unrealistic expectations in both Kyiv and Moscow.

Repeatedly dangling the prospect of NATO membership before Ukrainians, without any veritable prospect of fulfilling it, has created unrealistic expectations in both Kyiv and Moscow – and helped to reduce the security of all nations from Vancouver to Vladivostok. An imperfect but nonetheless more stable equilibrium must be based on a mixture of coercion and compromise – on both sides. One such compromise should be to drop the fiction that Ukraine will ever join the NATO alliance.

Zachary Paikin
Zachary Paikin
Dr. Zachary Paikin is a Senior Fellow at the Institute for Peace & Diplomacy and a Research Fellow in Grand Strategy at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft in Washington, DC.
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Mark Fitzpatrick: Associate Fellow & Former Executive Director, International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS)

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Negar Mortazavi: Journalist and Political Analyst, Host of Iran Podcast

David Albright: Founder and President of the Institute for Science and International Security


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Scott Jolliffe: Chairperson, Canada Arab Business Council

Esfandyar Batmanghelidj: Founder and Publisher of Bourse & Bazaar

Nizar Ghanem: Director of Research and Co-founder at Triangle

Nicki Siamaki: Researcher at Control Risks

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Luciano Zaccara: Assistant Professor, Qatar University

Dania Thafer: Executive Director, Gulf International Forum

Kayhan Barzegar: Professor and Chair of the Department of Political Science and International Relations at the Science and Research Branch of Azad University

Barbara Slavin: Director of Iran Initiative, Atlantic Council

Sanam Shantyaei: Senior Journalist at France24 & host of Middle East Matters

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Abdullah Baabood: Academic Researcher and Former Director of the Centre for Gulf Studies, Qatar University

Trita Parsi: Executive Vice-President, Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft

Ebtesam Al-Ketbi: President, Emirates Policy Centre​

Jon Allen: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Israel

Elizabeth Hagedorn: Washington correspondent for Al-Monitor

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Erica Di Ruggiero: Director of Centre for Global Health, University of Toronto

Reyhana Patel: Head of Communications & Government Relations, Islamic Relief Canada

Amir Barmaki: Former Head of UN OCHA in Iran

Catherine Gribbin: Senior Legal Advisor for International and Humanitarian Law, Canadian Red Cross

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Chris Kilford: Former Canadian Defence Attaché in Turkey, member of the national board of the Canadian International Council (CIC)

David Dewitt: University Professor Emeritus, York University

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Joost R. Hiltermann: Director of MENA Programme, International Crisis Group

Roxane Farmanfarmaian: Affiliated Lecturer in International Relations of the Middle East and North Africa, University of Cambridge

Andrew A. Michta: Dean of the College of International and Security Studies at Marshall Center

Kelley Vlahos: Senior Advisor, Quincy Institute

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Sanam Vakil: Deputy Director of MENA Programme at Chatham House

Denise Natali: Acting Director, Institute for National Strategic Studies & Director of the Center for Strategic Research, National Defense University

Hassan Ahmadian: Professor of the Middle East and North Africa Studies, University of Tehran

Abdulaziz Sagar: Chairman, Gulf Research Center

Andrew Parasiliti: President, Al-Monitor