Should NATO embrace Ukraine?

Should NATO embrace Ukraine?
Annie Gugliotta

Ukraine is once again in a tough spot.


Since 2014, Moscow has supported and armed separatist rebels inside Ukraine's Donbas region along the border with Russia in order to weaken Ukraine's government and thwart its plans to one day join NATO and the European Union. Off-and-on fighting there, which began after Russian forces seized Crimea from Ukraine seven years ago, has killed about 14,000 people.

Earlier this week, in response to an ominous buildup of Russian troops near the Ukrainian-Russian border, Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky told NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg that Ukrainian membership in "NATO is the only way to end the war in Donbas." He added that a NATO decision to give Ukraine a so-called membership action plan, opening a long-term process toward membership, would provide "a real signal for Russia." That plan would require political, economic, security, and legal reforms to bring Ukraine into line with NATO standards.

Russian officials have dismissed Zelensky's government as "children playing with matches" and warned that a new Ukrainian military operation in the Donbas would trigger "the beginning of the end of Ukraine."

So… should NATO now give Ukraine a plan toward eventual membership in the alliance? There are good arguments for and against.

Arguments for

Ukraine, an independent nation of 44 million people, has the right to decide for itself which allies to embrace and which clubs to join. The Russian government, which considers Ukraine a part of Russia's "sphere of influence," continues to undermine its territorial integrity to keep Ukraine in Russia's shadow. NATO should stand against this aggression by giving Kyiv the ultimate defense against Russian meddling.

Recent history exposes the absurdity of arguments that NATO membership for Ukraine would provoke Russia. NATO restraint didn't prevent Russia from invading Crimea and stoking war in the Donbas, both of which created new problems for Europe. Russia has no respect for NATO restraint.

By offering Ukraine a plan to join, the alliance would spur Ukraine to accelerate the reforms of its military, security services, politics, and economy that Europe and the US have wanted for a generation.

Ukraine can strengthen NATO. Last year, the alliance granted Ukraine "enhanced opportunities" for deeper cooperation, and Ukraine has already contributed troops to support NATO operations in Afghanistan and Kosovo. The reforms demanded for full membership would make Ukraine an even more valuable ally.

NATO promised. As Ukraine's foreign minister noted in February, NATO pledged in 2008 that Ukraine (and fellow former Soviet republic Georgia) will become NATO members one day and encouraged both countries to apply. How long must Ukraine wait to begin this process? Until Russia says it's OK?

Arguments against

Article 5 of NATO's founding treaty requires all member states to defend any fellow member that comes under attack. That's the cornerstone of the alliance. But a median of 50 percent of people in 16 NATO member countries states said last year that their country should not defend a fellow NATO ally against Russian attack. Just 38 percent said it should. If that many people won't support military action to help an existing alliance member, how many would back an armed defense of Ukraine? The leaders of NATO countries can't ignore that question.

And that's a special problem for Ukraine, because Russia has already invaded. NATO members don't recognize Russia's annexation of Crimea, and they condemn Russian involvement in the Donbas. By admitting Ukraine as a member, isn't NATO on the hook for evicting Russian troops from those two regions?

Initiating membership can make the current conflict worse. By itself, the membership action plan doesn't provide an Article 5 security guarantee. If NATO were to grant one to Ukraine, Russia would have every incentive to destabilize Ukraine much more dramatically than it already has in order to derail the membership process. That's the opposite of what NATO and Ukraine want.

Fear of that scenario helps explain why there's no groundswell of support for NATO membership even in Ukraine. In November 2020, just 41 percent of Ukrainians said NATO membership is a good idea. (About 37 percent hoped Ukraine would remain non-aligned, while 13 percent supported partnership with Russia.) These results are broadly consistent with other recent surveys.

The status quo isn't that bad for NATO or Ukraine. It isn't fear of NATO that prevents Vladimir Putin from ordering a full-on invasion of Ukraine. It's that large numbers of Russian troops would be killed, that occupation of Ukraine over many years would be hugely expensive, and that lasting support of the Russian people for that undertaking is far from certain.

So... strong arguments on both sides. Tell us what you think.

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