What would happen if, hypothetically, NATO decides to make Ukraine a member of the Alliance a couple of weeks after the NATO Summit in Vilnius on 11 – 12 July 2023?
Just to be clear: I don’t expect NATO to take that step, but I strongly believe it would be the smart thing to do.
The Ukrainian membership question is on the summit agenda. Fast-track membership, as offered to Finland and Sweden, is presently not seen as an option, though several countries have asked for just that. Both the Estonian parliament and the Polish Senate adopted statements in support of Ukraine's NATO accession. The Polish senators backed an accelerated accession based on the precedent set for Sweden and Finland.
Some member states want to officially put Ukraine on the path to membership.
The Group of European People's Party (EPP Group) called on all NATO members to formally endorse both the Ukrainian Peace Formula and the Kyiv Security Compact recommendations and to actively contribute to their implementation.
“The EPP Group expects that the upcoming Vilnius and Washington summits pave the way to extend an invitation to Ukraine to join NATO and that the accession process will start after the war is over and be finalized as soon as possible. This will strengthen our Alliance and be a further step towards sustainable peace in Europe.”
According to Euractiv, a Europe-wide media group, NATO might end up just offering to upgrade the current status of the relationship with Ukraine by setting up an enhanced version of the current "Ukraine-NATO Council." European Pravda claims that:
“Under the plan, Ukraine would be a "full-fledged" member around the Ukraine-NATO Council table instead of being only invited for discussions as is the case now. Kyiv could then call for meetings when they wish, and it would be easier to give a direct update on the situation on the battlefield.
Those could include more intelligence sharing and consultations, joint exercises, investment in the defense industry, and work on the interoperability between Ukraine’s and the NATO member states’ armed forces, giving Kyiv the option to align with NATO’s communiqués and standards.”
Even Ukraine, however, acknowledges that it is unlikely to become a member state until after the war ends. At the same time, it is actively promoting its need for security guarantees until membership has been achieved. It is looking to both guarantees currently applied to Sweden (which is waiting for Turkey and Hungary to accept its membership application) and Israel. Ultimately, no solutions than NATO membership itself provide better security guarantees.
Still, it's important to ask the question: What would happen if, hypothetically, NATO declares Ukraine a member a couple of weeks after the NATO Summit?
Some fear an escalation of the war into a broader confrontation that has, in reality, already been ongoing for years. Some oppose it out of fear, believing that an accession of Ukraine into NATO would trigger a nuclear confrontation leading to WWIII. Others seek a political solution which could appease the aggressor, despite the failure of such an approach over more than 9 years. Some simply believe it runs counter to their own national interests.
None of the above, however, changes the fact that without Ukraine, there is no sustainable European security architecture. NATO will not be able to defend the security and stability of its member states without Ukraine.
The Alliance’s pre-requisite that new membership candidates cannot have any unresolved border disputes with their neighboring countries prevents a crucially important debate. The starting point of such a debate might, therefore, be just: Does the pre-condition serve its purpose when it triggers wars and conflicts along NATO’s external borders?
The prerequisite was introduced by NATO and can, therefore, be removed by NATO.
It can be done if the member states find it in their common national interest to withdraw it. Removing it does not mean all applicants automatically become eligible for membership. The Alliance would still have to consider each application individually. Its removal, however, would allow for the accession process to start, without necessarily changing the outcome.
I believe that the ongoing broader confrontation – including the war in Ukraine – is a testimony to the failure of diplomacy.
I have previously argued that a Ukrainian-NATO accession, which in essence would be the ultimate diplomatic outcome in the present security situation, might help end the war. As one expert framed it:
Ukrainian membership of NATO would constitute a Russian defeat.
Some of the arguments in favor of its immediate NATO accession are:
1. The West is already a party to the war. Not only because of Russia’s stated foreign strategy aims and objectives, its threat assessments, its military doctrine and concepts supporting its strategic aim and objectives, and its hybrid war against the West but also its inherent imperialistic nature. The EU has already recognized that its member states – most of which are also NATO members – are exposed to a Russian Hybrid War. Acknowledging the conflict and the threat would force NATO to act upon the transgression. It would be the first step in forcing Russia to withdraw.
2. Russia does not want to fight the Alliance. It has done its utmost to limit Western support for Ukraine and not least, avoid a military confrontation with NATO. It succeeded in stopping the US and Europe from helping to rebuild Ukrainian deterrence during the previous 8 years. Since Feb 24, 2022, its previous and ongoing efforts to shape the minds of both populations, as well as key policy and decision-makers in the West has resulted in a slow and incremental inflow of weapons and ammunitions. The West is still struggling to pass the two last “mental hurdles”: Executing a military intervention according to its late strategic concept and the UN “Responsible to Protect” doctrine and accepting Ukraine as a NATO member. Despite Russia’s information and influence operations – backed by its belligerent and outright threatening strategic messaging – Russia has in fact been trying to avoid a military confrontation over fear of being defeated.
3. NATO members are already defending themselves in Ukraine. Eastern Europe has been advocating for NATO to act according to its previous strategic concept for years. Failing to achieve consensus, they have still bilaterally acted according to the concept by providing Ukraine with what it needs at an unprecedented scale and scope. Additionally, most NATO members have long acknowledged that Ukraine is defending European security and stability as well as its shared values and principles. It is our fight to fight, and we should be defending our shared values and principles shoulder-to-shoulder with the Ukrainian soldiers.
4. It could end the war. A simple diplomatic declaration of Ukraine’s NATO membership, would fundamentally change the military balance without firing a shot. By making Ukraine a fully integrated member of the Alliance, NATO becomes an official party to the war on the date of accession. It would mean that if Russia continued attacking Ukraine after its accession into NATO, it would trigger collective defense according to Article 5. It is a NATO “fait accompli”: Accept it or accept the consequences of continuing the war. It provides a clear and non-negotiable red line. As previously argued, it would also offer Putin an off-ramp. Russia will never accept being defeated by Ukraine, a nation it alleges “does not exist”, but it would accept a strategic withdrawal when facing the world’s strongest military alliance.
Some would argue that this would trigger WWIII. In my opinion, given the sorrowful state of the Russian armed forces and its role as the aggressor, it would present Russia with a small dilemma: Does it want to fight the collective might of US and Europe? Or would it prefer to withdraw its remaining military and security forces to secure its own internationally recognized borders?
Russia does not possess the means to escalate a war in which it has already lost the military initiative; where it is increasingly forced to deploy antique weapon systems and poorly trained, demotivated, mobilized personnel.
I have previously argued why a nuclear confrontation is extremely unlikely. I have also argued, however, why a failure to stop and evict Russia from Ukraine will lead to further aggression. The West either stops Russia in Ukraine today or accepts the risks that the military confrontation will spread further, tomorrow.
Will NATO declare Ukraine a member state at the NATO Summit? It doesn’t seem likely. It should, however, not stop us from calling for just that: Present Russia with a fait accompli by accepting Ukraine as a NATO member at Vilnius. Ensure a Russian defeat through that one, simple diplomatic decision.
The views expressed in this opinion article are the author’s and not necessarily those of Kyiv Post.
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