Should NATO offer Ukraine a clear path to full membership?
What is the purpose and fundamental security task of NATO? The leaders of the Alliance have updated its Strategic Concept in June 2022; the first revision of this key NATO document since 2010. In this Clingendael Spectator series, 12 international experts answer 5 key questions on NATO’s future. Question 1: What conclusions should NATO draw from recent political disputes with Russia? Should the Alliance reach out to Ukraine (and Georgia as well), offering a clear path to full NATO membership?
The first conclusion is that Europe is highly fragmented, and that some states do not operate as NATO members vis-à-vis Russia, but as if they were non-aligned or neutral states. Second, it is clear that the energy dependence of some European states on Moscow heavily restricts their strategic freedom. And third, the stance of some Western continental European allies is undermining the trust of eastern flank countries (the Baltics and Poland) in the Alliance's Article 5-centric cohesion, should they need it.
The Ukraine crisis showed us one clear fact: Europe is already at war. Crimea was invaded, and illegally annexed, before our eyes. The Russian competitor will keep testing us. Gotland (Sweden), or Estonian frontier towns, could well be next; who knows?
We have to make a decision. There are two options: the Cold War ended, we defeated communism, so now it is time to say farewell to an old alliance. Or, we commit to NATO's capability to adapt and carry on as a determined alliance. A compromise would mean muddling through, but this confusion only harms NATO.
The current crisis stirred by Russia consolidates the return to traditional power politics in Europe with conventional, nuclear and hybrid means. It forces the traditional questions of war and peace, sovereignty and existential threats back on Europe’s agenda.
Consequently, this confirms the path of strategic adaptation that NATO allies have chosen since the annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the refocusing and (sometimes painful) re-learning of deterrence and collective defense in Europe. Yet, it also underlines that European allies have been too slow in implementing their homework, such as improving readiness, responsiveness and investing into their military.
Sovereignty and the free choice of alliances are non-negotiable rights, be it for countries actively seeking membership, like Ukraine, or those not yet decided, like Finland and Sweden. Yet, both Ukraine and NATO knew that Ukraine’s accession was not to happen anytime soon. Both sides are not yet ready for it. Instead, NATO has to define how to politically and militarily meaningfully support 1) Ukraine and Georgia, who have a promise of membership without a timetable and suffer from Russian pressure; 2) Bosnia, who has a Membership Action Plan but makes little progress; and 3) countries, like Sweden and Finland, which have not (yet) applied for membership but NATO has a close interest in cooperating with.
Vladimir Putin’s latest actions against Ukraine, violating its sovereignty, territorial integrity and withholding the right to choose its own path, goes against the fundamentals of international law. NATO has been transparent and pretty clear regarding the requirements for membership and its Open Door Policy. Steadfast commitment to these principles is key to Europe’s security, even more so under the current circumstances.
The tense situation on NATO’s borders and Russia’s behaviour towards sovereign democratic countries, once more underlines that NATO is indispensable to the security of its members. The evolving situation at the moment highlights that the Alliance always needs to be vigilant and that the new Strategic Concept should address the need for a shared understanding and structural consultations within the NATO on threats in its (near) neighbourhood (i.e., the Arctic, Western Balkans, MENA/Sahel). This should include mapping the possibilities for adversaries to create instability or proxy conflict in its neighbourhood.
It will also be essential (as the most important part underpinning NATO’s deterrence) to have an understanding of which (hybrid) activities create disunity in the Alliance and to mitigate these weaknesses proactively. Investing into Foresight Analysis and capacities would be paramount to future-proof NATO’s readiness and ability to deal with future security challenges.1
NATO should continue its current support programmes for Ukraine, as it does with other potential applicants and partners. Such programmes, that for example contribute to parliamentary oversight of the armed forces, to professionalisation and to enhanced integrity, improved personnel management et cetera, are of value to Ukraine’s democratisation process, irrespective of the current political turmoil.
Membership will in any case not be on the agenda until progress is made in these ‘technical’ areas. In the meantime nothing should be rushed, promised or done outside regular procedures when it comes to future eventual membership.
NATO should conclude that Russia is a mortal danger to countries outside of the alliance and a serious threat to those inside it. We should continue to argue that any country that meets the membership criteria NATO established in the early 1990s would contribute to security and prosperity in Europe, and we look forward to Ukraine and other countries continuing to make progress towards membership.
Further strengthening of defence and deterrence vis-à-vis Russia has to be NATO’s top priority. Regarding Georgia and Ukraine, the Alliance made a costly mistake at the Bucharest Summit in 2008, offering these states a prospect of membership without a clear path for reaching this objective. The combination of sending a political signal that alerted Russia while expressing unwillingness of NATO to seriously work towards their accession acted as an invitation to Russia to block this path.
Today, it is crucial that the Alliance does not abandon its Open Door Policy, but it also needs to be realistic about Ukraine and Georgia not being ready to join any time soon. Offering the Membership Action Plan should be accompanied with NATO’s capability to actually defend these countries, which the Alliance is not prepared to do. That said, it is important that NATO allies support Ukraine to strengthen its defence capability, which helps deter Russia’s further aggression.
The Ukraine crisis has validated the importance of US leadership in NATO. It should be seen as an impulse towards strengthening NATO’s deterrence and defence posture, which may include more deployments along the eastern flank. The Alliance cannot give in to Russian demands aimed at revising the European security system and ‘rolling back’ NATO’s presence to pre-1997 levels. Readiness for dialogue with Moscow ought to be upheld in the new document, but there has been a widening gap between the topics which the Alliance is willing to discuss and topics interesting for Russia.
As regards Ukraine and Georgia, disavowing NATO’s Open Door Policy under the pressure of Russia’s coercive diplomacy is not possible. Some member states remain rhetorically in favour of fast action on membership, but others have doubts about the wisdom of eastern enlargement. Maintaining cohesion among the Alliance’s thirty member states remains essential, which makes offering more assistance to partners – but not fast-track membership – the most prudent option.
Maintaining the pretence of phony enlargement sends dangerous signals to Moscow and has been the root cause of the Russo-Georgian war of 2008, the annexation of Crimea in 2014, and today’s Ukraine crisis. Russian behaviour is inexcusable, and Moscow does not have a veto on enlargement – but NATO is creating an argument over a matter where its defence of principle is well ahead of its practical intentions.
It is hard to think of a diplomatic way out of the current crisis with Russia that does not include at least a moratorium on Ukraine’s (and Georgia’s) membership of NATO. This should be acceptable to NATO if it is part of a broader dialogue with Russia on European security-related issues: a restored CFE treaty, a restored and amended INF treaty, and military-to-military contacts (coupled with transparency and verification measures). Russia should give credible guarantees on these issues, accept that a degree of proportionality in the Alliance’s defence and deterrence deployments to central-eastern allied states is unavoidable, and most fundamentally stop supporting dubious separatism in Donbas and actively restore these regions to Kyiv’s control.
If diplomacy fails and Russia does attack, NATO should significantly bolster its defence and deterrence assets in central-eastern allied states and continue to give Ukraine the limited assistance it has provided so far. Putting forward membership prospects during an invasion by Russia would be absurd, although the commitment made in Bucharest in 2008 (where NATO allies welcomed Ukraine's and Georgia's Euro-Atlantic aspirations for membership and agreed that these countries will become members of NATO2
) cannot be openly dropped. In the near future, conditions on the ground may have changed to the extent that a concrete membership prospect for Ukraine might become strategically feasible (and sensible) for NATO. As of now, it is not.
NATO made a mistake in 2008 when it boldly declared that Ukraine and Georgia will become members. In reality, NATO allies were not in agreement on this question. Moreover, Ukraine and Georgia were hardly ready to be serious candidates for membership of the Alliance. Today, NATO should not repeat its mistake. There should be no Membership Action Plan for the two countries, and the Alliance would be wise to let time counsel policy.
That said, NATO must uphold the principle that countries remain free to choose alliances, since the Russian alternative of a Europe divided in spheres of interests runs counter to Europe’s current security order. Giving in to Russia today would invite the moral and perhaps political collapse of the Alliance. The sound policy for NATO is therefore to support Ukraine’s and Georgia’s sovereignty and let time shape these countries’ political development and outlook.
At least two sets of long-term lessons can be drawn from the current crisis over Ukraine. First, the West and Russia are going to confront each other over spheres of influence as long as President Putin is in power. Russia has clearly refused the constitution of democratic regimes on its Western border that would be considered as anti-Russian. Ukraine is existential in this respect, and Russia will do whatever it takes to prevent Ukraine’s ‘Westernisation’.
The second lesson is that Ukraine will not join the Alliance any time soon. NATO’s Open Door Policy is not to be reneged, but allies will not risk a military confrontation with Russia over enlargement. Instead, NATO will assist Ukraine in various ways, and aims to prevent spill-over to NATO territory of any Russian incursion – of a military or hybrid nature – into Ukraine. In the shorter term, it is difficult to see what can be achieved through dialogue with Russia.3
- 1The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author in her personal capacity and do not in any way express the views of the Her Majesty’s Government, or any other entity.
- 2NATO, ‘NATO decisions on open-door policy’, 3 April 2008.
- 3The views expressed in this article are the responsibility of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the NATO Defense College, or the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.