NATO should reconsider its policy on Ukraine’s membership
NATO and western countries have pledged to support Ukraine for as long as it takes. At the same time, the United States and other countries have abstained from giving Ukraine long-range weapons and talk about Ukraine’s victory without aiming for a Russian defeat. This approach leaves Ukraine in a situation where it is expected to win with its hands tied.
One of the key questions facing NATO on the eve of the 2023 Vilnius summit is whether to offer Ukraine security guarantees, while Ukraine insists that it should be given a clear path to membership. In June 2022 the NATO Alliance defined Russia as the most significant and direct threat to Allies’ security and to peace and stability in the Euro-Atlantic area. However, it has been careful to avoid a direct confrontation.
NATO’s position has been that Ukraine belongs to the NATO family but formally will join only after the war ends. The policy, however, risks prolonging the conflict and leaves the decision on Ukraine’s membership in Russian hands with possible negative consequences.
Different approaches to war
After over nine years of war against Ukraine, Russia has shown an approach to war which is significantly different from the West. The West tends to compartmentalise and concentrate on deescalating a conflict situation. It values human life and peace, and its goal is to reach peace talks and resolve the conflict at the heart of a war diplomatically. The West generally resorts to force only if there is no other way.
Russia, on the other hand, takes a systemic approach and treats force as an instrument of statecraft. It launched its unprovoked aggression against Ukraine despite all preceding diplomatic efforts. It continuously uses non-military and sub-threshold means against Ukraine and western countries, and even holds African countries hostage to the related food crisis to advance its war aims. At the same time, Russian diplomacy speaks in ultimatums. Some researchers even describe the Russian negotiation style as “war by other means”.
The hope among western analysts that Ukraine’s victory on the battlefield will end the hostilities and lead to peace talks rests on the assumption that Russia thinks the way the West does. However, eight years of negotiations within the Minsk process together with recent moves, such as the annexation of four additional Ukrainian oblasts, forcing Russian passports on residents of occupied territories, annulling the Ukrainian citizenship of Ukrainian children abducted to Russia, etc., suggest that Russia is not looking for a resolution to the conflict. In the words of NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg himself, “President Putin doesn’t plan for peace, he’s planning for more war.”
It is also important to note that China has become a lot more active in the conflict recently. A year into the war, Beijing presented “China’s Position on the Political Settlement of the Ukraine Crisis”. The West tends to look at China and Russia as two different problems. However, a notable indication to the contrary is that China fails to condemn Russian aggression in Ukraine and does not call for Russia to withdraw its troops. There is clear overlap in Chinese and Russian interests when it comes to NATO. Both countries are interested in weakening the West, although each of them for their own reasons. Nevertheless, their methods often go hand in hand. Hence, it is no surprise that the Chinese proposals, just like the Minsk deal before them, are inherently contradictory and are likely to lead to years of fruitless talks and allow Russia to reconstitute itself.
NATO policy has stressed that it is not at war with Russia on the one hand, and that it is helping Ukraine win on the other. “The main focus of the alliance, of NATO allies now, is to ensure that Ukraine prevails. It is to ensure that Ukraine continues to be a sovereign, independent democratic nation in Europe,” Politico quoted the NATO secretary general as saying during his visit to Kyiv on April 20th 2023. “Because that is the only way to also have a meaningful discussion about Ukraine’s future membership.”
It is worth stressing that in many ways, Ukraine has already prevailed. Russia’s efforts to quash Ukrainian statehood have failed. Ukraine has also made its sovereign choice to join NATO. A symbolic joint application to NATO was signed by the Ukrainian president, prime minister and chairman of the Verkhovna Rada (Ukraine’s parliament) on September 30th 2022. The decision also has unprecedented popular support among the country’s society. According to an IRI poll made public on March 22nd 2023, 82 per cent of Ukrainians expressed record support for their country’s membership in NATO.
NATO’s policy of avoiding direct confrontation with Russia does not make confrontation any less likely. NATO may claim that it’s not at war with Russia but Russia is at war with it. One needs to keep in mind, though, that Russia defines war differently. It does not draw a line between military and non-military means. The nuances of a policy in which lethal aid is provided via the Alliance members rather than via the Alliance itself seem to be completely lost on Russia. The policy does not prevent it from hybrid and sub-threshold attacks on western countries. But does this mean that Russia is likely to go over the threshold? It will not. Since 1991 Russia has never attacked an equal or a stronger enemy. It’s aggression against Ukraine was not even planned as a full-fledged military operation because it expected no resistance. The war in Ukraine has significantly degraded its forces. The sub-threshold attacks are meant harms the West but to avoid serious retaliation. It also has a record of backing down when it’s met with force.
NATO and western countries have pledged to support Ukraine for as long as the support is needed. At the same time, the United States and other countries have abstained from giving Ukraine long-range weapons, refused to take it under the NATO umbrella and talked about Ukraine’s victory without aiming for Russia’s defeat. This approach leaves Ukraine in a situation where it is expected to win with its hands tied. In addition, under this policy Russia will remain intact and capable of carrying on after a reconstitution. With little prospect of serious negotiations, as explained above, Ukraine will remain a low hanging fruit for Russia. With China’s backing, Russia will unfortunately be able to sustain the conflict for a long time.
There are two significant consequences of this policy that is aiming for Ukraine’s victory without a Russian defeat. The first is that such a policy places the decision about Ukraine’s NATO membership – which should belong to Ukraine and NATO – alone in Russian hands. The other is that it increases the likelihood of Ukraine’s defeat in the long run since the West is likely to lose interest. This is what Russia and China are banking on. Given how invested the West is in Ukraine’s victory, such a situation will also constitute a western defeat. Lastly, it could even pave the way for Ukrainians to fight against NATO as part of the Russian army, should Russia manage to occupy and annex more territory and later decide that an opportune moment for an attack on Europe has arrived.
Ukraine joining NATO on the other hand would be a final defeat for Vladimir Putin and Russia’s imperial policy. Despite the extensive use of threats, Russia is highly unlikely to attack a stronger enemy, especially now that its forces are significantly weakened. It also tends to back down when it is faced with force. Hence, instead of escalating the existing conflict, Ukraine’s NATO membership would actually end it. This is the outcome that both Ukraine and NATO should be striving for.
Yulia Kazdobina is the head of the Ukrainian Foundation for Security Studies and a senior fellow with the foreign policy council “Ukrainian Prism”. She is a former advisor to the Ukrainian Ministry of Information Policy.