The leaders of NATO countries are meeting in Vilnius, Lithuania this week, with the top item on their agenda whether, when and how Ukraine should be invited to join the military alliance, in particular whether a commitment should be made today to give Ukraine “fast tract” accession to NATO as soon as the war is over. The subject has plagued NATO for nearly 30 years.
It certainly did not come up in 1990 during discussions over the reunification of Germany between Soviet President Gorbachev and US Secretary of State James Baker, at the time Ukraine did not exist as a nation. As part of the overall agreement Baker is reputed to have given Gorbachev verbal assurances that NATO forces would not move forward one inch to replace the 450,000 Soviet troops in East Germany. At the time, no one thought of NATO expansion to the East. Nevertheless, Putin interpreted the US “one inch” commitment to mean that NATO would not expand further east, justifying his invasion of Georgia and Ukraine (Crimea and Eastern Ukraine in 2014 and the whole country in 2022) by claiming that Russia was betrayed, that the US and NATO had promised Moscow not to expand to the East. In his view, extending NATO membership to ex-Soviet countries in violation of that undertaking threatened the security of Russia, and the risk of NATO expansion to Ukraine and Georgia justified his invasions. It is clear there never was a formal agreement by the US or NATO to limit NATO expansion but it is nevertheless likely that the Russians had reason to believe that even though the specific subject of NATO never came up, there was a “tacit understanding” that NATO would not expand further east, an understanding that was clearly violated with NATO growth through much of ex-Soviet Eastern Europe during the last years of the 20th Century and the first decade of the 21st Century. But even if Putin was correct to feel the US had reneged on an undertaking to Russia, surely that is not sufficient reason to invade Georgia and Ukraine.
Ukraine became independent in 1990-1991, and in the Declaration of Sovereignty adopted by parliament, the country proclaimed its intention to become “a permanently neutral state that does not participate in military blocs”. Nevertheless, Ukraine expressed interest in joining the alliance at the NATO summit in Bucharest in 2008. At the time, President George W Bush urged that NATO be expanded to include Ukraine and Georgia. It may surprise us today, but relations with Russia were such that President Putin also attended the Bucharest NATO summit to defend against the idea of NATO accession to the two countries. Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy were also against adhesion, considering that neither country was sufficiently democratic and also not wanting to antagonize Russia. The resulting ambiguous compromise during the summit satisfied no one: Ukraine was not allowed to begin the formal accession roadmap (Membership Action Plan – MAP) but was given assurances it would eventually be allowed to join NATO. At the time, only 30% of Ukrainians were favorable to NATO membership.
The situation has obviously changed dramatically, Putin’s Russia has invaded Ukraine in 2014 and 2022 and with the strong backing of the US and other NATO allies, the Ukrainians are fighting a war that many hope can lead to victory over Russian forces. Putin’s efforts to link Ukraine more closely to Russia have backfired, today Ukraine is more pro-Western than ever with one poll indicating that 83% of Ukrainians want the country to join NATO. Membership in NATO includes provisions of the famous Article 5 of the NATO charter, any attack against one NATO member is viewed as an attack against all other NATO members, meaning if Ukraine were a member of NATO today, Russia’s invasion would be considered an invasion of all NATO countries, including the US and most of the rest of Europe. Neither the US, Russia nor Europe want a full-scale war between the two camps. President Zelensky of Ukraine understands this, he has not asked for immediate accession by his country, but he has forcefully asked for a firm and binding commitment for Ukraine to become a member of NATO on a fast track, immediately at the end of the war with Russia. If the principal reason for not bringing Ukraine into NATO in the past has been to avoid the threat that Russia would invade, and that reason is clearly no longer relevant, is there any reason to hesitate to include Ukraine in NATO?
President Biden, who as a Senator was one of the most active proponents of the expansion of NATO to Eastern Europe, has indicated it is not yet time to give Ukraine a firm commitment of fast track entry for membership in NATO, claiming Ukraine is not ready and that such a measure would prevent Russia from agreeing to end the war. We do not know what will be the terms and conditions of the end of the war in Ukraine, nor what the security architecture of Europe will be once the war is over. Russia will not disappear from the map of the Europe. Even though it may be considerably weakened, it will remain an important, and powerful, nuclear-armed nation; it will continue to be concerned with its own strategic security perimeter; and it will continue to be perceived as a threat to its close neighbors. I believe it would be preferable, in such a post-Ukrainian war world, that Ukraine return to the position of non-alignment proclaimed in its Declaration of Sovereignty, linking that neutrality with a security guarantee from the US or from NATO to protect it against any renewed Russian aggression. And if the future European security architecture justifies Ukrainian accession to NATO, it is a step that can always be taken. But let us not today limit the flexibility that may be required in a future agreement to end the war with Russia, let us for the time being postpone any firm commitment to give Ukraine NATO membership.