Ukraine Wants To Join NATO, But What’s in it for Us?

Brussels and the U.S. must put aside sympathy and make a hard-headed evaluation of the costs and benefits

Hang on a minute. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg greets Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in Kyiv earlier this year. Image Credit: Roman Pilipey/Getty Images

Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy threatened to upend the July NATO summit in Lithuania with his public display of pique and self-pity at not having received a firm invitation to join the alliance. Fortunately for the optics, NATO leaders were able to placate him with an offer for Ukraine to join at some indeterminate date after the current war with Russia is over.

How Zelenskyy convinced himself that Ukraine could and should attain NATO membership while the current war is in progress is puzzling. While his desperation is understandable with his nation locked in an existential struggle with a determined and more powerful enemy, Zelenskyy should not realistically expect his benefactors to become his comrades in arms.

President Joe Biden splashed cold water on the idea of admitting Ukraine into NATO during a hot war, telling CNN’s Fareed Zakaria that such a discussion was “premature.” Many military analysts agree that Ukraine is not ready to join NATO, and more importantly, the alliance is not ready for what would come next. “Ukraine cannot join NATO before the current conflict with Russia is settled because NATO is not ready for direct war with Russia,” says Michal Fiszer, a former Polish air force fighter pilot, professor at the Collegium Civitas in Warsaw and a frequent contributor to Discourse. “It is not ready mentally, physically, or industrially.”

This Means War

Fiszer says that if Ukraine were to join NATO now, war between Russia and the Atlantic alliance would be the inevitable outcome, and the West is absolutely not ready for such a war. At the same time, some analysts suggest that NATO membership for Ukraine need not necessarily mean war. Bruce Thornton, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, recently noted that NATO’s Article 5 protections actually give members wiggle room about the necessity of coming to another’s defense if attacked, with armed force being only one possible response.

“That means actually funding and mobilizing a nation’s military can be replaced by speechifying at the U.N., issuing blustering diplomatic demarches, or sending money or weapons and other materiel,” Thornton wrote. “This suggests that even if Ukraine had been a NATO member, the alliance’s response wouldn’t have been much different from the current one.”

While cynical—and quite possibly correct—the notion that Russia would refrain from eagerly enlarging the war to Ukraine’s NATO allies is a nonstarter. The Russian government has made this quite clear.

Even if Russia has shown itself to have a much less effective military than feared, it is still a formidable, nuclear-armed adversary willing to accept massive casualties in pursuit of its goals. According to Fiszer, traditional analyses of Russia’s military calculations fail because Western analysts do not understand its willingness to accept losses in order to inflict them.

“In Russia there is nothing like ‘unacceptable losses.’” he says. “Russia would force NATO into a prolonged and extremely costly war, which would devastate Europe and even impact the U.S. economy and society.”

If Not Now, When?

Since most, but not all, Western leaders can be counted on (probably) not to vote their nations into a great power war by admitting Ukraine right now—and such a decision would have to be unanimous—at what point, if ever, would Ukraine membership in the alliance become desirable? It’s a given that Ukraine would say, as soon as possible! But what do the other members get out of it?

It is very temping to answer the above questions: never and nothing.

Such responses draw fast rebukes from those of the “as soon as possible” school. Robert Kaufman, professor of political science at Pepperdine University, asserts that Ukraine is doing the United States and the rest of NATO a great service by opposing the Russian invasion. Ukraine’s fight is our fight as well, he argues, and the country’s experienced and dedicated soldiers would benefit the alliance, whatever risks this might entail.

“Unrealistic realists opposed to Ukraine joining NATO gullibly base their objections on Putin’s tendentious account of Russian history, and on his spurious claim that NATO’s eastward expansion provoked Russia needlessly and recklessly,” Kaufman recently wrote. “This is false. NATO is a defensive alliance, hardly a genuine threat to a Russian state spanning eleven time zones even minus Ukraine.”

Through not entirely wrong, Kaufman’s assertion is incomplete. While a significant faction of those opposed to providing material support for Ukraine’s war may believe flawed U.S. policies goaded Putin’s Russia into invading, more mainstream views hold that America has more pressing concerns, particularly in the Pacific, or that our involvement risks making a bad situation worse. Regardless, support for providing war materials to Ukraine remains stronger than not doing so, with many arguing that Ukraine’s battlefield success is in America’s interest.

Michal Fiszer subscribes to Kaufman’s view of Ukraine’s value to NATO, if disagreeing on the timeline of its ultimate membership.

“Ukraine has valuable combat experience against the most likely and dangerous enemy of NATO,” he said. “Properly trained, equipped and integrated, it could bring great military potential to be used in accordance with the alliance’s needs.”

NATO Expansion Is Popular

According to a recent RealClear Opinion Research survey, 77% of American voters it polled said NATO remains essential for the nation’s security, while 53% supported Ukraine joining the alliance (29% were opposed). At the same time, 68% of those surveyed said Sweden joining NATO was a good idea, with 10% opposed.

There also is broad support for U.S. military assistance to Ukraine and some may see eventual NATO membership as a natural outgrowth of that. Certainly, the ascension of Ukraine and Sweden (if the former were to occur) comes with different benefits, costs and risks. Putin isn’t particularly happy about Sweden—or Finland, for that matter—joining NATO but his (or his successor’s) reactions to Ukraine doing so can be counted on to be much more extreme.

Mark Moyar, a senior adviser at the U.S. Agency for International Development, recently pointed out that NATO membership could factor into ending the Russia-Ukraine war.

“The United States or NATO could insist on a formal alliance with Ukraine as the price Putin must pay for retaining possession of some Ukrainian territory,” Moyar wrote. “A NATO alliance would serve as a powerful enticement to the Ukrainians to accept a compromise peace.”

Or not. Putin seems more likely than Zelenskyy at this point to go for some sort of compromise peace plan. Putin would want to keep most of the territory he has seized so far, but no amount of inducement may get him to accept NATO membership for Ukraine. For his part, Zelenskyy still insists on liberating all Ukrainian land taken and occupied since 2014. Accepting Russian annexations may be too bitter a pill to swallow even with NATO membership as a sweetener. Also, even with a peace deal, Russia’s continued occupation of some parts of Ukraine could be a potential source of future conflict that risks dragging in NATO allies.

Lise Howard, professor of government at Georgetown University, and Michael O’Hanlon, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, recently wrote that the focus on NATO membership for Ukraine is misplaced because it does not improve the security situation: “Although Kyiv’s desire to join NATO is understandable, any such membership is virtually guaranteed to ensure a hostile relationship with Russia indefinitely, even after Putin, because it is an alliance that Russia will never be allowed to join.”

The authors add that a troubling aspect of this enduring hostility is that Russia would endeavor to undermine Ukraine’s security, even if it were in NATO, “if not by classic aggression, then by subterfuge and covert action.”

Michal Fiszer, while supporting NATO membership for Ukraine after the war ends, nevertheless agrees that Russia has developed methods for waging what he calls “mutiny war” against vulnerable NATO states, such as the Baltics or a future Ukraine at peace. Using the aforementioned subterfuge and covert action, Russia would factionalize and ultimately neutralize and even conquer a country by turning it against its allies. “The mutiny war concept was developed by senior Russian military authorities and is not well appreciated in the West,” Fiszer said.

Howard and O’Hanlon also state that merely arming Ukraine in a “porcupine” strategy is insufficient. Since NATO membership for Ukraine is a step too far and the porcupine strategy is no long-term solution, they suggest a new alliance structure, an Atlantic-Asian Security Community, be formed, perhaps involving the United Nations, that could incorporate countries such as India and China not seen as hostile to Russia, and maybe one day Russia itself.

On the other hand, the obstacles to creating a brand-new global alliance structure out of whole cloth as a solution to the Ukraine problem appear insurmountable. It is difficult enough to get NATO members to pony up their requisite 2% of GDP on military expenditures. Furthermore, roping disparate nations into a new security framework with bite barring an agreed-on existential threat seems unlikely at best. Alliances generally don’t work that way.

All for One, One for All

Indeed, alliances generally form as mutual protection against a powerful rival or coalition. They may form to deter enemies or to more effectively prosecute a war against them through coordinated action. Historically, European alliances tended to form and disperse with evolving power struggles and fortunes. A partner in one war may become an enemy in the next. It was not uncommon for a particular alliance member to defect to the other side while a war was still in progress.

Ultimately, the membership and cohesion of a given alliance was driven primarily by the perceived interests of the individual powers. If NATO is unusual as an example of a long-standing alliance, the nature of the Cold War tended to keep the international strategic system relatively static. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has injected new energy and relevance into the alliance.

The recent ascension of Finland to NATO membership, likely to be joined by Sweden later this year, demonstrates that the alliance is not opposed to expansion. Furthermore, Finland shares a large border with Russia and President Vladimir Putin has not been shy about expressing his displeasure about its joining NATO. Yet both Finland and the existing members of NATO saw mutual benefit, even with the risks of increased Russian friction.

Finland has exercised with NATO forces in the past but became keen to formally join when Russia invaded Ukraine in 2022. So, Russia really only has itself to blame if the noose tightens around it. Finland’s land border with Russia is difficult terrain and favors the defense, as several rounds of Russo-Finnish wars have shown in the past.

In the bargain, NATO gains a lot of real estate with which to improve its defense of the Baltic region, in particular the Baltic States of Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia, all of which are NATO members and former Soviet republics now under Russian threat. These small nations are vulnerable and Finnish bases provide dispersed and defensible locations from which to protect them. Also, NATO is already committed to defending member Norway in the event of war. Neighbor Finland expands NATO’s options for managing Scandinavian defense. Sweden’s expected ascension will increase NATO’s command of the Baltic and Scandinavian regions.

By contrast, Ukrainian membership in NATO, even a decade hence, becomes a burden and an ongoing war risk for the existing members of the alliance. While it almost certainly would provide Ukraine some deterrence against future Russian aggression, the question is whether the country’s military value and strategic position is worth the risk of great power war. A lot of that depends on what the peace ending the current Russia-Ukraine war looks like.

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