Should Ukraine Join NATO? Four Questions We Must Ask

At its Vilnius Summit this month, NATO’s member-states promised, again, that Ukraine will be admitted into the alliance at some point in the future. Tellingly, however, they refused to give a timetable for Ukraine’s accession — and the leaders of several allied nations, U.S. President Joe Biden included, raised doubts about Kyiv’s suitability for membership. According to media reports, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was furious.

Why Ukraine Should Be in NATO

There are several arguments in favor of Ukraine joining NATO.

One is that Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine jeopardizes the security of the entire North Atlantic region, so all members of the alliance would obviously benefit from a postwar arrangement that rules out the prospect of another war. But because Ukraine will probably be too weak to deter Russia with its own conventional forces for the foreseeable future — and because nobody wants to see Kyiv develop a nuclear deterrent of its own — the only way to guarantee peace in Eastern Europe is to admit Ukraine into NATO.

Another argument is that Ukraine would strengthen the security of all NATO members because of its proven ability to inflict stinging military defeats upon Russia. If there were ever a war between Russia and the West, this line of reasoning holds, it would be enormously beneficial to have Ukrainian units assisting in the defense of Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, or wherever else Russia might choose to invade.

Finally, there is the argument that Ukraine deserves to join NATO because it has paid the price of admission with the blood of its fallen soldiers. This is not an argument about what Ukraine could offer NATO, nor even about what NATO could offer Ukraine. It is a moral argument about sacrifice and obligation, and it is somewhat divorced from material security considerations.

Why There Are Legitimate Doubts

These might be compelling arguments. But there are at least four questions that should be answered before Ukraine is offered NATO membership.

First, proponents must explain how the commitment to defend Ukraine against a future Russian attack would appear credible in the eyes of Russian leaders — the very people who must be deterred from invading Ukraine in the future. Deterrence only works, and wars are only averted, if adversaries believe the threats that are made against them.

Second, might Ukraine’s accession into NATO complicate the process of ending the war? As others have argued, it is plausible that Russian President Vladimir Putin will not stop fighting in Ukraine if he believes this would be tantamount to accepting Kyiv’s NATO membership. Is this correct? If not, why not?

Third, how confident are proponents of NATO expansion that Ukraine will emerge from this war as a stable, unified, and orderly sovereign state with total control over the armed groups operating on its territory? In the recent past, pro-Ukraine militias have launched armed attacks on Russian soil. Can NATO members be confident that these militias will be disbanded or brought under the control of Kyiv once the war is over? Or should we expect cross-border raids into Russia, a nuclear-armed power, to continue?

Finally, there is a question that will probably never be answered aloud, but which surely needs to be considered in private: What would happen if Ukraine joined NATO, was attacked by Russia, and the rest of the alliance determined that it was unwise to intervene on Kyiv’s behalf? This could happen, for example, in the unlikely event that Ukraine (or a pro-Ukraine militia of the sort described above) provoked an attack from Russia, or if Russia conducted a relatively minor incursion.

In other words, what plans are in place for NATO to abandon a formal ally if abandonment happens to make strategic sense in a specific instance? This was an important question before the war in Ukraine. It was never answered, and it has only become more salient with talk of further enlargement.

Time to Get Real

Of all these questions, the first is the most pressing. How could a promise to fight for Ukraine be made believable? Would it require the stationing of NATO forces on Ukrainian soil? This, after all, is what Poland and Baltic states demanded after the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014, and there is no reason to believe that Ukraine would act any different. Is this really something that the alliance, and the United States in particular, is willing to do?

Despite their best efforts, proponents of NATO enlargement have so far failed to convince skeptics that they have practicable ideas to solve the problems created by extraordinary commitments. This is a serious shortcoming. No military alliance should ever be attempted when one side’s commitment to defending the other is in doubt.

The case for Ukrainian membership in NATO has merits. It should not be rejected for dogmatic reasons — it is a serious proposal meant to solve a grave problem. At the same time, anxieties about NATO enlargement must not be dismissed, either. It serves nobody’s interests to limit the parameters of acceptable debate over an issue as important as this.

Dr. Peter Harris is an associate professor of political science at Colorado State University, a non-resident fellow at Defense Priorities, and a contributing editor at 19FortyFive.

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