Talk of NATO Membership for Ukraine is a Dangerous Distraction

Talk of NATO Membership for Ukraine is a Dangerous Distraction

The debate over Ukrainian membership in the alliance sustains one of Russia’s stated motivations for launching its war, undermines the cohesion of the alliance, and pulls attention away from other, high-priority issues.


In the lead-up to this week’s NATO Summit in Vilnius, there has been renewed debate about the strategic wisdom of offering Ukraine membership in NATO. Proponents of an accelerated path to membership rightly argue that Kyiv deserves robust international support in its brave resistance to Russia’s aggression. As such, they argue that Ukraine’s efforts to defend its territory have earned it a place in NATO. Vocal NATO allies in Eastern Europe have proclaimed their desire to extend a concrete Membership Action Plan to Ukraine, placing it on a path to eventually joining the alliance. Some would exempt Ukraine from that process altogether. Former U.S. congressman Tom Malinowski recently argued that Ukraine should just be granted membership in NATO without any further delay, despite admitting that such a course could easily lead to the alliance becoming an active belligerent in the war. A full-scale Russia-NATO war, Malinowski allowed, “is a serious and legitimate concern, especially since it is in the nature of an active conflict to expand unpredictably.” Nevertheless, in the interest of delivering a decisive defeat to Russia, and definitively welcoming a democratic Ukraine into the West, Malinowski and others apparently expect all current NATO members to go along.

They won’t. These debates are a waste of time. There are myriad practical, political, and strategic reasons why Ukraine will not be admitted to NATO. Worse than mere self-delusion, however, this performative debate diverts attention from the real and urgent imperative of ending the conflict in Ukraine, including through negotiations that could produce an armistice or ceasefire. A futile discussion about Ukraine’s eligibility for NATO membership makes Ukraine less secure by delaying and distracting from a discussion of concrete medium- and long-term steps to end the conflict and, after the killing stops, ensure that Russia doesn’t restart the war.


Why Can’t Ukraine Join NATO?

First, simply put, Ukraine doesn’t have the votes, and it won’t get them. While current NATO members are almost universally sympathetic to Ukraine’s plight and fully supportive of its efforts to defend and restore its territory, they will not unanimously support its accession to NATO—and unanimity is required, as Sweden’s case reminds us. This political reality has been well understood ever since the 2008 NATO Summit in Bucharest, when then-President George W. Bush pressed NATO to make a rhetorical commitment to Ukraine and Georgia eventually joining the alliance, despite clear indications that their bids for membership lacked support among key NATO members.

The reticence around admitting Ukraine and Georgia into the alliance in 2008 was based on the rational assumption that Russia would react harshly to NATO’s further enlargement to the east. Those who objected to the Bush administration’s 11th hour push for Ukrainian and Georgian membership pointed to Russia’s vehement objections to NATO positioning additional forces on its border. At the time, advocates for NATO expansion dismissed such concerns, arguing that because Moscow had acquiesced to previous rounds of enlargement, it would do so again.

Optimistic assumptions about Russia’s tolerance for Ukraine moving into NATO have been definitively and tragically disproved in eastern Ukraine during the last sixteen months. More realistic expectations about Russia’s genuine hostility to the alliance’s enlargement have been borne out. Russia’s August 2008 invasion of Georgia, mere months after NATO’s declaration in Bucharest, was intended, as Michael Kofman explained, “to teach the West a lesson about Russia’s ability to veto further NATO expansion eastward.” With respect to Ukraine, the direct warning signs were apparent at least since 2014, when Russia seized Crimea and initiated a proxy war in the Donbass region. Ukraine’s deepening cooperation with NATO since that year continues to be one of Russia’s stated motivations for the current conflict, and for its attempt to use coercive diplomacy against both NATO and Ukraine prior to its invasion. Assuming that some NATO members would still prefer to prevent a wider war with Russia, Ukraine won’t get the unanimous vote it needs to join the alliance.

Additionally, Ukraine may not meet the standards for membership. In 1995, NATO published a study on the implications of possible enlargement, which it pursued with the stated aim of establishing “increased stability and security for all in the Euro-Atlantic area, without recreating dividing lines.” As part of this study, NATO established a number of minimum standards for prospective members, including: “a functioning democratic political system based on a market economy; fair treatment of minority populations; a commitment to resolve conflicts peacefully; an ability and willingness to make a military contribution to NATO operations; and a commitment to democratic civil-military relations and institutions.”

While Ukraine’s fulfillment of these criteria clearly remains debatable, the 1995 Study on Enlargement identified another arguably critical consideration to address Malinowski’s “serious and legitimate concern” about the risk of enlargement leading NATO into a war: “States which have ethnic disputes or external territorial disputes, including irredentist claims, or internal jurisdictional disputes must settle those disputes by peaceful means in accordance with OSCE principles. Resolution of such disputes would be a factor in determining whether to invite a state to join the Alliance.”

Previous concerns about Ukraine’s eligibility for NATO membership grew out of Ukraine’s difficulties with corruption and good governance, internal jurisdictional disputes with largely ethnic-Russian Ukrainian separatists (supported by Russia) in the Donbass and Crimea, and the failure to resolve these conflicts in accordance with the OSCE process. The existence of an ongoing conflict over Ukrainian territory, with shifting lines of control and disputed borders, only complicates the picture and raises serious doubts about the political feasibility and strategic rationality of Ukraine’s accession to NATO. Additionally, Ukraine’s government will have an irredentist political mandate for as long as Russian forces occupy any square inch of Ukrainian territory. For NATO, a defensive military pact, admitting a country with an ongoing war immediately risks dragging all alliance members into it. So again, as long as NATO’s goal is to deter a wider war with Russia, Ukraine won’t be permitted to join the alliance.

For those who still struggle to understand why Ukraine will not be admitted to NATO, it may be helpful to reframe the question: “Will all NATO members unanimously vote to go to war with Russia over Ukraine?” The answer should be obvious: “No.”

Consider this: while many (though not all) NATO members are providing material support to Ukraine in its fight to expel the Russian invaders, none—not a single country in the alliance—currently has overtly deployed their armed forces to help Ukraine.

In fact, NATO members have scrupulously avoided activities that would bring them into a direct fight with Russian forces. Even early attempts to impose a no-fly zone over Ukraine, which would have exposed NATO pilots to grave risk, but would not have involved troops on the ground, were roundly rejected by every member. As President Joe Biden explained before the war began, and has reiterated since, any actions that bring NATO and Russian forces into direct conflict would constitute World War III, with a significant risk of escalation to nuclear use.

All NATO members have wisely sought to avoid this outcome—so far successfully, though the continued provision of aid also carries with it the risk of escalation, including through inadvertent strikes on NATO states neighboring Ukraine. Recall, for example, the incident in November 2022, when an errant Ukrainian air defense missile tragically killed two farmers in Poland. In the few short hours before the details became known, some speculated that it could be a casus belli for invoking Article 5, and called for dramatically increasing the military presence along the Polish border (including a “no-fly zone manned by NATO jets”), even if the deaths had been caused by “an inadvertent Russian weapon.”  Others were quick to assume that “Russia [was] to blame for the deaths…of two Poles.” This is precisely how small-scale tragedies can become catastrophic global conflicts, and serves as a stark reminder that even the current strategy carries significant risks.

Those still stubbornly seeking to move forward with Ukraine’s Membership Action Plan, or seeking to waive the normal process and requirements altogether, are threatening NATO’s political cohesion by forcing an unnecessary and unhelpful confrontation over one of the alliance’s most divisive issues. Those who would downplay the implications of admitting Ukraine to NATO should reconsider their narrative that an Article 5 commitment to Ukraine would not commit the United States to war with Russia. Even if it’s true that Article 5 does not actually obligate any member to go to war, how reassuring is that argument for current NATO members, who, unlike the United States, would actually be on the frontlines of a war that spills beyond Ukraine’s borders?

This war is tragic and devastating for Ukraine—that is the most important point. It is also bad for the United States, creating a heightened risk of escalation, straining finite defense funding and production capacity, and diverting resources from other priorities, including the Pacific theater and overdue investments at home. It is also bad for the global economy, contributing to high energy costs and rising food prices, and complicating an already-dire debt crisis in developing countries. U.S. policy should be focused on bringing the war to an end as soon as possible. Unfortunately, the debate over Ukraine’s membership in NATO only sustains one of Russia’s stated motivations for launching its war of aggression, and undermines the cohesion of the alliance.