Many commentators have argued Ukraine won’t be joining NATO anytime soon because Article 5—the mutual obligation to protect an attacked member—would force the alliance into a full-scale war with Russian president Vladimir Putin. It would be viable, however, to provide a concrete roadmap for future membership independent of Russia’s actions, or indeed a legal solution: the application of Article 5 only to territories controlled by the Ukrainians.
Still, the importance of these discussions cannot be overstated. The debate marks a crossroads not just for the future of Ukraine and the NATO alliance but for the role of the European Union in defense and for Britain’s ‘special relationship’ with the United States.
It’s plainly true that the conflict in Ukraine has led to a revival in the role of NATO. An alliance that could scarcely motivate a mere 2 percent of GDP spending among only a handful of its members only two years ago now finds itself collaborating to equip Ukraine—albeit following the lead of the United Kingdom, the United States, and Poland. Finland and soon Sweden have scrambled to join what they know to be an iron-clad guarantor of peace.
Yet the structural and political challenges have not gone away. Ben Wallace, a former soldier whose foresight and experience were responsible in great part for the training and equipment used to repel the initial Russian offensive, finds himself sidelined for NATO chief in favor of EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, who not so long ago was sacked after sending soldiers to training exercises armed with broomsticks.
The truth is that Britain has lost the public relations battle against the EU, with the bloc successfully selling itself to U.S. President Joe Biden as a progressive, mature, and sensible actor in contrast to the UK’s impression as a morally suspect rump state somehow modeled after Donald Trump’s America. Biden marries this view with a more conventional Irish Anglophobia. The price Biden will pay for this prejudice, however, is historic. The EU already controls sanctions on behalf of member states. By inviting Von der Leyen to pursue federalist defense policies at the helm of NATO, he is beckoning yet more insecurity for the continent and surrendering leadership in the European theatre to those who have consistently shown themselves unwilling to invest in their own defense.
Instead, the key opposition to Russia’s aggression on the continent was led by the realism of former Soviet states, the most stalwart being Lithuania, Estonia, Poland, the Czech Republic, and Latvia. They’ve seen first-hand the belligerence of their neighbor and understand well that unless Putin and his regime are defeated and expelled from Ukraine, a regroup, rearm, and revisit scenario is inevitable. Meanwhile, France weakened NATO’s diplomatic front with bungled peace talks while Germany continued to increase its dependence on Russian oil and gas.
The revival of NATO in earnest can only take place once Ukraine has joined. By rebalancing the alliance, Ukraine would join these Eastern realists as a young land power—and one that has emphatically demonstrated that it is willing to pay high costs for the defense of Europe and itself. Britain must convince Joe Biden of this and offer the Ukrainians a roadmap for joining. It would mark the healing of the fissures in the special relationship and a significant coup for Prime Minister Rishi Sunak.
The implications of a roadmap for Ukraine’s accession would also permanently alter the calculus in Moscow. With the status quo, the Russians retain a de-facto veto over NATO expansion. By sketching out Ukrainian accession, not only do we shatter this power built upon threats and coercion, but we make the Russian war in Ukraine fundamentally hopeless. Quite apart from U.S. fears that it will provoke Russia
When the dust settles and this war ends, Ukraine, with immense sacrifice, will stand with the most experienced, battle-hardened, formidable, technologically advanced, well-prepared, and well-armed military in Europe. Geographically, Ukraine is a front-line state to Russia, aptly equipped to lead NATO defense strategy, as the Ukrainians have demonstrated so far. Yet, they stand outside the alliance despite having more than earned their membership. Prudence and justice thus both demand that Ukraine should take its rightful seat in the alliance.
Dr. Azeem Ibrahim OBE is a Senior Director at the New Lines Institute for Strategy and Policy in Washington, DC and a Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College