Why NATO Needs Ukraine

Why NATO Needs Ukraine

Ukraine can provide the alliance with manpower, strategic depth, and combat experience. 

Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine changed the balance of power in Europe. It is time for the leaders of NATO to understand this new security environment and realize that NATO membership for Ukraine can provide a long-term solution to Russia’s desire and capabilities for aggression.

The geography of NATO has changed significantly since the end of the Cold War. After several new democracies in Central Europe became members, NATO membership has moved significantly to the east. NATO’s new members are now the most vulnerable to attack from Russia because they are smaller (both in terms of population and geography) and farther away from reinforcements from the rest of their allies.

For example, Estonia has a population of 1.3 million, Latvia has 1.9 million, and Lithuania has 2.7 million (5.9 million total). Their combined armed forces are about 47,950 active-duty personnel. In other words, these NATO members close to Russia have a combined population smaller than New York City’s (8.3 million people) and a combined military force size only marginally larger than that of the New York City Police Department (36,000 officers). Prior to the 2022 invasion of Ukraine, these NATO members were facing 200,000 troops in Russia’s Western Military District, which periodically practiced invading NATO in the ZAPAD exercises.

This situation is not new. At its creation, NATO was also vulnerable, facing numerically superior Russian forces near its borders. Our European allies were still weak from the destruction of World War II. Since they were democracies, they prioritized investments in economic development and social welfare for their people instead of military capabilities. Yet, the Soviet Union remained militarized. Its leader, Josef Stalin, did not care about the welfare of the Russian or Eastern European people. Instead, Stalin used Russia’s military to occupy Central Europe and threaten the democracies of Western Europe.

This vulnerability persisted until the leaders of NATO took a great risk and invited West Germany to join the alliance. After two world wars, many in the United States and Western Europe did not trust West Germany and had little faith in its new experiment with democracy. Moreover, opponents argued that West Germany could not be given NATO’s protection (Article 5 of the NATO treaty) because it was not a complete state, with millions of Germans living under communism in East Germany. In fact, West Germany accepted membership in 1955 and has enjoyed its benefits ever since, even though its borders were not finalized until Moscow signed the Treaty on the Final Settlement with Respect to Germany in 1990. 

Opponents also claimed that trying to bring West Germany into NATO would provoke an attack from Russia. History has proven that these fears never came true. Nevertheless, as in the case of Ukraine, this was a controversial decision that was opposed for many years. However, the NATO members finally changed their minds and accepted the risk because of the critical benefits only West Germany could provide the alliance.

Even a divided Germany was a significant power that made NATO stronger and safer. West Germany provided NATO with about half a million troops, increased strategic depth vis-à-vis the Communist world, and access to key ports. Eventually, West Germany also provided economic strength and technological innovations that made all of NATO safer. For decades during the Cold War, the Federal Republic of Germany was the shield that protected the majority of NATO’s members from Russian aggression. Despite the risks, welcoming West Germany into NATO made the alliance stronger and played a decisive role in protecting German democracy and sovereignty.

Today’s NATO leaders need to acknowledge this “German precedent” and realize they need Ukraine in the alliance for the same reasons. Ukraine is a considerable power that will make NATO stronger and safer. In terms of territory, Ukraine is larger than any European member of NATO and provides strategic depth that is currently lacking in NATO’s eastern borders with Russia. In terms of population, Ukraine has about 35 million people who have shown their willingness to fight and sacrifice to defend their democracy. Ukraine also has a military of approximately 800,000. These troops have combat experience and, unlike the majority of NATO’s forces, are located in the region of NATO’s greatest vulnerability.

Ukraine stood alone when Putin invaded it in 2022. But thanks to its sizable territory, the effectiveness of its military, and the political will of its people and leadership, Ukraine was able to defend itself and save millions from Russian occupation. When NATO started to provide incremental assistance, Ukraine was even able to defeat Russian forces and liberate half of the territory taken initially by Moscow.

The military success of Ukraine is a game changer. Not only is Ukraine a power that has delivered numerous defeats to the Russian military, but Ukraine did it without the deployment of a single soldier from any NATO member. One of the secrets of NATO is that none of its current European members could defeat a Russian invasion without reinforcements from the rest of the alliance. Ukraine has already done this and can do more with only NATO equipment and logistical supplies. Even West Germany needed the forward deployment of hundreds of thousands of troops from NATO allies to protect itself and NATO’s border from Russian attack. Ukraine can safely join NATO and protect itself (Article 3) without the boots on the ground of any other NATO member. With sufficient NATO technology (e.g., air defense, missiles, drones, and fighter planes) and logistical supplies, Ukraine can end the conflict without any loss of NATO personnel.

But the most overlooked reason for bringing Ukraine into NATO now is that the alliance needs Ukraine to stop Russia from invading any more European countries. Bringing Ukraine into NATO removes the current vulnerability of NATO members around the Baltic Sea. Ukraine provides them with a larger ally in the region that forces Russia to reconsider any actions against its smaller neighbors. Russia has shown that it does not have the manpower to conquer Ukraine. But what should not be a secret is that Russia also does not have the manpower to attack NATO’s easternmost members if it has to deal with the forces of an allied Ukraine that will come to their aid.

Because of Russia’s numerical superiority and geographic advantages, most NATO members will have difficulties reinforcing and defending the easternmost members of the alliance. But Ukraine does not have to reinforce them. Just by having a large enough military to defend its own borders, Ukraine forces Russia to keep more forces in its south than near NATO members around the Baltic Sea. This is proven by the fact that Putin has already reduced Russian forces near NATO’s borders and moved them south to deal with Ukraine’s military success. Instead of increasing the risk of a conflict with Russia, providing NATO membership for Ukraine eliminates that risk because no Russian ruler will choose to fight a two-front war against NATO.

Ukrainian NATO membership eliminates debates about Moscow’s intent and capabilities because, no matter Russia’s future intent or capabilities, membership for Ukraine makes NATO so strong in the east that Russia would not dare attack any NATO members.

This week, NATO celebrates its seventy-fifth anniversary at the Washington Summit. Despite the many dangers and risks of the Cold War, NATO provided lasting peace for its members in Western Europe. No matter who was in charge in Moscow, Russia was deterred by NATO’s strength and never attacked a NATO member. Inviting Ukraine to join NATO now will strengthen the alliance and provide lasting peace for the rest of Europe as well.

Dr. Jorge Benitez is an Associate Professor at the USMC Command and Staff College. He is also a non-resident Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council and the creator of @NATOSource. The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Marine Corps, Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

Image: Shutterstock.com.