Ukraine–NATO Relations: Closer Partnership or Membership?

Inching closer: NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg is welcomed by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy during a visit to Kyiv on 20 April 2023. Image: Ukraine President's Office / Alamy

Kyiv’s bid to join NATO would bolster both Ukrainian and European security.

The future of Ukraine–NATO relations is once again the number-one topic on the agenda for Alliance members in the lead-up to the forthcoming Vilnius Summit. The issue was just as acute 15 years ago when, at the Bucharest Summit, prospects of a Ukrainian Membership Action Plan (MAP) were discussed. The 2008 decision not to grant Ukraine a MAP is now regarded by many as a prologue to the events of 2014 and 2022.

It is clear that decisions related to Ukraine–NATO relations at the Vilnius Summit and beyond will have a decisive impact on Euro-Atlantic security for decades to come. The task is daunting: how to break the cycle of Russian aggression, as NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg rightly framed it after an informal meeting in Oslo dedicated mostly to Ukraine–NATO relations. Proper relations between Kyiv and the Alliance are a crucial part of the solution to the problem of Russian revisionism.

Changed Perceptions

The tragedy of 24 February 2022 has become a verdict for one of the core elements of European security architecture established after the Cold War – namely, that Ukraine was confined to a ‘grey zone’, sandwiched between an enlarged but increasingly risk-averse NATO and a resurgent Russia. This made Kyiv vulnerable to Russian aggression.

Major documents such as the Charter on a Distinctive Partnership Between NATO and Ukraine (July 1997) or revamped US-Ukraine Charter on Strategic Partnership (November 2021) proceeded from the assumption that the security of Ukraine is an indispensable element of a secure Europe. Alas, those statements have been more declaratory rather than a guide to specific actions. After 24 February 2022, it has become starkly evident that without guarantees of Ukraine’s long-term security there cannot be a secure and peaceful Europe. There is now a consensus among NATO members that Ukrainian security needs to be strengthened by concrete actions. Such consensus, among other things, has been fostered by the UK, in both the private and public sphere.

In addition to changed perceptions at the political level, the events after 24 February 2022 disproved some military arguments that were used to make a case against Ukraine’s immediate accession to NATO. First and foremost, Ukraine made clear that if it is provided with enough weaponry, it can implement air and sea denial strategies and conduct effective defensive and offensive operations on land. In other words, there is no need to immediately place substantial NATO forces on Ukrainian territory to ensure the credibility of Article 5, despite claims made before the full-scale invasion. In the future, Ukraine – as a NATO member – could hypothetically implement a deterrence-by-denial strategy to win enough time for a NATO interservice grouping of forces to come and reclaim temporarily lost territories. There is therefore no need to station a permanent major NATO grouping of forces in Ukraine from Day 1 of the country’s membership.

President Biden has made clear that, in his opinion, Ukraine has to move through the same stages of accession as other countries have done and meet all the criteria

At the same time, the credibility of Russia’s threats of conventional escalation made before 24 February 2022 – aimed at dissuading NATO from bringing Ukraine on board – decreased given its level of losses and sheer incompetence on the battlefield. Russian threats of unconventional escalation made after 24 February 2022 do not find support even among Russia-leaning countries such as India and China.

The US Position

Although the Joe Biden administration is increasingly ready to call Russia’s bluff on its threats to use unconventional forces in response to Alliance members’ shipments of sophisticated weaponry to Ukraine, it is still guided by considerations of escalation management. President Biden was plain with his subordinates that his major goal is not to see a Third World War – in this context, Ukraine’s inclusion in NATO under current conditions increases the chances of such a development from the Biden administration’s point of view.

As a result, the White House prefers the so-called Israeli model – that is, the porcupine strategy – for Ukraine. In practice, some framework political agreements are planned to be signed. These agreements will codify instruments of aid used by NATO countries to strengthen Ukrainian defensive capabilities since the 2022 invasion – hardware and ammunition, intelligence data, training, planning and wargaming instruments. Although it might be treated as a step forward, in essence these agreements are just a continuation of a cautious approach when most of the risks related to direct confrontation with Russia are passed to Ukraine, decreasing to an acceptable level the chances of a direct clash between the US/NATO and Russia.

Simultaneously, Biden made clear that, in his opinion, Ukraine has to move through the same stages of accession as other countries have done and meet all the criteria. In other words, the idea to dispense with MAP in the case of Ukraine has not found traction with the US president despite being hotly debated behind closed doors and given Finland’s recent precedent.

The Ukrainian Perspective

Ukrainian officials accept the fact that while high-intensity warfare is ongoing, NATO members will not be ready to admit Ukraine into the Alliance. That is why Ukrainian ambitions for the upcoming Vilnius Summit are reduced to a clear agreed timetable for when the country will be accepted into the Alliance. Understanding the high stakes of the next Alliance summit, Volodymyr Zelenskyy raised the option of not attending if NATO decisions do not meet Ukrainian expectations – at least partially.

In the meantime, both Ukrainian officials and experts have tried to provide an interpretation of Article 5 that, in their opinion, will make NATO more ready to admit Ukraine as a full-fledged member. Namely, that mutual defence does not imply the need to fight for Ukraine – aid within Article 5 might be confined to hardware and ammunition, intelligence data, training, planning and wargaming instruments. In other words, there are no new additional risks for NATO members – just a continuation of mechanisms already applied since Russia’s full-scale invasion.

Before 2022, it was said that the price of Ukrainian membership of NATO would outweigh any benefits. The events that followed proved that the price of inaction tends to be higher than the price of action

There are three major issues with such an attempt. First, although Article 5 allows quite broad interpretation of collective defence, it was always assumed that it is about readiness to fight a high-intensity war. Second, attempts to dilute the essence of Article 5 will not be welcomed by Central and Eastern European countries which rely on it now. Last but not least, broadening the interpretation of Article 5 means that, for Ukraine, it will be more difficult to resist framework agreements suggested by NATO countries given that that they provide similar guarantees – albeit the credibility of such support is higher within Article 5.

In general, the idea of framework agreements is treated with justified scepticism in Ukraine in three important respects. First, this is quite natural given the 1994 Budapest Memorandum has not provided the protection that Kyiv expected. Second, framework agreements do not shield Ukraine from domestic changes that may occur in the states that have signed them –changes which might affect readiness to implement general pledges. And finally, the idea of framework agreements is treated as a kind of trick – if Ukraine accepts it then appeals for full-fledged membership will lose urgency.

The Way Forward

The issue of Ukraine’s rapid accession to NATO is likely to be most difficult for all sides to navigate. Kyiv will continue to face the challenge of how to change the US’s perceptions and calculations. From the Biden administration’s standpoint, the current situation is acceptable – Ukraine has decimated Russian forces, undermining Moscow’s great power status without substantially increasing the risk of a direct clash between nuclear powers.

From the Ukrainian perspective, such an approach is not only morally wrong but unsustainable in the medium to long term. Ukraine wants to see both the risks and the price of Russian revisionism shouldered more evenly. For Kyiv, it will be very difficult to engage private entities in reconstruction efforts without a proper level of hard security. The same is true for the approximately 8 million Ukrainians who moved abroad after the Russian full-scale invasion.

Separately, the case of Ukrainian membership of NATO continues to be an example of where the price and risks of action are more evident, discussed and affect decision-making, while the price and risks of inaction tend to be more ambiguous, unspoken and do not affect policymaking in the way that might be warranted. Before the 2022 invasion, it was said that the price of Ukrainian membership of NATO would outweigh any benefits. The events that followed proved that the price of inaction tends to be higher than the price of action.

More broadly, the success of a bold strategic decision to bring Ukraine into the Alliance as soon as the intensity of fighting ebbs will be assessed on the basis of sustainability and against the risks and costs of inaction. A viable Ukraine in NATO will be the best proof of the strategic defeat of Russia, whose leader wanted to destroy Ukraine and prevent the country’s accession to NATO – and therefore the Alliance’s enlargement. Russia, which is deprived of space to project its imperial delusions, would finally have no other option than to start a post-imperial transition. Without this step, the current chapter of Ukraine–Russia confrontation might not be the last.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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Mykola Bielieskov

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