Although no one knows how the war in Ukraine will end, the country’s leaders maintain that they’ll continue to face the threat of Russian aggression long after the fighting subsides. Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, has said that the only way to ensure the country’s security is for it to join NATO. He wants the alliance to commit to a timetable for Ukraine’s membership during its July summit in Vilnius, Lithuania.
It’s a good idea at a terrible time. NATO members are rightly wary of discussing such an escalation while the war is raging. Yet Ukraine’s eventual membership should remain a strategic goal: It would safeguard the country’s independence, bolster the stability of Europe as a whole, and deter Vladimir Putin from ever again attempting to seize control of his neighbor.
In 2008, NATO member states made a nonbinding pledge to eventually admit Ukraine and Georgia, both former Soviet republics vulnerable to Russian pressure. However, the alliance refrained from offering either country a so-called Membership Action Plan, a necessary step toward formal acceptance. Officials have since downplayed Kyiv’s prospects out of fear of provoking Putin, who insists that the mere possibility of Ukraine’s membership poses an existential threat. In a last-ditch effort to forestall a Russian invasion last January, US President Joe Biden went so far as to declare that the prospect was “not very likely” in the near future.
That Putin went ahead anyway demonstrates the folly of attempting to placate him. If anything, the war shows that NATO’s doctrine of mutual defense — under which an attack against one member is considered an attack on all — is the strongest deterrent against Russian aggression. For all its brutality in Ukraine, Russia has avoided hostile actions against countries like Poland and the Baltic states, knowing they would trigger a NATO response. After Finland and Sweden submitted a joint membership bid in response to Russia’s invasion, Putin warned of unspecified consequences if NATO went forward. Yet once the alliance formally admitted Finland last month, the Kremlin said only that it would be “watching closely.”
Ukrainian membership would surely be unsettling to Moscow. But NATO should base its decisions on its own interests — not Russia’s. Eventually admitting Ukraine would make it easier to deliver military support and share intelligence. The alliance would be able to reap the benefits of the West’s investments in training and equipping Ukraine’s military, which is now among the most battle-tested in Europe. In addition, the security guarantees that come with NATO membership would help to stabilize Ukraine’s economy, encourage refugees to return home, and attract foreign investment — all of which are critical to the country’s ability to recover from the war and eventually stand on its own feet.
That said, the process shouldn’t be rushed. Admitting Ukraine while it’s still fighting to liberate territory would be both impractical and dangerous, potentially drawing NATO into direct military conflict with Russia. But failing to address the issue would be equally shortsighted. Biden and his counterparts should instead use the Vilnius summit to reiterate their intention to admit Ukraine once the situation stabilizes and the government in Kyiv meets the conditions of membership.
Putin might respond by ruling out peace negotiations and intensifying attacks, but his military can’t sustain such operations indefinitely. So long as Ukraine’s status remains ambiguous, however, there’s nothing to stop Putin from agreeing to freeze the conflict, rebuilding his forces, and resuming his assault at a later date.
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