Following Russian President Vladimir Putin’s phony annexation of four partially occupied Ukrainian regions on September 30, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky formally requested accelerated NATO membership. The Ukrainian leader’s desire is understandable, but its timing is questionable. Instead, Zelenskyy should continue to press NATO members to provide Ukraine with the weapons it needs to defeat the Russian invasion, while seeking firm commitments to help Ukraine build a modern army capable of deterring a future Russian attack.
From September 23 to 27, Russia led mock referendums on joining Russia in the Ukrainian oblasts of Luhansk, Donetsk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson. These fake votes were illegal according to international law. Not credible observers saw the process of voting or counting, while anecdotal reports indicated numerous instances of people being forced to vote at gunpoint.
At a ceremony in the Kremlin on September 30, Putin signed agreements integrating the four regions with Russia. He claimed that Russia “would defend our land with all the forces and resources at our disposal”. However, Russia does not even control all the territory it claims to annex. Meanwhile, the Russian leader’s statement did not prevent the Ukrainian military from moving forward with counter-offensives in the Kherson, Donetsk and Lugansk regions.
Immediately after Putin signed the constitution agreements, Zelenskyy replied stating that his country was seeking “accelerated membership” of NATO. This response once again made it clear that a previous Ukrainian offer of accept neutrality was no longer on the table.
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Zelenskyy’s rare misstep in his call for accelerated NATO membership is understandable. His country fiercely fought the Russians for nearly eight months. While Ukrainian forces have surprised the world, and in particular the Russian General Staff, with their capabilities and tenacity, Ukraine has paid a heavy price in terms of military and civilian casualties.
The Ukrainians believe that their fight earned them the right to join the alliance. They see their forces defending not only Ukraine, but also NATO members against a vengeful Kremlin that aims to overthrow the post-Cold War order in Europe and whose ambitions extend beyond Ukraine. .
However, it is often prudent in diplomacy to know the answer before asking the question, especially before making a public request. Kyiv may not be satisfied with the responses to Zelenskyy’s September 30 appeal, but those responses should not have come as a surprise.
Certainly, on October 2, the leaders of nine NATO members from Central and Eastern Europe (Czech Republic, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, North Macedonia, Montenegro, Poland, Romania and Slovakia) issued a joint statement validate a membership course for Ukraine. Canada separately expressed support for Ukraine’s accession to the alliance.
This represents only ten of the 30 members of NATO. The bulgarian president declined to join the statement of his nine other regional leaders because he disagreed with the language on Ukraine’s NATO membership. Others took a cautious approach. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg dodged the question of membership, while US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said the membership process ‘should be resumed at another time’ . Many other NATO allies responded with silence.
Under NATO rules, approval of Ukraine’s membership would require a consensus of 30 members (32 once all current allies ratify Finland’s and Sweden’s membership). The reality is that Ukraine does not currently have the votes it needs to embark on the path to membership.
The reason is clear. Section 5 of the NATO treaty commits the allies to treat an attack on one as an attack on all. If Ukraine, currently under attack by Russia, were to become a member, other allies would be forced to come to its defence, the assumption being with their own armed forces.
Many NATO countries provide weapons and other forms of military assistance to help Ukraine defend itself against Russia. But they drew a red line against the offer of their forces for the defense of Ukraine and made it clear that they wanted to avoid a direct confrontation between NATO and Russia.
There is a logic to this. A Russian defeat against Ukraine would not be existential for Russia, although it would certainly not benefit Putin’s longevity in the Kremlin. However, if US and NATO military forces went to war on behalf of Ukraine, it could well change the way the conflict is perceived in Moscow, where many would consider US and NATO entry. NATO as aiming not only to defend Ukraine, but also to destroy Russia. They could then see the war as existential. Things could soon become unpredictable and very risky.
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Rather than seek a path to NATO membership that Kyiv currently cannot obtain, Zelenskyy should continue to focus on securing immediate help in the form of more weapons and military assistance. It will be much easier for NATO allies to agree to supply. It took only a few months for Ukraine’s military assistance to transition from man-portable Javelin anti-armour weapons and shoulder-fired Stinger anti-aircraft missiles to guided multiple-launch rocket systems with a range of 50 miles and NASAMS systems at short and medium range. remote air defense systems.
NATO allies can and should provide more weapons. One thinks of ATACMS missiles with a range of about 200 miles. This should currently be Ukraine’s top priority. Moreover, this war will end at some point. Kyiv should consider what it will need to build an army capable of deterring a future Russian attack. Indeed, a modernized Ukrainian army would offer the country’s best guarantee of security.
The Ukrainian shopping list could include weapons such as US M-1 and German Leopard main battle tanks, Western missiles and air defense aircraft, and possibly US A-10 ground attack aircraft. While Ukraine’s NATO membership would require a consensus decision by all members of the alliance, countries make decisions on providing arms and other forms of military assistance to Ukraine on an individual basis. Many allies would probably prefer to commit to arming Ukraine rather than committing to defending the country.
After the war, Kyiv could still consider the question of permanent membership. NATO leaders, at their summit in July 2022, reaffirmed that the alliance open door policy remains in force, including for Ukraine. In a post-war world, Kyiv might find that circumstances change enough to make possible what is no longer feasible today. For now, however, Ukraine should focus on what it can get.
Steven Pifer is affiliated with the Stanford Center for International Security and Cooperation and a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. He previously served as US Ambassador to Ukraine (1998-2000).
The opinions expressed in UkraineAlert are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Atlantic Council, its staff or its supporters.
The Eurasia Center mission is to strengthen transatlantic cooperation in promoting stability, democratic values and prosperity in Eurasia, from Eastern Europe and Turkey in the West to the Caucasus, Russia and the Central Asia to the East.