Is Ukraine’s hope for NATO membership amid Russian invasion unrealistic?

Is Ukraine’s hope for NATO membership amid Russian invasion unrealistic?
6 min read
27 Jul, 2023
The infamous photo of Zelenskyy standing alone during the NATO summit in Lithuania has put into question Ukraine’s hopes for NATO membership. Emad Moussa argues that the security risks for doing so are deemed too high for member states.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and his wife, the First Lady of Ukraine Olena Zelenska participate in a family photo during the NATO Summit, on 11 July, 2023. [GETTY]

A photo is worth a thousand words, they say. Provided with a political context, it becomes a medium for an array of partisan interpretations. This is precisely what happened when a photo began to circulate the virtual space showing Ukraine’s leader Volodymyr Zelenskyy alone on the stage during the NATO summit in Lithuania. It triggered a barrage of social media speculations on whether the Ukrainian leader was purposely snubbed by NATO officials.

His wife, Olena, too, was shown interacting with a delegate, but none of the NATO heads of state, including French President Emanuel Macron who stood only a few yards away from Zelenskyy, seemed fussed about the couple’s presence. This is despite Ukraine being on the Summit’s top agenda.

There are always ugly ducklings in international relations. But for Zelenskyy, it was less about unfavourable treatment and more about the internal disagreements within NATO on how to handle the Ukraine war, particularly the country’s bid for membership.

''Internally, Ukraine does not meet the economic, political, and military standards necessary for NATO membership. Long before the war, Kyiv struggled with institutional corruption and a poor human rights record, but was on a path to reforms. These intentions may now be irrevocably destroyed. Moscow made sure of that.''

Zelenskyy flew to Lithuania’s Vilnius with the hope that the NATO Summit would at least provide Kyiv with what Macron once called “a path toward membership” after the war. Ukraine has fiercely pushed for this since Russia’s invasion believing - as former Ukrainian defence minister Andriy Zagorodnyuk said - the country’s bid would be “welcomed and embraced” into the security alliance.

For some in Kyiv, the Vilnius Summit was perhaps a fateful moment to fix the strategic mistakes that resulted from the 1994 Budapest Memorandum and NATO’s 2008 Bucharest Summit. They believe that NATO has a moral duty to fulfil its security promises and end an era of strategic ambiguity which had left Ukraine vulnerable to Russia’s ambitions.

Existing NATO members who were once under communist rule - such as Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Czech Republic, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania - backed the Ukrainian bid. One opinion held that European stability required Kyiv as part of the alliance because Putin - arguably - will not stop at Ukraine and will target NATO member states.

The other argument is anchored in emotive reasoning. By stubbornly fighting the world’s second-largest military power, it is believed, Kyiv has earned a seat among NATO members.

Most NATO states, however, are not as enthused and firmly believe that the security benefits of bringing Ukraine into NATO pale in comparison with the risks it will trigger. Those states, in other words, would not minimise their larger geopolitical considerations to fit Ukraine’s localised pleas and hopes. This is perhaps the unpleasant truth that Zelenskyy’s miffed facial expressions conveyed at the Summit.

Shortly before his trip to Europe, President Biden was straightforward in stating that “Ukraine was not ready to enter NATO.” Despite giving orders to boost Ukraine's defence capabilities to deter Russia, he dismissed that arming Kyiv would result in setting a date for Ukraine's membership during the Lithuania summit.

Similarly, NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg said on the eve of the summit that Kyiv must first win the war against Russia to qualify for the alliance membership.

The bid for Ukraine's membership into the alliance (along with Georgia) was first put on the table during the 2008 NATO Summit in Romania, surprisingly, by former US President George W. Bush. Then, as it is now, most Western European states, particularly France and Germany, did not see the bid as attainable, or bought into the idea that expanding the alliance up to Russia’s western borders would guarantee a post-Cold War peace by suppressing Moscow’s ambitions. The logic being that it was unwise expanding the security alliance to states that faced a high possibility of being attacked. Ukraine topped the list of those states.

This expansion into formerly Soviet territories, arguably, humiliated and antagonised Moscow and helped lead to the occupation of parts of Georgia four months after Bush’s bid, followed six years later by the annexation of Crimea, and then culminated with the invasion of mainland Ukraine in 2022.

Admitting Ukraine significantly raises the stakes of a NATO war with Russia, including the terrifying prospect of a nuclear exchange. NATO membership, after all, entails a commitment by member states to defend one another. It is the same reason that Washington and other NATO capitals have avoided being drawn deep into the Ukrainian conflict and continue to meticulously and carefully weigh their involvement, including the type of weaponry delivered to the Ukrainian armed forces.

Even if a direct NATO-Russia confrontation is to be avoided, it remains that admitting Kyiv into the alliance will rigidify the Kremlin’s position and weaken its willingness to discuss a future settlement in Ukraine.

Moscow will likely lash out and intensify the war to pre-emptively undermine even the possibility of a NATO state on its immediate borders. It happened with Georgia and it is more rather than less likely going to happen in Ukraine – a significantly more critical battlefield for Moscow. This presumed ‘direct threat’ to Russian territory will potentially strengthen Putin’s base and further legitimise the special operation’s modus operandi.

There is also the fact that with increased Russian aggression, the NATO bill of defending Ukraine will go up. Internally, Ukraine does not meet the economic, political, and military standards necessary for NATO membership. Long before the war, Kyiv struggled with institutional corruption and a poor human rights record, but was on a path to reforms. These intentions may now be irrevocably destroyed. Moscow made sure of that.

Ukraine’s existential angst is real and its desire to join NATO is understandable. The Ukrainian bid, however, poses more risks for both the alliance and Kyiv, if not the global order, than it does benefits. NATO is already committed to Ukraine and has poured billions of dollars worth of weapons and aid into the country on a scale unprecedented for any single country in modern history. This, in a way, is an extension of NATO security guarantees without Kyiv being officially a member.

It is the only strategically sound scenario that ensures Ukraine acquires sufficient assistance without losing control of the situation and risks a dangerous escalation well beyond the Ukrainian borders.

Dr Emad Moussa is a Palestinian-British researcher and writer specialising in the political psychology of intergroup and conflict dynamics, focusing on MENA with a special interest in Israel/Palestine. He has a background in human rights and journalism, and is currently a frequent contributor to multiple academic and media outlets, in addition to being a consultant for a US-based think tank.

Follow him on Twitter: @emadmoussa

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.