Defense & Security Diplomacy & International Relations Europe & Eurasia NATO russia Soviet Union

The West Shouldn’t Rush to Admit Ukraine Into the NATO Alliance

Ukraine’s admission into the transatlantic military alliance is a delicate issue which requires careful consideration of geopolitical factors and pragmatism by Western policymakers.

Tensions between Ukraine and Russia are growing increasingly dangerous. In April 2021, Russia moved approximately 100,000 troops close to the Ukrainian border, triggering fears of a possible Russian invasion. Hence, the question of possibly granting Ukraine membership in the U.S.-led NATO alliance resurfaced once again. The buildup of Russian forces on the border followed fighting on the line of separation between Russian-backed separatist forces and Ukrainian troops. The calls to accelerate the process of extending Ukraine’s NATO membership were renewed, this time with increased urgency alongside the country’s plea for more pronounced diplomatic and military aid from the West. Although Ukraine already receives substantial military aid from the United States, becoming a full-fledged NATO member is of high priority for the Ukrainian government. However, Ukraine’s admission into the transatlantic military alliance is a delicate issue which requires careful consideration of geopolitical factors and pragmatism by Western policymakers. Western officials should not rush to bring Ukraine into the NATO alliance, especially given the growing rift between the West and Russia, without weighing the costs and benefits of such a consequential decision.

The question of Ukraine’s membership in NATO is obscured not only by an ongoing military conflict with a nuclear state, but also by important geopolitical circumstances which can have a serious impact on stability in Europe as a whole. The 2014 annexation of Crimea and Russian-backed separatist movements in Eastern Ukraine can be traced to Ukraine’s sudden political shift towards the West after the Euromaidan revolution of 2013. Ukraine’s revolution brought to power anti-Kremlin forces committed to joining the European Union and NATO which, as Russian President Vladimir Putin believes, is clearly a red line for Russia. The growing confrontation between the West and Russia, marked by cyberattacks, political interference, ideological warfare reminiscent of the Cold War, and Ukraine’s strategic value for Russia make the former’s admission to NATO a very delicate question. Ukraine is desperate for the valuable security guarantees that a NATO membership entails and considers admission into the alliance the best way to protect its sovereignty and stand up to Russia. At the same time, such a course of action is also in line with Washington’s post-Cold War policy of enlarging NATO to include Eastern European countries as a way to preserve the American influence in Europe and ensure that the process of political, economic, and military integration in Europe continues successfully. 

However, the mistrust and hostility between NATO and Putin’s Russia highlight the sensitivity and determination of the Russian government when it comes to Ukraine’s NATO aspirations. Russia sees bordering Ukraine, which not only has a geostrategic value for military purposes, but also has deep historical and cultural ties with Russia, as critical for its national security and has clearly indicated that Ukraine’s official membership in the transatlantic military alliance will not be tolerated. Putin has publicly announced in the past that the 2014 annexation of Crimea, recognized by the international community as Ukrainian territory and strongly condemned by the U.S. and European allies, was in part a response to Ukraine’s efforts to join NATO. As such, when assessing the costs and benefits of potentially bringing Ukraine under the protection of NATO’s collective defense mechanism, the West must ensure its calculations do not result in devastating consequences, such as a new military confrontation between Russia and Ukraine with the possible involvement of the U.S. and NATO allies, and that the decision ensures stability in Europe.

NATO enlargement has not always been a topic around which U.S. policymakers and the foreign policy community have held a consensus. The proposal to bring Eastern Europe into the alliance generated heated debates when it was introduced in the mid-1990s under the Clinton administration. Opponents of enlargement stressed  that expansion  would turn into a powerful obstacle in forging friendly relations with newly independent Russia, along with fears of difficulty in establishing a peaceful order in all of Europe. This was due to the fact that the military and political establishment in Russia still viewed NATO as an organization acting against Russia. Furthermore, the Russian government had expressed several times since the end of the Cold War its strong opposition to expanding the alliance into Eastern Europe, closer to Russia’s borders. At the same time, proponents of enlargement suggested NATO’s successful stand-off with the Soviet Union would offer strength for spreading  democracy and Western-style liberal capitalism in Eastern Europe through integration within NATO’s security framework

While the reasons for the adoption of the policy are still up for debate in academic and policy circles, NATO enlargement was later embraced by American leadership as a fundamental objective in the spread of the liberal world order  in Europe. This, however, was and remains an important—if not the most important—point of contention between the United States and its European allies. The expansion of the American-led alliance into what Russia perceives as its sphere of influence by virtue of imperial legacy and geostrategic interests has made the Russian government anxious and has further deepened the divide between Russia and the West. 

Ukraine’s plea for help from the West is very understandable, but admitting the country into the alliance comes with significant risks for the United States and its European allies. The risk is in no small part due to the fact that the West could be dragged into a direct military confrontation with Russia—which currently possesses 6,257 nuclear warheads—due to NATO’s collective defense policy according to which an attack on a member state is considered an attack on all members. Such an active confrontation is bound to be fateful for not only Europe, but for the historical alliance itself. In defense of being granted NATO membership, Ukrainian leaders stress that doing so can act as a deterrent against further Russian aggression. 

However, there is also a chance that such a course of action may backfire. Ukraine is perhaps the most important geopolitical unit between the West and Russia. If the Russian state, which sees Ukraine as a historic part of the Russian heartland, were to completely “lose” Ukraine to the West through NATO admission, Putin might test the strength of Ukraine’s new strategic partners. Putin has already shown that he is ready to use all resources at the disposal of the Russian state to block Ukraine’s military integration in an American-led alliance. What would the West do, if after joining the alliance, Ukraine is attacked by Russia? Would the United States, which has for the four decades of the Cold War steered away from direct military confrontation with Soviet Russia, send its troops to fight a nuclear-armed Russia today? In the case that the U.S. or its allies decide that they would not intervene if such an attack were to happen, then NATO as an institution would lose significant credibility. That is exactly what Putin’s Russia wants—to bring down the most resilient institution of American influence in Europe. Thus, while bringing Ukraine into NATO may seem like a logical step in a decades-long American strategy in Europe, as well as a valuable security guarantee for Ukraine, such a decision might render critical aspects of NATO essentially moot. 

As long as Russia sees NATO as a threat, extending membership to countries such as Ukraine may burn the crumbling bridges between the West and a newly resurgent Russia. Last month, Putin publicly warned that the West “should not cross the red line.” While some policymakers may be inclined to dismiss the Russian president’s words, it would be wiser to pay close attention to such warnings. Putin has already shown his willingness to use Russia’s newly rebuilt military to project power and influence abroad. Instead of blindly confronting Russia, the West must find other ways—more subtle, more balanced, and more careful—to address the turbulent power. The United States is already providing substantial security assistance to Ukraine and is further illustrating how expanding NATO is not the appropriate objective at this time. If the United States and its allies tailor their policies in the right way, NATO will continue to maintain its influence in Europe and seek to expand its security alliance. But that is for the future. Now, the West must prioritize the challenges of expansion through a realistic perspective of where things stand. Otherwise, NATO itself may be irreversibly jeopardized.

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By Martin Makaryan

Martin Makaryan is an undergraduate at UCLA majoring in Political Science and minoring in Global Studies, class of 2022. Having previously interned with the California State Assembly and the Armenian National Committee of America, he is interested in foreign policy and aspires to join the U.S. foreign service after pursuing a graduate degree in international affairs. In fall 2021, he will begin an internship with LA Mayor's Office for International Affairs.

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