KIJIV, Ukraine — For decades, discussions about whether or not Ukraine should be admitted to NATO have revolved around the risks — to both Ukraine and member nations — of Ukraine being in the alliance. And at the heart of those risks was one overriding fear: that Ukraine’s membership could push President Vladimir Putin of Russia into a corner, prompting him to escalate his war.
The question of Ukraine’s potential NATO membership has resurfaced as the bloc’s summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, approaches this week, with Ukraine declaring its ambition to leaders gathering there to receive a political invitation to join.
To be clear, Ukraine is not asking for immediate NATO membership. The Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, now admits that it should join after the end of the war, and does not want to drag NATO members into its war with Russia by invoking article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty. What Ukraine wants is a political invitation that would end the so-called “strategic ambiguity” in play since the 2008 NATO summit in Bucharest, Romania, where the alliance decided Ukraine should eventually become a member, but offered no clear path for it to do so. that. . By giving Ukraine a target but no route, NATO left the nation uniquely vulnerable and ultimately opened the door for Mr. Putin’s invasions.
Now, as in previous years, the hand-wringing about the attendant risks of inviting Ukraine into NATO has reappeared. And again, it focuses on the danger of further provoking Mr. Putin.
But for the 78 percent of Ukrainians who have close relatives or friends who have been killed or injured in Mr. Putin’s war, and for those who suffer from continued Russian missiles and drones, this argument sounds ludicrous.
And any thought of keeping Ukraine out of NATO to prevent further Russian aggression makes no sense. Mr. Putin threatened to dip into his nuclear arsenal long before Ukraine asked for a political invitation in Vilnius, and he will continue to do so regardless of whatever decision is made there. Perhaps more accurately, no one is more reluctant to escalate Russia’s war against Ukraine to World War III than Mr. Putin himself. The Russian Army has no chance in a military confrontation with NATO; It hardly faces the armed forces of Ukraine.
So what about the risks of no invite Ukraine to join NATO?
Anything short of a political invitation for Ukraine in Vilnius will surely be perceived by Mr Putin as a victory, allowing him to maintain his de facto veto on the NATO expansion process and giving him confirmation that his policy of waging wars and occupying other countries to prevent them from combining works. As long as Ukraine remains in NATO limbo, Putin will attack Ukraine again and again in hopes of creating a new Russian Empire. There is no better insurance for Ukraine against new attacks than the guarantee of future NATO membership.
Further delaying the decision will also have a negative impact on the democratic transformations taking place within Ukraine. While Ukraine is required to make some of these reforms as part of its accession to the European Union, such as strengthening its judiciary and anti-corruption initiatives, others, such as bringing Ukraine’s military under civilian control, are more likely to succeed if they are included. as a prerequisite for joining NATO. If that process stalls, NATO could face the reality of a million-strong army operating indefinitely outside of full democratic civilian control. The army, which appears as one of the strongest on the European continent and the only one with recent battlefield experience fighting against Russia, should be part of the collective security structure, not acting alone.
Finally, if NATO members do not act this week on Ukraine, the alliance will be discredited in the eyes of Ukrainians and millions of other residents of NATO member states who support inviting Ukraine to join. According to a a recent opinion poll70 percent of Americans, 56 percent of the French and 55 percent of Dutch citizens who expressed opinions about Ukraine’s membership in NATO support the idea of inviting Ukraine to NATO in Vilnius this week, even if some of them would prefer actual accession to take place after the war
Maintaining the status quo will send the wrong signal to the Ukrainian mothers of teenage boys who fear having to send their sons into a series of endless conflicts with Russia. It would demotivate Ukrainian soldiers who are already fighting in extremely difficult conditions to liberate Ukrainian land. It would scare off investors who might be interested in participating in Ukraine’s post-war reconstruction. And it would discourage the millions of Ukrainian refugees who see a commitment to Ukraine’s future membership as the only solid precondition for them to consider returning home.
Some reluctant NATO leaders could say that they have nothing against Ukraine’s invitation to the alliance in general, but the time is not right. But is there such a thing as perfect timing? Next year, at the Washington NATO summit while the US is in the middle of a presidential campaign? That seems doubtful.
Ukraine’s bid to join NATO will not disappear. Ukraine will knock on NATO’s door again and again to remind Western capitals that it was precisely their fear of escalation on Putin’s side that led to Europe’s biggest war since World War II.
The United States has stopped Mr. Putin’s plans to recreate a Russian empire by helping Ukraine defend itself. Now is the time to bury Moscow’s imperialist dreams. There is no better way to do it than to give Ukraine a political invitation to join NATO in Vilnius now.
Alyona Getmanchuk is the founder and director of the New Europe Center think tank in Kyiv and a non-resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center.
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