As Russian forces grew by the tens of thousands along Ukraine’s borders late last year, Moscow issued a point-by-point ultimatum to the United States and NATO. In two treaty drafts, Moscow placed the onus of averting an expanded conflict in Ukraine on the West broadly, NATO particularly, and the United States specifically. Among other stipulations, Moscow insisted that NATO’s open door to new members be shut. The demand has prompted a renewed policy debate and exposed division in the transatlantic policy community over the history, purpose, and challenges of NATO’s enlargement policy.
While these debates are not necessarily new, Russia’s rhetoric on the current crisis and NATO enlargement has led to a skewed assessment of the open door policy as the crux of de-escalation in the context of Ukraine. Russia’s pressure also has distorted the understanding of the policy’s utility more broadly as it relates to European security. It’s worth stepping back and recognizing that Russia’s actions in relation to Ukraine are about more than NATO’s open door. And while that open door is important for Ukraine, it’s also important beyond Ukraine.
Growing Russian Pressure
Conversations recently have been hyper-fixated on NATO, but before Russia’s invasion in 2014, Ukraine was not pursuing NATO membership. It was deepening ties with the European Union. Ukraine was attempting to sign an Association Agreement with the EU, which would foster closer relations. Russia strongly opposed the move. The summer before Ukraine was set to sign the EU agreement, Russia began imposing significant trade restrictions as an attempt to pressure Kyiv.
As winter approached and the signing neared, Russia’s pressure grew increasingly acute. Ultimately, the Ukrainian government abandoned the EU agreement. Russia swooped in offering improved relations and a cut in natural gas pricing. Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych – who was backed by Vladimir Putin’s Russia in the 2004 and 2010 elections – accepted the deal. The decision was met by a cascading mix of pro-European, pro-Ukrainian, and anti-Russian protests across the country. As the demonstrations persisted, Yanukovych eventually fled – tellingly, to Russia and aided by Putin. Moscow responded to the situation by invading — annexing Crimea and sending troops into the Donbas region in Ukraine’s east to support nascent pro-Russian separatist forces.
Fundamentally, Putin does not accept a Ukraine that has the right to choose its own foreign policy. He does not accept that Ukraine could integrate with Western institutions. He does not accept a Ukraine that cooperates more with the United States. He certainly does not accept Ukraine’s potential membership in NATO.
But Putin’s current coercion is about even more than all that: It is about how he believes great powers manage international affairs. The Kremlin’s calculus is that Ukraine can only be subservient either to transatlantic allies or to Russia, and that Ukraine does not have the right to choose its own allegiances today or in the future. Consequently, anything short of eliminating Ukraine’s ability to integrate further westward across the range of available economic, military, and political mechanisms is unacceptable to him. Putin has chosen a maximalist position on Ukraine, but this sentiment applies broadly to all former republics of the Soviet Union. Fundamentally, Russia’s coercion is intended to compel Ukraine into its orbit – by force, dysfunction, or international agreement.
The Open Door: Looking Beyond Ukraine
It is also important to adjust the narrative around NATO’s open door. While the policy is clearly important for Ukraine, it’s also important beyond Ukraine. Article 10 of the North Atlantic Treaty (also known as the Washington Treaty) that established NATO in 1949 is embedded in the alliance’s DNA. The treaty was authored decades before the fall of the Soviet Union, and the post-Cold War phenomenon of enlargement wasn’t invented in 1991. As such, post-Cold War enlargement is not solely responsible for the sprawling geographic and political complexity of NATO. Greece and Turkey were early additions to the alliance, soon followed by West Germany. Spain was added later.
Furthermore, the twin enlargement of the EU and NATO for states in Eastern Europe actually became an element of stabilizing the political order in Eastern Europe after the Cold War. The track record of NATO enlargement is considerably more positive than perhaps some conversations have indicated. North Macedonia’s accession just two years ago is the most recent example – it has helped improve dynamics in Southeastern Europe, including the country’s ties with Greece and now potentially Bulgaria. It is a very uncertain counterfactual that Europe would somehow be more secure today had enlargement never occurred. And looking at the events of the past several years, it is apparent that Moscow sees a fundamental difference between NATO member states and non-member states as it relates to the costs of potential military action. For NATO, deterrence has worked in traditional domains. Thus far, it has put certain limits on the risks Putin is willing to take.
Today, the open door also remains an important component of the broader European security order, particularly for countries like Finland and Sweden who have remained outside of NATO. While neither currently intends to join the alliance, both are already deeply integrated into NATO’s partnership architecture. And both countries have maintained the option of joining NATO, providing strategic flexibility against Russian coercion. Closing the open door would certainly impact, if not undermine, their approach to regional security, a point they have tried to recently emphasize. It would also likely damage ties and hamper cooperation with arguably two of NATO’s most important regional partners.
Moreover, closing the open door would create a political rift within the alliance at a juncture when it can ill afford it. Unity in confronting Russia is critical. Declaring either directly or indirectly that Ukraine will never join NATO would pull the rug out from under key partnership mechanisms facilitated by Ukraine’s deepened engagement with NATO. Russia’s intolerance would not end at NATO membership; Putin would likely go on to complicate NATO, EU, or bilateral cooperation with any former republics of the Soviet Union.
Closing the Open Door Would Hurt, Not Enhance, NATO Security
At a time of deep insecurity in Europe, NATO plays a critical role. Transatlantic policymakers must be cautious when considering wholesale measures that can undermine the political cohesion, principles, and mechanisms that have effectively deterred Russia for years from attacking a NATO member. Along the same lines, they also must be honest about the risks and vulnerabilities facing partners and aspiring members that are not under NATO collective defense guarantees.
Closing NATO’s open door would not make NATO or Europe more secure. The United States and the alliance appear to be standing firm to date, but pressure remains, not only from Moscow but also from some analysts and advisers elsewhere. China is also now advocating Moscow’s position. Yet foreclosing a fundamental tenet of NATO such as the freedom to choose allies would be seen as a strategic concession, risking much and gaining little. It also is unlikely to ultimately inhibit Putin’s ambitions in Ukraine, whatever they might actually be.
For Ukraine, the 2008 Bucharest Summit – which verbally assured Ukraine (and Georgia) of eventual NATO membership but withheld it for the time being – is haunting. In many ways, it was the worst of all worlds: committing allies to a position – future membership – that few were willing to sincerely consider, and leaving Ukraine’s own security vulnerable. It remains true that there is no consensus in NATO to admit Ukraine as a member for the foreseeable future. That was also true in 2008. It is also not unknown to Ukraine or Russia. But that means it is also unlikely to impact Russia’s calculus, as are statements that temporarily punt the problem. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov has already already said this type of “scenario is unacceptable.”
So Putin’s coercion is not about forcing the alliance to admit explicitly what is already implicitly true. It is about forcing the alliance to bindingly agree to foreswear any potential membership for Ukraine and other countries in Eastern Europe, a position that he knows would undermine the alliance’s founding principles, European security, and Ukraine’s sovereignty.
Between ongoing tensions and the 2008 Bucharest Summit statement, there are legitimate critiques of the open door. Particularly as it relates to Ukraine and Georgia, for example, the policy vs. practice indicates strategic incoherence within the alliance. But an over-fixation on NATO enlargement in responding to Russia’s current buildup will not create lasting stability. Catalysts are far more complex, as Fiona Hill also noted recently, and include additional factors, such as a desire to further degrade Ukrainian sovereignty, reset the terms of power relations with the United States, and undermine internal NATO cohesion and credibility. Renouncing NATO’s open door policy for Ukraine and beyond would likely come at a significant cost for both Ukraine and NATO.