Ця стаття також доступна українською мовою тут. This post is also available in Ukrainian here.

(Editor’s note: For the author’s follow-up assessment of the NATO Summit in Vilnius, listen to the July 12 episode of the Just Security Podcast here.)

Russia’s war against Ukraine will dominate the NATO Summit to be held in Vilnius, Lithuania, July 11-12, and the biggest unresolved issue seems to be Ukraine’s NATO membership: whether and, if so, when and how. The Ukrainians have pushed for it, supported by their closest friends in Europe — Poland and the Baltic states — and by a number of European and U.S. advocates (full disclosure: this author included).

Bringing a country at war into a collective defense alliance is a tough issue. Russia launched a limited war against Ukraine in 2014 and escalated with a full-scale invasion in February 2022, seeking to destroy Ukrainian sovereignty and even the Ukrainian nation itself. The Biden administration has backed Ukraine in its fight for its life, providing weapons in a major supply operation and encouraging other countries to do likewise. But the end state of the war and where Ukraine lands afterwards is not yet clear.

In the intense discussions preparing for the summit, the Biden administration initially was reluctant to advance Ukraine’s NATO membership principally on the grounds that, with Ukraine at war, its accession to NATO could make the Alliance a party to the conflict, so accession risked igniting a NATO-Russia war, which President Joe Biden has assiduously sought to avoid. A second administration argument against advancing Ukraine’s accession to NATO was that seeking to do so would divide the Alliance, as was the case at the 2008 NATO Summit in Bucharest. There, the United States, the United Kingdom, Poland, and the three Baltic States pushed to give Ukraine (and Georgia) a “Membership Action Plan” (MAP), a way station toward accession, but were opposed by France and Germany. Facing deadlock, the Bucharest Summit settled, famously or notoriously, on a compromise that Ukraine and Georgia “will become members of NATO,” but the agreement set no date, nor did it grant them a MAP or any specific action plan for achieving this objective-in-principle.

French, German Opposition Softening

To the apparent surprise of the Biden administration, however, French opposition to advancing Ukraine’s NATO accession has softened in the weeks preceding the Vilnius Summit. In a major speech in Bratislava on May 31, French President Emmanuel Macron, seeming to side with the pro-accession Central Europeans, advocated “solid” security guarantees for Ukraine and said he favored bringing Ukraine into “existing security architectures,” i.e., NATO. In a June 28 press conference with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, Macron went a half-step further, urging NATO to provide “a path to give shape to Ukraine’s prospects to join NATO.” That shift, along with hints from German officials that their position on Ukraine in NATO could shift as well, especially if the U.S. position did so, undercut the Biden administration argument that raising Ukraine and NATO would split the Alliance.

The more profound argument the Biden team initially advanced against moving toward Ukraine’s NATO membership – that it risked igniting a NATO-Russia conflict – has also appeared less compelling in recent weeks. Few advocates of Ukraine’s NATO membership have argued for Ukraine’s accession while the current phase of the war continued. Rather, as an example, an open letter published in Politico on July 5 by a group of U.S. advocates (this author included) suggested that NATO make an unambiguous statement in support of Ukraine’s NATO membership and agree to provide deeper security ties while that process unfolds. Without locking in a timetable or setting forth preconditions like a permanent peace between Ukraine and Russia that might give the Kremlin an effective veto over Ukraine’s accession to NATO, the letter suggests flexibility on timing within the context of a strategic decision that the security of not only Ukraine but also Europe and the United States will be advanced with Ukraine inside the Alliance and with a program of action to reach that goal.

The argument against Ukraine’s NATO accession also began to crumble because of its potential consequences. The issue of Ukraine’s NATO membership is a function of a larger strategic question: is Ukraine a European country and, if it deepens and consolidates its democratic, free-market, and rule-of-law transformation, shouldn’t it be part of the transatlantic community of free and generally prosperous democracies? That would be an extension of how the United States and Europe decided, after much debate in the 1990s and early 2000s, to treat the countries of Central and Eastern Europe, including the Baltic States, as they all emerged from Soviet domination. The decision to support the accession of these countries to NATO and the European Union was a decision to operationalize the objective of a Europe whole and free. Does that decision apply to Ukraine as it applied to Poland, the Baltic States, and other nations of Europe’s east?

Risks as a Buffer State

Or, alternatively, is Ukraine’s fate to be a buffer state between Europe and Russia? That would mean the United States and Europe deciding, either on their own or in a tacit arrangement with the Kremlin, that Ukraine would never join either NATO or the European Union. Left outside Europe’s institutions, Ukraine would be consigned to a gray zone of insecurity, in effect to a Russian sphere of domination. This would be no Austria or Finland option for Ukraine, countries that were neutral during the Cold War but generally free internally, prosperous, and democratic. Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine to destroy the Ukrainian nation as anything distinct from Russia. Putin has said so on numerous occasions, including his infamous July 2021 essay on the Kremlin website “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians.” That strategic objective is not likely to change with Putin or a like-minded successor in office. Indeed, in 2013, Ukraine was neutral, its government not interested in NATO membership and friendly to Russia. That wasn’t enough for Putin: when the Ukrainian government of the time, seeking to satisfy strong pro-European social sentiment in Ukraine, negotiated a modest “Association Agreement” with the EU, Putin forced Ukraine’s pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovych, to withhold his signature at the last minute. That set off demonstrations that ended with Yanukovych fleeing the country to Moscow and Putin ordering the first invasion.

A Ukraine consigned to the cold, outside European and transatlantic institutions, would mean Russia’s domination, one way or another. As seen by Russian behavior in the parts of Ukraine it already occupies, Russian control of Ukraine would be carried out in Stalinist fashion, with mass deportations and executions of leading Ukrainian activists, teachers, writers, veterans, and other patriots. This is how the Soviet Union took over the Baltic states in 1940 and Europe’s eastern third in and after 1945. As was the case in the Soviet-dominated part of Europe during the Cold War, Moscow’s rule would not be stable: it would mean repression and poverty, leading to persistent revolts.

No one knows precisely how Russia’s war against Ukraine will end. But it will not end with a Russian victory parade down Kyiv’s main boulevard, Khreshchatyk Street. The current phase of the war will end with all or most of Ukrainian territory in Ukrainian hands. If the United States and Europe are to make good on their repeated declarations of support for Ukraine’s future as a free country, they will have to welcome Ukraine as a European country that is eligible, if it makes the grade, to join those key institutions, the EU and NATO, that have kept the general peace in Europe for three generations and ushered in ever-deeper overall prosperity and democracy.

It’s clear by now that the NATO Summit in Vilnius will not extend an invitation to Ukraine to join the Alliance immediately. But there is a good chance that NATO will make the decision that Ukraine, having defended itself against Russian aggression in the name of national survival and the future of its democracy, has clear prospects as a European country and as a member of NATO’s collective defense family. NATO should see to it that Russia’s aggression, having failed on the battlefield, will not triumph through a cynical diplomatic deal over the heads of the Ukrainians to end the war on Russia’s terms.

The when and how of Ukraine’s NATO membership is yet to be determined in detail; the question of whether that happens should be settled – firmly this time — at Vilnius.

IMAGE: Ukrainian paramedic “Austin” proudly displays an image on his phone of U.S. President Joe Biden and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky meeting in Kyiv on February 20, 2023. Austin and fellow medics were taking cover from shelling in a frontline bunker in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine, when he saw the news. “Today Biden visited in Kyiv, and we are very happy. It’s fantastic,” he beamed. The medic is part of Hospitallars, a Ukrainian voluntary organization of paramedics treating and evacuating wounded soldiers from frontline positions. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)