NATO Summit in Vilnius, on July 12, 2023, in Vilnius, Lithuania Picture Credit: Artur Widak/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Ukraine’s dangerous friends

The embattled nation must resist the siren song of possible NATO membership

Artillery Row

Ukraine is an occupied country fighting for its life against a predatory invasion. It has good reason to want NATO’s continuing help. It also has good reason to be wary of it. In particular, it has excellent reason to look sceptically at the extravagant, surreal and hollow promises that some western members make. For its part, the west should also check that its words and promises are aligned with its actual intentions. In particular, we should not offer Ukraine what we have no real intention of delivering on, an alliance. 

This issue is again coming into focus. At this year’s NATO summit, there is a proposal on the table to offer Ukraine an accession pathway towards future alliance membership. It is a dangerous and ill-conceived proposition for both Ukraine’s interests and the west’s.

We in NATO countries are not fighting for Ukraine, or directly bleeding for it

For all the complexities and uncertainties of the conflict in Ukraine, there is a simple reality. Not an easy one, but a simple one. NATO is not going to fight for Ukraine. Some countries might flirt with the idea, of deploying forces in some capacity. But as actions and decisions demonstrate, even now, in Ukraine’s most extreme hour of existential danger, we judge that our interests there are real but ultimately limited. 

Ever since Russia invaded in March 2022, the west’s efforts to arm and aid Ukraine have featured a strange mix of absolute, maximalist words and more bounded deeds. On the one hand, we learn that the war represents the frontline of a struggle between democratic civilisation and authoritarian barbarism, that “their fight is our fight”, of an “ironclad” commitment to Ukraine’s liberation and survival. People and officials identify with and wear or fly the Ukrainian flag, suggesting wholehearted commitment.

On the other hand, despite these allegedly maximal stakes, we put an upper limit on our efforts. We in NATO countries are not fighting for Ukraine, or directly bleeding for it. We are not installing high-risk measures that threaten inadvertent escalation, like No-Fly Zones. And if any member state does try to insert forces, NATO will likely wish them well, and remind them that after Article V and its promise of “necessary” measures to support attacked members, comes Article VI, which indicates that NATO’s commitments only cover member state territories. We refuse to fight there because the grave risks of doing so are not worth the limited interests, namely the risks of inflicting a regime-threatening defeat that could lead to a desperate nuclear-armed invader reaching for the ultimate weapon. The fact that we, thus far as countries and always as an alliance, refuse to fight there is decisive evidence that we have no intention of doing so. Not all the internationalist poetry of Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, not all the resolute ex cathedra declarations of NATO’s secretary, Jens Stoltenberg, will change that. 

Therefore, it is reasonable to assume that if, in future, Russia were to withdraw fully or in part, and some kind of armistice took hold and the pressure on Ukraine to subside for a time, the west would remain unlikely ever to commit to Ukraine’s defence. If we don’t care enough about Ukraine to come directly to its rescue now, when the wolf is lunging for its vitals, we won’t care enough when the wolf has withdrawn and is licking its wounds. Of course, we might one day change our collective mind. But until we have, we shouldn’t promise that we will. 

The words-deeds gap with Ukraine is now a familiar pattern. Recall NATO’s summit declaration at Bucharest in 2008, that Ukraine would join the alliance. One day. Without a specified process or conditions. Our full solidarity with Ukraine remains forever in the future, where it remains reassuringly abstract. But that words-deeds gap could now or in future prove fatal. 

Despite the strongly-worded denials of some hawks, even the aggrandizing, imperialist regime of Vladimir Putin is also partly moved by reactive security-seeking. We know this from credible insider accounts, and from history, and the general, resentful fear of great powers anywhere, reasonable or not. 

If so, if Russia is partly motivated by the desire to neutralise Ukraine and thereby prevent it becoming a forward base for western enlargement, promising Ukraine NATO membership insincerely could generate a “worst of both worlds” situation. It would do just enough to make an aggressive Russia feel more insecure, while being non-credible enough to tempt Moscow to test it, in the hope of making Washington’s check bounce, and inducing a NATO crisis and shattering the alliance.

It is incoherent and irresponsible, therefore, for countries that have no intention of fighting for Ukraine, now or in future, to dangle the prospect of a future commitment. Better to be super-real, and focus on the practical things we are willing to do, rather than perpetuate the self-indulgent dalliance with Ukraine’s future.

Those who propose a pathway of future NATO membership now need to make up their minds. Do they regard NATO’s deterrent capacity as extremely strong? So strong, in fact, that it all-but guarantees Russia after this conflict would not attack Ukraine in future? That ultra-optimism raises a basic problem. If NATO, which currently stretches from Alaska to the Baltics, presents an overwhelmingly strong deterrent shield, an almost automatic deterrence, how precisely does Russia directly threaten the west as things stand now? 

The implicit assumption here is that Putin’s Russia is ultimately deterrable, and will back off when presented with NATO’s stop sign. By that logic, a pathway to NATO membership is a wise thing because it will deter Russia without us needing to agonise much about whether we would fight. In that case, to be blunt, if NATO is such a strong deterring force, why does Ukraine matter for our security interests? Even if Putin or his heirs annex Ukraine, the logic of that argument suggests they will stop at NATO’s frontier. If optimists’ real impulse for helping Ukraine is charity, rather than self-regarding security, they should say so.

Ukraine-into-NATO hawks need to get their story straight

On the other hand, when hawks want to emphasise the threat Russia poses beyond Ukraine and the need to counter it, they also argue that Putin’s Russia is a more of a feral beast, less easily deterrable, and likely if it devours Ukraine to take a run at the Baltic states and NATO’s eastern flank. In that case, NATO’s deterrent power is more doubtful and contingent. But that’s also a problem. It suggests NATO’s capacity to deter a future attack on Ukraine is also in doubt, and puts back on the table the issue so often avoided via deflection: are we willing to bleed for Kyiv or not? 

In other words, Ukraine-into-NATO hawks need to get their story straight. If NATO is such a robust deterrence force, continental Europe’s integrity is already assured and there’s no security-related need to bring Ukraine in. If on the other hand things are more volatile, if NATO’s capabilities and treaty commitments may well not suffice to discourage Russian military adventurism, then that applies to Russia’s behaviour towards Ukraine too. In that case, extending the alliance could lead to another grave crisis, but this time with the credibility and survival of NATO more directly at stake, not to mention increasing the threat of major war. 

There’s another possible argument to consider. Namely, that NATO’s deterrent power is neither built-in or overwhelming, nor is it brittle. Rather, it is more dynamic and context-sensitive, depending partly on the correlation of forces beyond its borders. From that point of view, Russia is more likely to refuse to be deterred if it is made bolder by affordable victory in Ukraine. Exactly so. That logic is precisely why some of us support arming and aiding Ukraine, to blunt Russia’s attempt, make any territorial gains pyrrhic, and, with Ukraine’s consent, to help it buffer the invader. Ideally this would lead to Russia’s eviction, but without direct western intervention, full eviction is unlikely. In which case, the prudent course is to help at least deplete Russia to the point where its bargaining hand is weakened, its appetite for further expansion reduced.

Yet that’s an argument for indirect support, not for going all-in, and certainly not for committing unambiguously to defend a country whose status Russia demonstrably cares strongly about. It’s also an argument for bolstering the North Atlantic Area’s defence and deterrence forces, with a Europe-led initiative, to make clear that crossing Ukraine’s border is one thing, while crossing NATO borders is quite another. Not as heroic as declarations of future alliance commitment, perhaps, but more credible and achievable. Strangely enough, repeating the charge of “appeaser” and putting flags in your twitter bio won’t resolve any of these questions.    

It is past time, in other words, to align words with deeds by only promising the help we are willing to give, and to stop the irresponsible dalliance that the west has carried on with Ukraine for years, the feel-good dangling of promises of future alliance and prospective commitment. That doesn’t mean abandoning Kyiv. It means, to use technical language, to stop bullshitting it. Just as importantly, it entails that we stop bullshitting ourselves.  

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