Why Ukraine Won’t Join NATO – OpEd


Following Russia’s annexation of four regions of Ukraine in September last year, Kyiv formally applied for NATO membership. However, despite the ongoing Russian aggression, Ukraine’s membership remains unresolved.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy participated in the NATO summit in Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, with a definite demand: admit Ukraine to the US-led military alliance. Despite eastern NATO countries’ support, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said at a press conference with Estonia’s Prime Minister that NATO is delaying Kyiv’s admission without a date for meeting the conditions. This was a major disappointment for Zelensky and the advocates of Ukraine’s integration into NATO.

Three principal rationales support the proposition of Ukraine’s accession to NATO. The first one posits that the stability and security of Europe necessitate Kyiv’s integration into this alliance. According to this logic, Putin will not confine his objectives to Ukraine but will attempt to assail NATO member states if he is not impeded. The second one concentrates on Ukraine itself and contends that NATO membership is the sole means to safeguard this country from Russia’s expansionist schemes. This rationale maintains that NATO is the only assurance of Ukraine’s independence and territorial integrity. The third one asserts that Ukraine has merited its membership in NATO by combating and debilitating the adversary of this alliance. This rationale proposes that NATO should acknowledge Ukraine’s valor and augment its deterrence against prospective Russian aggression by intensifying its collaboration with Kyiv.

Nonetheless, the postponement of Ukraine’s accession to the future manifested that in the eyes of key members of NATO, none of the aforesaid arguments counterbalance the high costs of extending an unlimited security pledge to Ukraine and acquiescing the risks of its incorporation. The country has persisted outside of NATO. There are manifold causes why despite the robust endorsement of countries such as Poland, Romania, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Montenegro, and North Macedonia for Ukraine’s incorporation into this military alliance, there is no propitious prospect for Kyiv to join NATO.

If Ukraine were to accede to NATO while it was still at war with Russia, it would automatically invoke Article 5 of the NATO Collective Defense Pact. NATO members have endeavored to eschew incorporating countries that were in imminent peril of being assailed to the alliance subsequent to the Cold War. NATO leaders have also long comprehended that Ukraine’s integration would implicate accepting a very high plausibility of a nuclear war with Russia. In fact, the principal reason why the United States and other NATO members aspire to avoid becoming more entangled in the Ukraine war is the possibility of such a conflict and its calamitous consequences. To be clear, almost no one thinks that NATO should directly affront Russia over Ukraine today.

On the other hand, Ukraine does not need to accede to NATO. This organization has always sustained Ukraine since the commencement of the war. The dispensation of various types of military, financial, civilian, and humanitarian aid worth tens of billions of dollars/euros by each of the member countries of this organization connotes that Ukraine possesses the security guarantee of NATO, without being an official member. The case of Kosovo, which was supported by the peacekeepers of this alliance in the late 1990s, exhibited that it is viable to enjoy many benefits without integrating into NATO. This also pertains to Russia’s nuclear threats. In response to the Kremlin’s repeated threats and statements that Russia will utilize low-yield nuclear weapons in Ukraine, Washington officials declared that in this case, the United States would react fiercely and eradicate all Russian forces in Ukraine and extirpate its entire Black Sea fleet. 

Ukraine is not ready to join NATO. It must meet certain economic, political, and military criteria before becoming a member. Ukraine needs to make significant progress in these areas and transform into a modern European nation that respects liberal democracy and eliminates corruption. This is a very difficult and long process that requires a strong will and dedication to implement fundamental changes in political and economic institutions. Ukraine faces similar challenges in its ambition to join the European Union, as there are doubts about its ability to comply with the union’s standards and rules. However, some people hope that the war will improve Ukraine’s military skills with the help of Western equipment and training, and make it a more attractive candidate for NATO membership in the future.

Some NATO members oppose Ukraine’s membership as well, and the Kremlin uses it politically. For example, Turkey, Hungary, France, and Germany have different reasons to be reluctant or hostile to Ukraine’s bid. Turkey blocked Sweden and Finland from joining NATO, and Hungary vetoed Ukraine’s attempts to join NATO and the EU over language issues. France and Germany may not want to risk their relations with Russia by accepting Ukraine. They blocked Ukraine and Georgia from joining NATO in 2008.

Ukraine’s accession to NATO would serve the interests of Putin as well. He asserts that Russia is engaging in self-defense against Western aggression by launching an offensive against Ukraine. The presence of NATO troops and bases on Ukrainian soil would provide him with a pretext for his war and mobilize his population. This would enable him to overcome the impasse of the conflict and the rising anti-war sentiments in Russia. It would also enhance Russia’s stature among the nations of the global south, who are skeptical of the West and its liberal world order and do not endorse the Western sanctions against Russia.

Many NATO members, especially those in the east, backed Ukraine’s bid to join the North Atlantic Treaty. This gave its supporters hope that Ukraine would soon become a member. Nevertheless, the recent NATO assembly in Vilnius, Lithuania indicated that Kyiv’s affiliation with the military alliance is not a matter of urgency. This is due to the potential of intensifying the conflict, the absence of necessity for affiliation, the unreadiness of Kyiv, the discord among the members, and the likelihood of Moscow’s propaganda manipulation. NATO only expresses verbal support and leaves Ukraine in ambiguity. Ukraine is expected to deal with Russia and weaken it in exchange for billions of dollars in military and economic support from NATO.

Sarah Neumann

Sarah Neumann is a professor of political science and teaches political science courses at Universities in Germany

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