top of page

Ukrainian Membership in NATO: A Step Too Far

By Dean Ensley, Transatlantic Security Analyst


Entertaining, and ultimately accepting, a Ukrainian application for NATO membership would set NATO on a collision course with Russia. Moreover, by swelling its borders to include Ukraine, the alliance would suffer from overexpansion and the dissolution of an already cloudy mandate.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) risks inherently weakening itself by considering any Ukrainian application for membership. As the Ukrainian crisis continues to boil, policy leaders have repeatedly raised the question of Ukraine joining the post-World War Two alliance. U.S. President Obama, speaking only three weeks ago in Estonia, declared “the door to NATO membership will remain open” for any country that can contribute to allied security, and there have been calls of support for membership from some Ukrainian politicians. Allowing Ukraine into NATO, however, would be a strategically disastrous decision and would threaten the peace and stability of NATO states.

Chief among arguments against Ukrainian membership is the escalation toward brinkmanship with NATO’s traditional antagonist: Russia. Lord Ismay, first Secretary General of NATO, famously noted that the organization was meant to keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down.Yet this crisis has clearly shown that the Russians refuse to be kept out of Ukraine. When a pro-Western leadership ousted President Viktor Yanukovych in February, Russia annexed Crimea. When President Petro Poroshenko signed an initial trade treaty with the EU in June, rebels in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions suddenly had greater manpower, munitions and heavy equipment. Russian news sources already accuse NATO of practicing brinkmanship by allegedly orchestrating a coup in Kiev and developing a “high readiness force” to spearhead the NATO Response Force. 

Putin himself has warned that if Ukraine joins NATO, Russia will “treat Ukraine as an enemy” and subsequently “target its missile systems at Ukraine.” Putin’s goal – domestically and internationally – is to remain the sole hegemon in what he considers to be the Russian sphere of influence and ensure that Western authorities cannot gain significant presence or support along the Russian periphery. As demonstrated by his repeated escalations, scaling from the food import ban to Russian forces directly targeting the Ukrainian military, achieving that goal is worth risking Western punishments. Some might argue that balking in the face of such Russian threats is tantamount to appeasement. However, an alliance based on collective defense should focus on feasible red lines rather than intervening in a situation where we gain little but the anger and retaliation of an adversary.

Another reason why NATO should resist Ukrainian membership is the risk of overexpansion. As of 2013, only the United States, Britain, Estonia and Greece fulfill NATO’s requirement of spending at least two percent of GDP on defense. As budgets dwindlemilitaries shrink, and other regional threats arise, NATO nations may not be able to act sufficiently in Ukraine. It would not be wrong to argue that, as demonstrated by the 1992 Bosnian War, the 2001 Afghanistan War, and the anti-piracy efforts off of the Horn of Africa, NATO’s area of operation is expanding. This means that the Ukraine crisis, which directly impacts NATO nations, could easily be perceived to fall within the scope of NATO activity. 

However, actively dispatching soldiers, providing training, and helping quell the eastern rebels, which Ukraine could call upon NATO allies to do under the pretext of Articles 5 or 6, would be politically impractical. There is already a substantial debate over how far NATO should to go in confronting Russia due to deep economic ties with the EU. Intensifying that debate by admitting Ukraine, whose membership application was rejected in 2008, would further weaken NATO cohesion and exacerbate the perception of growing weakness in the alliance’s resolve. Delivering munitions and intelligence sharing, on the other hand, is feasible and requires neither NATO membership nor undue duress on the alliance. 

Finally, NATO already suffers from a never-ending debate over a cloudy mandate, and Lord Ismay’s simple three-point plan is not a guide for the post-Cold War world. Should NATO solely enforce collective defense? Should it intervene in countries such as Libya or Syria to protect economic, political or humanitarian interests? Should NATO defend not just its borders, but the international rules and values of our global society? Admitting Ukraine will serve only to cloud NATO’s mandate further. Should NATO further involve itself in the Eurasian continent? Should NATO accept members who have little or no connection to the Atlantic area? And, possibly most importantly, should NATO accept those who are not fully in control of their own affairs? These are questions without answers, but they require public understanding because the transatlantic community is subject to the personal interpretations of these questions by current NATO leaders.

The alliance has transformed into a pan-European security organization that deals with any international security issue that influences North America and Europe, but its identity quagmire has led many to think that it can fully resolve every security issue on those continents. Instead of considering Ukrainian membership, NATO should look internally to enforce defense spending requirements, maintain the credibility of Article 5, and recall that its primary purpose is not defending the international order, but to defend the geopolitical integrity of its members. Otherwise, this identity crisis and debate over mandate and mission will lead to divisions that can be exploited, just as Putin is doing in Ukraine.


bottom of page