Fifteen years ago at the 2008 Bucharest Summit, in a messy last-minute compromise, NATO offered Ukraine a promise of eventual membership. But that promise, which has been repeated many times since — and which some allies have been determined never to fulfill — has proved entirely hollow. This prevarication has come at a high price, incalculably so for Ukraine, and has done lasting damage to wider European security. 

Now the double-talk has to end, for our sake and for Ukraine’s. It’s not enough just to shrug our shoulders and say the politics are too hard, especially in Washington and Berlin, or the risks too difficult to quantify. We have already done that for far too long. It has not worked. What are we now waiting for? 

NATO membership for Ukraine is the right course whatever the outcome of the war. It is the only way of decisively deterring future Russian aggression. A ceasefire or peace deal without a real guarantee of Ukraine’s security would be an invitation to future aggression, and leave Ukraine unable to focus on its reconstruction.  

There has been much discussion of what kind of guarantees should be provided, and when. In broad terms, the options canvassed include:  

  • extensive practical military support to Ukraine to enable it to defend itself (“do it yourself”);  
  • some (unspecified) form of security assurances by an (unspecified) group of countries; and  
  • NATO membership with its Article 5 guarantee.  

The first option would leave Ukraine much where it is now — fighting alone, or under threat of renewed aggression, and unable to move forward. The second would only be meaningful if it included a cast-iron US guarantee. In other words, it would either be a non-guarantee — like the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, not worth the paper it is written on — or in effect NATO membership under another name. It is for good reason that Finland and Sweden, which were in no imminent danger of attack by Russia, concluded that the only satisfactory option for them was full NATO membership.  

On the timing of guarantees for Ukraine, many suggest that any meaningful commitments must, as a minimum, await the end of the war and a peace settlement. But that leaves the timing in Russia’s hands and gives Russia the strongest incentive never to come to terms.  

Others argue for a much longer timescale, often on the grounds that Ukraine will need many more years before it can meet all the standards required of NATO members. There have been various suggestions for some form of further enhanced partnership with NATO, as an interim step (in effect reintroducing something like the Membership Action Plan which the Bucharest Summit chose to sidestep.) But much of that is a polite recipe for further prevarication, lasting perhaps another 10-15 years. This endless deferral of the problem has to stop. 

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Without a real security guarantee for Ukraine in the near future, these options would leave the country in the disastrous no-man’s-land it has inhabited since 2008, and which did so much to bring about the current all-out conflict. They would not deter future Russian aggression. And they would leave Ukraine alone and bleeding without the security to start reconstruction.  

There are no imaginable circumstances under which Russia would accept a deal involving Ukrainian membership in NATO. However long we wait, we will never have a Russia which accepts Ukrainian membership.  

NATO has always said, in relation to invitations to new members, that this is a decision for allies alone, and that no other country has a veto. The 31 members now need to mean what they say. Russia will always seek to exercise a veto, and it will always maintain the reality, or the threat, of an actively disputed internal boundary within Ukraine in order to complicate any guarantee. We cannot allow this to dictate the policy of the world’s most powerful military bloc.  

The evidence of the past year is that Russia will work very hard to avoid a war with NATO, which it knows it would lose. In theory, its ultimate option is its nuclear arsenal. But just as that cannot mean that alliance membership decisions are made in the Kremlin, nor can it give Vladimir Putin and his successors an automatic trump card. NATO cannot give in to nuclear blackmail. That would mark the end of true security in Europe, and the end of NATO.  

If Russia continues its assault on Ukraine, we may eventually have to face the prospect of providing a guarantee to Ukraine before, or without, a peace agreement. It makes no sense to allow Russia to hold Ukraine and the West hostage indefinitely.  

To help restore transatlantic security, Ukraine should join NATO fast. It has shown that it has the values, the will, and the capabilities to contribute to the security of the North Atlantic area, as required by Article 10 of the Washington Treaty. Russia will need containing for years to come. Ukrainian membership will greatly improve the prospects of that containment being successful, and of sustainable peace in Europe.  

Towards that end, the alliance needs to provide clear and unqualified assurances to Ukraine at NATO’s Vilnius Summit in July. Difficult discussions and choices are needed before that — to avoid a repeat of the chaotic last-minute negotiation at Bucharest in 2008, to avoid a continuation of 15 years of hollow promises, and to avoid prolonging the inherently dangerous and destabilising status quo. The hard choices must be made, particularly by the US and Germany, which have proved the stumbling blocks to date.  

It’s time to stop admiring the problem and fix it.  

Patrick Turner was between 2015 and July 2022 an Assistant Secretary General at NATO, first for Operations and latterly for Defence Policy and Planning. He worked for the UK Government for 38 years, principally on defense and security issues. He is currently a Distinguished Fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA.) 

Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.

Europe's Edge
CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America.
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