NATO Vilnius Summit confirmed Ukrainian concerns about the fears gripping some of the alliance’s member states. That is, the anxiety that Russia may escalate if NATO brings in Ukraine, and so drag them into war.
Sometimes this fear of war with Russia seems stronger than in the Soviet times when the Kremlin’s potential was much higher and its 1.1 million-strong tank armies were just meters away from NATO forces. For Ukrainians, and our less-worried friends in the West, some of these fears seem odd if not irrational.
But it was nonetheless clear from the language of the summit communique to the public statements by the US National Security Advisor Jack Sullivan, and the words of both governmental and public forum participants, that some member states (widely identified as the US and Germany), even after a year and a half of war, choose a Russia-first approach.
This was confirmed by the results of Ukrainian Prism research in spring 2023, when experts and diplomats from Germany, France, Italy, Bulgaria, Slovakia, Turkey, and the US were interviewed to identify the main concerns and arguments that shape the political discourse of those opposing Ukraine’s NATO integration, at least as a short-term prospect.
“Russia is seen as a bigger threat than the added value of Ukraine’s joining NATO could be” — French expert
This quote crystallizes the main counterargument. Despite a clear change in the attitude towards Ukraine and Russia after the full-scale invasion in February 2022, this has not resulted in a significant alteration in the attitude toward Ukraine’s NATO membership. Russia and its interests remain a top priority.
This rationale de facto leads to a Russia-centric policy, giving the Kremlin an effective veto over NATO’s strategic decisions.
“There are many Germans who would oppose [Ukraine’s membership of NATO] because they say that Russia will never accept it” — German expert
Such an approach begs two other questions:
- will Russia escalate when Ukraine’s path to NATO membership becomes clear? and
- how can relations with Russia be rebuilt after the war if the skeptics’ primary consideration is appeasing it?
In a number of countries, including France and Turkey, even those opposed to Russia’s wars of aggression tend to support a dialogue with Russia and a more cautious approach to NATO enlargement. These foreign-policy thinkers tend to have accepted Russian propaganda about the reasons for its aggression against Ukraine.
At the same time, the argument of likely escalation by the Kremlin usually lacks a clear description of what this might actually entail, given that Russia is already exploiting all of its available military force in Ukraine. In some cases, escalation refers to the use of nuclear weapons. Others follow Sullivan’s line in Vilnius that immediate membership would bring immediate war for NATO itself.
We picked up other concerns in our research. For some, particularly in Germany, Ukraine is seen as a very different creature from other NATO members. There are worries that its war-hardened approach could affect the alliance’s consensus decision-making system and even stronger doubts about how Ukraine would exercise its membership of NATO. “After this war, Ukraine will hate Russia so much that they will not be a responsible NATO member,” as one said.
Many of the arguments against Ukraine’s NATO membership are subjective, and so it hardly makes sense to rely on a reactive approach alone, explaining how false or manipulative such statements by opponents of Ukraine’s Euro-Atlantic integration.
It would likely be more effective for Kyiv to build its own clear narratives to create the image of a responsible, reliable, efficient, and well-prepared future member of NATO. Ukraine essentially needs to strengthen its image as a state that is already contributing to European security, rather than one that increases risks. This will help to meet the terms of the Vilnius summit communique: that allies “will be in a position to extend an invitation to Ukraine to join the Alliance when Allies agree, and conditions are met.”
As for Russia’s concerns, it already sees NATO as a party to the conflict, as mentioned by its leadership and military from day one of the war. The alliance may choose to ignore this fact, but a fact it is.
Despite Vilnius, there is now a full year until the Washington summit — NATO’s 75th — to prove Ukrainian readiness and to demonstrate that fears of Russia are more irrational than fact-based. By then, Finland’s membership will have shown that taking in new members may actually decrease rather than increase Russian aggression.
There is an exceptionally good case to make here. Ukraine’s unique combat experience won in the largest-scale war since 1945, its range of skills in countering hybrid and military threats, will very obviously stiffen NATO’s military backbone.
For 40 years, the alliance stared down the powerful Soviet Union. It can very plausibly do the same to a weakened and divided Russia, a country whose history of issuing red lines and seeing them crossed, tells us all we need to know. The alliance policy should not be Russia first, it should be NATO first.
Hanna Shelest PhD is a Non-resident Senior Fellow with the Transatlantic Defense and Security program at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA). She is the Director of Security Programmes at the Foreign Policy Council “Ukrainian Prism” and Editor-in-chief at UA: Ukraine Analytica. Before this, she served for more than 10 years as a Senior Researcher at the National Institute for Strategic Studies under the President of Ukraine, Odesa Branch.
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.