In the eight years following Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, Kyiv looks to NATO as a key supporter and partner in countering Moscow’s expansionist policy, a collaboration likely to gain momentum despite challenges.
Kyiv (Brussels Morning) Security across the European borderline has deteriorated dramatically in recent years, its landscape shaken by political turmoil and armed conflicts. International challenges, especially the coronavirus pandemic, add a layer of complexity over underlying geopolitical rivalries. Domestically, the EU faces new challenges because of Brexit and internal competition between member states.
With these developments in mind, NATO remains the cornerstone of Europe’s collective security architecture, cementing Euroatlantic unity. Simultaneously, asymmetric security threats and challenges facing Ukraine and the inability to individually counter Russia’s aggression push Kyiv to rely on the international community’s support and assistance. In this context, NATO is considered a major ally of Ukraine and the aspiration to join the alliance remains popular among the country’s elites and society-at-large.
Ukraine cooperates with NATO fruitfully and the country is fully committed to Euro-Atlantic integration, with the aspiration of alliance membership enshrined in the Ukrainian Constitution and indicated in its National Security Strategy. Nevertheless, imminent membership is not likely for several reasons.
In the first instance, there are pending Russian territorial claims over the country and an ongoing conflict with proxy Russian-backed forces.
NATO is a collective security system and its primary goal is to decrease the cost of collective security among the member states while maximising deterrence. This objective is achieved through a shared responsibility to protect each other – the well-known Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty – and through confidence in each state’s neighbours, including shared common values.
Deterrence rests on the credible claim that member states will mobilise collectively in the case of aggression against one member of the alliance. Therefore, if Ukraine were to join NATO, the alliance would face the choice between entering a conflict or risk discrediting its claim to collective defence. The potential enemy would be the Russian Federation, a country with powerful military forces and nuclear arsenals.
NATO members would have to choose between not protecting Ukraine, which would be the end of the principle “a threat to one is a threat to all or full-scale war, a possibility that members would justifiably prefer to avoid.
The second reason is the different perception of Russia’s threat. By far, not all the NATO members share Ukraine’s perception of Russia as a direct threat to independence, territorial integrity and their very existence. France and Germany or members located far from Russia’s borders have different visions of the security threats than the Baltic states, for instance.
Moreover, most influential NATO member states often consider relations with Ukraine through the prism of their relations with the Russian Federation and NATO membership of Ukraine may be an instrument of affecting Moscow’s position in other important issues, for example, nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament.
Furthermore, Russia is sometimes considered a potential alternative to growing China’s power and influence. In this scenario, additional escalation because of Ukraine’s membership in the Alliance is undesirable.
Last but not least, Ukraine is not a fully functioning democracy yet. There is no operational definition of how that benchmark is set but at the very least, it entails sharing common values, institutionally compatible decision-making processes, and a shared world view across a range of foreign policy and security issues. That includes trust in public administration, domestic stability and social cohesion.
Failing to pass these fundamental benchmarks would hurt NATO’s image as a stronghold of democracy and may cause political turbulence, social unrest or worsening interstate relations within NATO territory. In turn, it may decrease the unity and credibility of the organisation and its attractiveness for aspiring states. There are already existing tensions among the NATO members, for instance, between Greece, France and Turkey. For this reason, adding a new potential trouble spot remains undesirable.
At the same time, there are several reasons for NATO to support Ukraine further and deepen cooperation with Kyiv.
Firstly, Ukraine is in a strategically important region, between the Atlantic and the Black Sea. The interest that influential actors show towards Eastern Europe proves, once again, that both nature and geopolitics detest vacuums. Apart from Moscow intensifying its military presence and political influence in the region, Russia and China are also positioning themselves economically, either through the Eurasian Economic Union or the Belt and Road Initiative and its regional incarnation as the “17+1” initiative. China’s expansion does not as yet have a “String of Pearls” military component, as in the Indo-Pacific region, but the more vital the interests, the more security discourse comes to bear.
NATO’s second interest is the Ukrainian army, experienced and battle-hardened, ready to share expertise and contribute to the alliance. Existing formats of cooperation like Partnership for Peace, Enhanced Opportunities Partnership and other frameworks provide scope for further tactical interoperability and coordination.
Another important factor is regional security. Over the last two decades, the potential for conflict across Europe and its periphery is rising, to a great extent, because of Russia’s policy. The more conflicts in the post-Soviet space are entrenched, the longer their duration, the bigger the threat to collective European security and prosperity.
In this context, the Ukrainian case is the most important since it is a boiling conflict, not frozen, and escalation can occur anytime, especially paying attention to the unpredictable behaviour of Russia’s puppets, the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk people’s republics. An escalation of conflict in the region would at the very least demand the increase of defence expenditures by NATO member states. Assisting Ukraine in defending its sovereignty and territorial integrity could, in this sense, be a forward-looking investment.
Finally, the potential threat to the ideological credibility of democracy and the unity of the “democratic world” should not be taken for granted. Ukraine is not the only aspiring country that wants to join NATO or the only one committed to democracy. Ukraine has proven that it is committed to reforms towards democracy, but if the country were to be left to its own devices because of its geopolitical choice, NATO would lose its gravitational appeal in places over and beyond Ukraine.
Such a scenario is even more dangerous when considering alternative systems of governance. China, for example, often offers enormous economic benefits, which many countries eagerly accept, without requiring difficult and long-lasting changes towards democratisation.
Ukraine is still far from NATO membership. Russia’s expansionist policy and its repercussions present obstacles that the country cannot simply bypass and Kyiv must also complete its democratic transformation to remain on track for eventual membership.
However, the changing balance of power and growing geopolitical rivalry with contesting powers in the region suggest that shared values and interests are now more critical. Ukraine has made its choice and the efforts Kyiv makes lay a solid foundation for deeper cooperation and future membership. Now NATO has to make the right choice and deepen its engagement with Ukraine, as both sides work towards a democratic order with collective security and prosperity.