Why Ukraine’s NATO Accession Is a No-go

This week, the NATO ministerial gathered NATO member states’ defense ministers and partners in Brussels. The summit was also attended by Ukraine’s defense minister.

In September, Ukrainian President, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, announced Ukraine’s application to NATO fast-track membership in response to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s formal annexation of four Ukrainian provinces.

There is no formal checklist for NATO membership that aspiring state candidates need to fulfill first. Article 10 of the North Atlantic Treaty says: “The Parties may, by unanimous agreement, invite any other European State in a position to further the principles of this Treaty and to contribute to the security of the North Atlantic area to accede to this Treaty.” The Alliance practices the open-door policy.

There is no condition which requires that an aspiring member, such as Ukraine, has to first be free of conflict at the moment of NATO application or accession. This is in contrast to the EU requirements for settled disputes with neighbors. In the case of EU membership, the Western Balkan countries became subject to additional conditions for EU membership, in the ‘Stabilization and Association process’, mostly relating to good neighborly relations. But NATO is not the EU. NATO is a military alliance and the condition for peace with neighbors is not a part of the formal game.

Whether a country is at war or peace is not a formal condition for NATO membership. The NATO enlargement study of 1995 outlines a number of principles, factors and aspirations revolving around peaceful resolution of conflicts, contribution to peace, democracy, values, settlement of disputes, friendly relations, strong institutions, preserving justice, etc. which all make NATO sound more like a peacebuilding NGO than the most powerful military alliance in the world, which NATO is. The aspirational factors listed in point 5 of the study are not a checklist for membership. Among the principles, point 6 of the study points to the peaceful resolution of conflict and that the peaceful resolution of disputes “would be a factor in determining whether to invite a state to join the Alliance.” Point 7 of the 1995 study says: “There is no fixed or rigid list of criteria for inviting new member states to join the Alliance. Enlargement will be decided on a case-by-case basis”.

There is nothing that stops Ukraine from becoming a NATO member other than the consensus of the 30 NATO member states. The decision is rather a product of rational analysis that each NATO member makes vis-à-vis potential candidates, and any conflict that might be imported to the Alliance by accepting a new member state.

At the moment, a Ukraine NATO accession is a no-go. It would embroil the whole continent of Europe in a full-fledged war against Russia. According to Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, an attack on one is an attack on all, and the US and Europe are not ready for that risk.

What this means for the US is that the US could face a nuclear war with Russia should President Putin attack Ukraine with a nuclear weapon. On Thursday, NATO Secretary General, Jens Stoltenberg, chaired a meeting of the Nuclear Planning Group to discuss Russia’s dangerous nuclear rhetoric and the role of NATO’s nuclear deterrence capability.

This week CNN’s Jake Tapper asked US President Joe Biden if he thinks that the Russian President is a rational actor. Biden said he thinks of Putin as a rational actor. Putin calculates and knows NATO’s red lines. I recently argued that Putin is a rational actor, in my piece for the New York Times.

What Ukraine NATO membership means for NATO members on the Eastern front could be a direct threat of invasion.

A Declaration issued last week by 9 NATO members – Central and Eastern European states – supported Ukraine’s path to membership. The group of nine said they “firmly stand behind” a NATO decision made at the 2008 Bucharest summit on Ukraine’s membership prospects to the Alliance. The leaders of Czechia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, North Macedonia, Montenegro, Poland, Romania and Slovakia published the statement on Sunday. The White House’s response to the Declaration was that Ukraine’s NATO membership should be pursued “at a different time”. Out of the NATO’s Eastern Europe members, the President of Bulgaria, Rumen Radev, did not sign the Declaration, worried about the wording on Ukraine’s NATO membership.

NATO works as a deterrent for countries already members of NATO. Deterrence won’t work as a magic wand in an ongoing conflict such as the one between Ukraine and Russia. It would only inflame a two-state conflict turning it into a full-blown multi-country war. That’s why the White House’s response ‘not now’ is probably the most realistic response that the Alliance has for Ukraine at the moment.

[Image by Jurta, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons]

*Iveta Cherneva is an Amazon best-selling author and political commentator. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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