Ukraine’s Bid for NATO Membership Presents Profound Dilemma for the West

The plea for NATO membership by Ukraine has placed the West in a profound dilemma. President Joe Biden, ahead of his crucial trip to Europe, stated that while Ukraine is not yet ready to join NATO, the alliance itself is also not prepared for Ukraine’s entry. The potential historic step of admitting Ukraine into NATO could serve as a deterrent against Moscow but also carries the risk of escalating tensions and potentially sparking a US-Russia war.

President Biden has made Ukraine’s defense against Russian aggression a cornerstone of his foreign policy, even recently approving the controversial decision to send cluster bombs. However, in an exclusive interview with CNN, Biden sent a strong message to Kyiv that their assertive campaign is unlikely to yield a definite date for NATO membership at the alliance’s summit in Lithuania this week.

While some Eastern European NATO members are eager to welcome Ukraine soon, cautious voices, including the United States, express concerns that rapid NATO membership could provoke direct conflict with Russia—a scenario Biden is keen to avoid.

In the CNN interview with Fareed Zakaria, Biden acknowledged that there is no unanimity within NATO regarding Ukraine’s immediate inclusion, especially in the midst of an ongoing war. He emphasized the need for a “rational path” toward Ukraine’s membership and highlighted certain requirements that Ukraine still needs to meet, particularly in terms of democratization.

Although Biden discussed the issue extensively with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and refused to grant Russian President Vladimir Putin veto power over Ukraine’s future membership, his comments may disappoint Ukraine, which continues to suffer from a brutal war that has witnessed numerous crimes against humanity. Ukraine has often portrayed itself as fighting on behalf of the West against Russian expansionism and weakening NATO’s top adversary in Europe, making a moral case for the defense guarantees enjoyed by NATO member states. However, even Zelensky acknowledges that Ukraine cannot join NATO while the war persists.

Zelensky hinted in an interview with ABC News that he may choose not to attend the NATO summit unless there is more clarity on membership and security guarantees. He stressed that such a move would send a crucial message that NATO is unafraid of Russia.

The Decision’s Significance

Deciding whether to admit Ukraine into NATO is one of the most significant European security questions since previous waves of expansion brought the alliance to Russia’s borders. Advocates argue that this expansion ensured peace in the post-Cold War era by deterring Kremlin aggression. However, critics of enlargement into former Soviet Eastern Europe contend that it humiliated Moscow, turned it into an avowed foe of the West, and ultimately led to the invasion of Ukraine.

Granting Ukraine membership would extend NATO’s sacred pledge that an attack on one member is an attack on all to a nation Russia considers part of its sphere of influence, despite lacking any basis in international law. Such a decision would commit future Western leaders to engage in war with a nuclear-armed Russia and potentially risk a third World War if Russia were to attack Ukraine again.

Supporters of Ukraine’s NATO membership argue that the security and territorial integrity provided to ex-Warsaw Pact nations like Poland, Hungary, and Romania demonstrate the safety Ukraine would experience under NATO’s mutual defense umbrella. This argument is especially compelling as Lithuania, the host of the NATO summit, shares a similar historical vulnerability to Russia before joining NATO in 2004, along with its fellow Baltic states Latvia and Estonia.

The Case for Ukraine in NATO

Proponents of Ukraine’s membership argue that providing ironclad security guarantees would dispel its vulnerability to Russian aggression. They highlight that the vague promise of future membership, first made at the Bucharest summit in 2008 without a realistic timetable, provided an incentive for Russia to invade Ukraine before it joined the alliance.

Ukraine’s accession to NATO would also strengthen its democratic aspirations and align it with the West, a desire shared by many of its citizens. Given the brutal war instigated by Moscow, Russia has forfeited any moral authority to determine Ukraine’s fate. Additionally, Ukraine’s battle-hardened army, with more personnel than most member states, would enhance NATO’s military capabilities.

Sens. Lindsey Graham (Republican) and Richard Blumenthal (Democrat) recently introduced a resolution calling for a roadmap to Ukraine’s NATO membership as soon as feasible. They argue that only through NATO membership can Ukraine achieve true security against repeated Russian aggression and ensure lasting peace.

The Case Against

There are short- and long-term arguments against immediate NATO membership for Ukraine. Biden cautioned in his CNN interview that admitting Ukraine to NATO during an ongoing war would obligate the alliance to defend a new member and prove the effectiveness of its collective defense. The president stressed that he stands by his commitment: “If the war is going on, then we’re all in war. We’re at war with Russia, if that were the case.”

Offering Ukraine a set date for NATO membership after the war could be counterproductive as it could provide Russia with a rationale to perpetuate the conflict. This would undermine hopes for a political settlement if Ukraine’s forces ultimately fail to expel all Russian troops. Moreover, it could bolster Putin’s domestic standing by validating one of his baseless allegations—that the West initiated the war to weaken Russian power and annex Ukraine.

The risk of future clashes with Russia weighs heavily on analysts’ minds. Ben Friedman, policy director at Defense Priorities, argues against guaranteeing Ukraine’s security, citing the risk of war with Russia and potential nuclear escalation. He believes that the United States would gain nothing of security value in exchange for assuming such risks.

The uncertainty surrounding US politics may explain Zelensky’s eagerness to secure Ukraine’s NATO aspirations at the upcoming summit. The potential lack of commitment from future US administrations could undermine treaty obligations and weaken the integrity of the alliance.

Even if Biden were to alter his stance on accelerating NATO membership for Ukraine, he cannot guarantee that his successor would honor those obligations. Former President Donald Trump has warned that Biden is leading the US toward a potential World War III against Russia. Trump has vowed to end the war in Ukraine within 24 hours if reelected, indicating a sympathetic view toward Putin’s goals.

The political situation in the US adds an additional layer of uncertainty, making it crucial for Zelensky to solidify Ukraine’s urgent aspirations for NATO membership at the upcoming summit.