WEB EXCLUSIVE: Ukraine's Potential NATO Membership Hotly Contested by Experts
Defense Dept. photo
The prospect of Ukraine one day joining NATO is a hotly debated topic in foreign policy circles. In the past, the Biden administration has made it clear that it is against the idea, but European officials are becoming more eager to take the step, especially as the war between Ukraine and Russia grinds on.
James Goldgeier, visiting fellow for Foreign Policy at the Center on the United States and Europe, said he doesn’t think there is any other way to deter Russia from attacking Ukraine apart from granting it NATO membership.
“We have seen that Putin is deterred from attacking NATO countries . . . We need to think about how Ukraine could become a member of NATO, and I think that we should be signaling that more than we are. It shouldn’t really be off the table, as it seems to be for this administration,” he said in a June 15 panel hosted by the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C.
President Joe Biden opposes accepting Ukraine into NATO because of Article 5 of the NATO treaty, which states that if a member is the victim of an armed attack, other members must consider it as an attack against NATO as a whole, and therefore render assistance, Goldgeier said. This explains why Biden, even though he possesses a desire to support Ukraine and push back against Russia, is hesitant to accept them into NATO. The United States military would have an obligation to become directly involved, something that could possibly prove catastrophic, he added.
Joshua Shifrinson, associate professor for the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland, took it a step further and said the acceptance of Ukraine into NATO would be a “grave mistake” for not just the United States, but for NATO as a whole. “Ukraine and Russia are going to be locked in a nationalist dispute over a fractious piece of territory for the foreseeable future. For the United States to support Ukraine joining NATO, we have to be willing to lay our blood, time, treasure and perhaps lives on the line for Ukraine,” he said.
This is not the first time Ukraine has turned to NATO for protection. Back in 2008, both Ukraine and Georgia, a former Soviet state, sought NATO membership in an attempt to break free from Russian influence. However, due to concerns over Russia’s strong opposition to this partnership, NATO ultimately refused to accept the two countries as new members. In today’s climate, this raises many questions concerning how different the Ukraine-Russia war would have played out differently if Ukraine were accepted into NATO in 2008.
Susan Colbourn, associate director of the Program in American Grand Strategy at Duke University, said unfortunately, the conversation around possible Ukrainian NATO membership tends to focus primarily and rather narrowly on whether its costs and benefits would be advantageous to American interests. “There’s a macro question about what a decision to admit Ukraine, what a decision to close the door on Ukraine entirely, or to any of the interim measures in between those two ends of the spectrum, what it means for the alliance as a whole? How do all of the states of Europe, the other members of the alliance, think about their own security? . . . There are bigger things at stake about what role NATO plays in the broader provision of European security,” she said.
Shifrinson argued that the Russian military threat to greater Europe “just isn't there. It’s not the former Soviet Union.”
“When you add all these things up, the risks to the United States of getting involved and having to incur an Article Five guarantee for a dangerous piece of real estate versus the benefits involved, at the end of the day, Ukraine unfortunately, for better or worse, is not central to the future of European security, for the stability of the continent,” he said.
Jim Townsend, adjunct senior fellow at the Transatlantic Security Program at the Center for a New American Security said regardless of what happens concerning Ukraine’s possible NATO membership, the United States has the ability and resources to help the war-torn nation in the post-war scenario.
“We’ve been working with their military, but we’re going to have to deal quite a bit with their civil society. A lot of reconstruction is going to have to be done. There will be a lot of assistance and money going in there, a lot of private sector investment as well,” he said, “It’s not so much the military integration as it is the civil side. I think that can certainly be done through membership in NATO and in the European Union.”