The Russian-Ukrainian conflict was once again back in the headlines in April when people across the world followed massive troop build-ups in and around war-torn eastern Ukraine. This renewed interest in the seven-year-old was by the international community was explainable due to the fact that, in some way, most of the major global players have been caught up in the powerplay that is going on in the areas that have suffered from outbreaks of fighting since April 2014.
The Biden administration needs to show that it has firm control of its external policies and not back down in the face of threats from the Kremlin. China now has its own interests in the area, particularly since it acquired roughly 9% of Ukraine’s arable surface (5% of Ukrainian territory) and the European Union – specifically France and Germany – has its own game of criticism against Russia.
For the former Eastern Bloc countries of the EU, they continue to wait for measurable actions to be taken with regards to Russia. Romania, Poland and the Baltics have a manifest natural interest when it comes to the violation of borders, which stems from their historic troubled relations with Moscow, as well as the fact that they are becoming increasingly concerned about the prospect of being a neighbor to an endless hot or frozen conflict.
Naturally, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky tried to manipulate this complicated agenda of overlapping interests and concerns by pressuring the two main European powers into granting Kiev an enhanced relationship with NATO. Zelensky reportedly asked French President Emmanuel Macron back Ukraine’s NATO bid. The former told French daily Le Figaro: saying:” We cannot sit forever in the waiting room. It’s time to shift gears and be invited to become members of NATO and the EU”.
While directly addressing the French president, Zelensky added that ”It’s time to stop talking. Decisions must be taken at once. If we are all members of the same family, we must live together. We cannot be seen as only being forever engaged. It’s time to legalize our relationship status.”
Zelensky’s request was rather cunning and timely in that Zelensky must have assumed that the new administration in the White House will want to mark a clear break from the Trump era, when, for the first time in American history, the leader of the free world inexplicably refused to take a hard line on Russia or to criticize an autocrat like Vladimir Putin for his actions. Zelensky was also correct in identifying the fact that Macron will want to assert himself as the informal leader of Europe before Angela Merkel leaves office in September.
For Macron, being able to assert his power over a policy topic as important as the enlargement of NATO, and into a former core Soviet republic no less, would be a great example of his leadership, especially now when France is the only EU country with a nuclear arsenal.
However, Zelensky’s calculus has a lot of shortcomings. For a whole host of reasons, Ukraine is light years away from actually being able to meet NATO’s standards to actually qualify for consideration. Furthermore, any such action would only be possible at the behest of Washington, London, Berlin and Paris – none of whom have indicated that they have any inking towards considering Kiev’s candidacy in the near future.
Historical premises of NATO moving eastward
NATO’s two major expansions in 1999 and 2004 incorporated a large swath of Eastern Europe; a move that Moscow, rightly or wrongly, took as an act of aggression. However, the Russia of those days is radically different from the Russia of today. Two decades ago, the Kremlin had not fully recovered from the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. After the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, Slovakia, Slovenia and the Baltics were brought into the NATO alliance, Russia wasn’t left with many options.
Representatives of the transatlantic alliance and Russia did of course meet periodically at the NATO-Russia Council, but the structure itself was seen as a half-functional consolation prize that did not really serve the Kremlin’s strategic views and interests.
The further expansion of NATO into the Balkans – Croatia and Albania in 2009; Montenegro in 2017 and North Macedonia in 2020 – did not really represent a problem for Russia, since the Kremlin had few assets in any of those countries. Moscow most likely did not view these expansions in a positive light simply because they represented a further strengthening of NATO and a confirmation that the alliance remains a truly viable and potent Western-led security option three decades after the end of the Cold War.
Russia did, however, know when and how to put its foot down in areas that are of real strategic interest for Moscow. The NATO Bucharest Summit in 2008 is considered an iconic landmark event in this regard. During the summit, then-President George W. Bush requested that Ukraine and Georgia be invited to NATO. Germany and France opposed the request, and a couple of months later, Russia invaded and defeated Georgia in a short five-day war that ultimately resulted in the long-term effect of blocking Georgia’s accession to NATO and sending a clear message to Kiev to not even dare try.
The key reasons why Ukraine cannot join NATO
Regardless of Zelensky’s rather dull diplomatic game, there are several reasons why Ukraine cannot be a part of NATO in the foreseeable future. Most of these reasons cover a wide-enough spectrum that leads one to assume that they cannot be resolved in a reasonable amount of time, regardless of troop presence or imminent war.
At this time, Ukraine is, so to speak, at war. The country is not in control of vast areas within its own borders, which is a violation of NATO’s own criteria for joining the alliance. Any approval for NATO membership would mean that the alliance would commit to getting involved in the separatist civil war in eastern Ukraine. All NATO members would want to avoid being forced into this type of scenario because it would be a regression of peace standards to pre-Cold-War era International Relations. NATO is, in the long run, meant to provide security through military means, not war. Taking part in that sort of mission would go against the basic reasons why countries adhere to the NATO charter in the first place.
Secondly, in order to see Ukraine join NATO, Article 10 of the NATO Treaty should be respected, meaning that ”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.” This means that all parties should be comfortable with Ukraine entering the EU.
This is hard to imagine when Germany has privileged economic ties with Russia and would not jeopardize the highly lucrative Nord Stream 2 for the sake of Kiev’s NATO and EU membership. Hungary regularly finds itself at odds with the Ukrainian government over the treatment of the ethnic Hungarian population in western Ukraine and is also the beneficiary of having very good relations with Moscow. This hasn’t just translated into Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s ability to play a masterful political blackmail game with the EU but has also materialized in a $10-billion-dollar from Moscow to Budapest for the building of a nuclear power plant in Paks.
In a nutshell, Russian energy policy movements prohibit many NATO members from agreeing with the enlargement of NATO further towards the east.
There is also a matter of military strategy to consider. In the realism-driven world of international relations, the countries of Europe have become confident in the fact that the outside borders of the EU greatly benefit from buffer zones in the face of ongoing Russian revanchism. Ukraine’s enormous geographic size plays the role of a convincing buffer state in the face of an improbable, but theoretically possible, Russian military advance against the West.
The late Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Jimmy Carter’s Polish-born National Security Adviser and a renowned foreign policy expert, wrote a well-known geopolitical observation about Ukraine in his 1991 book, The Grand Chessboard, where defines the reasons for which Russia cannot give away Ukraine. In what he called Geostrategic Players and Geopolitical Pivots, Ukraine was for Brzezinski, a Geopolitical Pivot. This meant that its importance for international relations is not derived from its sheer power status, but from its geographic positioning.
Brzezinski wrote that “Ukraine, a new and important space on the Eurasian chessboard, is a geopolitical pivot because its very existence as an independent country helps to transform Russia. Without Ukraine, Russia ceases to be a Eurasian empire. Russia without Ukraine can still strive for imperial status, but it would then become a predominantly Asian imperial state.”
This is to say that Russia cannot, at any cost, cease to have some control over Ukraine. Particularly, the Kremlin cannot allow Ukraine to join NATO. In retrospect, this is perhaps the reason why Kiev felt it had to control “the Little Green Men” (the unmarked Russian special forces units that appeared in Crimea) on the ground after the EuroMaidan Revolution started.
The Big Dodge
There are other elements that tend to show that NATO is not fully ready to accept Ukraine. Ever since 2008, The Romanian Ministry of Defense and its Ukrainian counterpart prepared a bilateral agreement aimed at selling military licenses for armament production and military technology. According to online sources, the agreement also calls for technical support from Romania to Ukraine in implementing military hardware and production. After the failed Bucharest Summit, the agreement draft fell into a dormant state, only to be revived, at the persistence of the Ukrainian side, in 2017 and talks resumed.
Despite the ”Little Green Men” invasion in 2014, talks did not move forward until 2020, when the Romanian Supreme Council of Defense – which includes the who’s who of Romanian decision making, including the president and all the institutions of the state – signed off on the deal.
During the last crisis on the Ukrainian border, the Romanian government sent the accord for ratification in the national parliament. Officials failed to provide an explanation for the deal, but we might interpret this bilateral move as being aimed at supporting Ukraine through Romania, without the implication of possible NATO membership.
As it stands, this would avoid NATO having to go to war, since the agreement would only be binding for the two parties involved. If this is true, it would be a further sign that NATO is not ready to invite Ukraine for accession talks, but is not keen on leaving Kiev to face Russia alone, either.
It’s all about peace
In retrospect, NATO is all about avoiding the next big war. It’s about building a response so discouraging that Russia would think twice before meddling with any of its members. The alliance’s massive budget, armaments, meetings, soldiers and logistics all are means of preserving peace through the exhibition of force. And while this has proven to be a functional mechanism of avoiding conflict within “the Old Continent, it’s not a good platform to build upon when the accession of a state that is at war comes into discussion.
None of NATO’s 30 current members wants to generate or to be causally linked to a hot conflict. Unfortunately for Zelensky, it is clear that the prospects of Ukraine entering NATO any time soon are slim to none. The instrument of bilateral ties could be exploited, and economic sanctions are definitely still on the table. For now, these are the only instruments that Ukraine can hope for when it comes to getting outside support against any further Russian aggression.