11.07.23 Analytics

Accepting the inevitable: The four dilemmas of Ukraine's NATO membership that are impossible but necessary to resolve

The démarche of President Zelensky, who has threatened not to attend the NATO summit in Vilnius unless there are specific and practical decisions regarding Ukraine's membership, has intensified the intrigue surrounding the upcoming event. Although the opening of the summit will not bring a breakthrough regarding Ukraine's membership in the alliance, its outcomes are not entirely predetermined either. Despite the insistence of the Ukrainian side, Ukraine will not even be granted firm guarantees of future NATO accession. At the same time, the West will have to seek a formula for security guarantees for Ukraine and develop a comprehensive strategy for its military support, tied to plans to modernise and strengthen the alliance itself. The specific formula of the security guarantees to be provided to Ukraine by the United States, France, the United Kingdom, and Germany is the main topic of discussion at the summit.

In political terms, the outcomes of the summit are likely to disappoint Ukraine and those advocating for its swift accession to the alliance. However, in practical terms, they may lay the foundations for a roadmap toward the actual integration of Ukraine and NATO in the future. Re: Russia analyses the four dilemmas at the heart of the Ukraine-NATO relationship and how Western politicians and experts view these issues.

Dilemma 1: membership guarantees

Despite strict rules and procedures, the history of the alliance has seen precedents set that contradicted previous practices and rules but aligned with the challenges of the moment. Examples include West Germany's accession to NATO in 1954, despite the division of German territory, and France's withdrawal from NATO's military structures in 1966 while retaining political membership. A more recent example is Finland's entry into NATO bypassing the Membership Action Plan (MAP).

However, the question of admitting a country at war has never been on the organisation's agenda. In fact, accepting Ukraine into NATO would mean the alliance's involvement in a war. Although the populations of the alliance countries are generally supportive of providing assistance to Ukraine, including arms supplies (as indicated by recent Eurobarometer data), they are unprepared for such a development.

But the main intrigue surrounding the summit is not even about such a radical decision; it revolves around the issue of declaring guarantees for Ukraine's future NATO membership. Key members of the alliance are not ready for an official invitation to be extended to Ukraine. Such a step would, in particular, exclude the possibility of discussing Ukraine's formally neutral status in hypothetical negotiations with Russia if it becomes clear that Ukraine cannot regain its occupied territories by force. However, this is precisely why the Ukrainian side is insisting on such guarantees.

Ian Bond, Director of Foreign Policy at the Centre for European Reform, believes that NATO leaders must send a clear signal about future membership, which could serve as protection against potential new escalations from Russia. Marta Dassù from the Aspen Institute also points out that the worst outcome of the summit could be a demonstration of indecisiveness, echoing the 2008 Bucharest Summit when Ukraine and Georgia were given vague promises without real commitments, which lead to the Kremlin's military interventions in these countries in 2008 and 2014. By opening the door for uncertainty on this issue, NATO once again gives Putin an opportunity to push for Ukraine’s rejection by all possible means. Dassù also notes that a year and a half of war in Ukraine have irreversibly changed the security landscape for NATO itself: Ukraine is no longer a buffer territory but a border state, rendering forms of neutrality meaningless.

But there is another side to the issue — guarantees of future membership for Ukraine or an invitation to join the alliance imply its automatic accession to NATO after the military phase of the conflict ends. However, this would not satisfy all the key players in the alliance — this was precisely what President Biden mentioned in his interview before the summit when he stated that he does not consider it right to make Ukraine's NATO accession 'easy' and 'automatic'.

Dilemma 2: procedure

While Ukraine’s admission to NATO currently seems impossible due to the ongoing military conflict and the uncertainty surrounding the conditions and timing of its future accession, the West must emphasise the exceptional nature of Ukraine's relationship with the alliance. According to statements from the Ukrainian authorities, the question of Ukraine's future accession to the alliance bypassing the Membership Action Plan (MAP) has already been resolved, and this will be officially announced during the summit (as stated by Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba on his Twitter). This will underscore Ukraine's special status and serve as one of the main political benefits of the summit.

The establishment of the Ukraine-NATO Council has also been resolved, and its first meeting is scheduled to take place on the second day of the summit, elevating the status of their relations. However, as highlighted by Camilla Grand from the European Council on Foreign Relations, the Council would only make sense as a security institution if it becomes a tool to lay the groundwork for future membership bypassing the MAP procedure. Experts from the Atlantic Council, Franklin Kramer, Hans Binnendijk, and Christopher Skaluba, believe that, in addition to this, a more proactive institution — a high-level group accountable to the NATO Secretary-General — should be established to develop an accelerated roadmap for Ukraine's accession.

In other words, Ukraine's actual readiness for NATO membership is a significant issue, and it is not solely due to the fact that the country is at war. It is also a question of technical readiness and political integration, which will require Ukraine to undertake certain reforms. President Biden explicitly mentioned this in his interview ('There are other requirements to meet, including democratisation and other issues'). 

Both Biden and diplomats interviewed by the Financial Times stress that Ukraine's accession to NATO should not and cannot be 'automatic.' The high-level group, according to experts from the Atlantic Council, could monitor standardisation issues in the armed forces in a timely manner and serve as a catalyst for necessary internal reforms, assisting Ukraine to address corruption, ensure the independence of judicial bodies, and protect minority rights.

Thus, despite the fact that, for political reasons, the summit will likely lead to an announcement of Ukraine's alignment with NATO, bypassing the standard procedures (MAP), which will emphasise the country's special position, the actual task at hand is the development of a roadmap for the substantive adaptation of Ukraine to the requirements of the alliance.

Dilemma 3: real military support

In fact, the key and most pressing issue today is the development of a comprehensive and coordinated programme of military support to Ukraine by Western countries. While Western countries have declared full support for Ukraine, they have not been ready for its actual implementation. Initially, they were politically unprepared for this level of support, and throughout 2022, they discussed the possibility of supplying Ukraine with various types of weapons. However, when the political issues were finally resolved, they were not technologically prepared to provide such assistance.

For a long time, individual countries of the alliance supplied weapons to Ukraine on an ad hoc basis. As a result, the Ukrainian army has received different types of weapons, often in subpar condition. While, since July of last year, the Kremlin began to restructure the Russian economy to meet the demands of war, no such decisions were made in the West. As a result, the alliance countries simply did not have the necessary quantity of equipment and ammunition for Ukraine. This became one of the obstacles to the Ukrainian counteroffensive.

At present, the countries of the alliance must finally adopt a unified strategy to supply weapons to Ukraine, aligning it with their own plans for the modernisation and replenishment of their own armaments and equipment. It is essential for the rearmament of the Ukrainian armed forces to be more strategically meaningful and contribute to the security of Europe, irrespective of domestic Russian political events or even the situation on the front lines.

However, this comprehensive 'pumping' of Ukraine with weapons and assistance to prepare its units brings politicians and experts back to the dilemma of Ukraine's NATO membership. Ian Bond, Director of Foreign Policy at the Centre for European Reform, notes that NATO membership is not only beneficial for Ukraine — it is also in the alliance's interest to incorporate 'the largest and battle-hardened armed forces in Europe, increasingly trained according to NATO standards and using NATO-standard equipment.' Henry Kissinger articulated this thought even more sharply in an interview with The Economist, stating that the West is actively arming Ukraine, which will become 'the most armed country with the least experienced strategic leadership in Europe.' In other words, it is shortsighted and simply dangerous to create a de facto NATO army in Ukraine without integrating it into the alliance's structures and decision-making procedures.

Dilemma 4: security guarantees

However, neither the establishment of the Ukraine-NATO Council nor the confirmation of an accelerated accession procedure in the future solve the key issue — security guarantees for Ukraine. Such guarantees are necessary both from a political standpoint, as a clear message to the Kremlin of 'red lines' in the development of the conflict, and in the context of Ukraine's subsequent reconstruction and support for its war-ravaged economy. Without strong security guarantees, it is impossible to count on investments, including from the private sector, which is a crucial element of any comprehensive plan to support the Ukrainian economy.

According to reports from a number of informed media sources (as noted by both the Financial Times and Politico), instead of NATO membership, such security guarantees will be provided to Ukraine on behalf of an 'alliance of goodwill': the United States, the United Kingdom, France, and Germany. However, the nature and implications of these security guarantees are not yet known.

There are several possible models. Ian Bond believes that an alternative to membership could be 'authentic defence guarantees, similar to those the United States provides to Japan and South Korea'; in this case, British and French forces could serve as guarantors of Ukrainian security when it comes to nuclear deterrence. However, the option being more frequently discussed is the 'Israeli model,' which President Biden explicitly mentioned in his interview on the eve of the summit.

Emma Ashford and Kelly Grieco from the Stimson Center believe that the 'Israeli model' is the best of the bad options. The 'Israeli model' refers to the established relations and strategic communications between the United States and Israel without formalising these relations in the form of an international organisation or other institutions of inter-state cooperation. Ashford and Grieco write that the 'Israeli model' is being actively discussed in Washington as a solution to the dilemma of 'Ukraine's security without NATO membership.' If implemented, Ukraine can expect to receive sufficient arms and intelligence for the country’s defence.

Ukraine would then be a 'quasi-ally' of the United States or a member of an 'alliance of goodwill' — without a formal treaty, but based on agreements and guarantees from top officials from the participating countries. Over time, similar to Israel in 1975, these agreements could receive formal confirmation in the form of a Memorandum of Understanding, which would document the established practice of close military-political cooperation. Another similarity with the Israeli case is that Ukraine's situation in the near future may come to be described as a 'permanent absence of peace,' where aggression can be expected from multiple sides, albeit not from every direction as in Israel. Experts note that even a change in power in Russia and Belarus is unlikely to significantly reduce the potential threat from these countries towards Ukraine.

However, the effectiveness of the 'Israeli model' is ensured by the fact that Israel possesses an independent nuclear deterrent. Indeed, François Heisbourg from the Foundation for Strategic Research believes that it is precisely Israel's own nuclear potential that makes the 'Israeli model' a sustainable option. Unlike NATO membership, the 'Israeli model' does not imply external nuclear guarantees. Thus, the question once again comes down to the issue of nuclear asymmetry, created by Ukraine's renunciation of its nuclear weapons under pressure from the United States in the early 1990s.

The specific formula for 'security guarantees' from the four ‘alliance of goodwill’ nations is currently the main topic of discussion at the summit. Such a formula is unlikely to be comprehensive, but it should definitely signify a higher level of alliance between the four nations and Ukraine, as well as lay the foundation for a broad and systematic programme to further strengthen and modernise the Ukrainian military. It should also outline the commitments of the four nations to implement this strategy. As a result, the relations between the Western powers and Ukraine will reach a fundamentally new level compared to the previous regime of ad hoc 'sponsorship' that was in place. The actual implementation of the programme's goals within the framework of security guarantees will serve as a roadmap for the future integration of Ukraine and NATO.