‘We need to send a clear message to the Ukrainians that NATO membership is possible and hoped for’

By Camille Grand

[This article was first published as an OP-ED in Le Monde]

Ukraine’s membership to NATO offers greater predictability and stability for Ukrainians and Europe alike, writes defense specialist Camille Grand.

For two decades, the question of Ukraine’s accession to NATO has divided the Allies, analysts, and even the Ukrainian population. For some, it was a natural response to Kyiv’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations and a follow-up to the ambiguous promises made at the 2008 Bucharest summit. For others, Ukraine’s membership was premature, if not dangerous, and risked fuelling conflict with Russia.

This second position was long held by France, which, along with Germany, opposed the American desire to launch a genuine accession process in 2008. Since then, France has sometimes proposed that a “Finlandization” of Ukraine, in reference to Finland’s forced neutrality during the Cold War, would be a reasonable solution.

Shared by many Allies, this approach has long prevailed within NATO. In practice, without a NATO consensus, Ukraine remained a “partner” and was recognized as one of the closest. Still, it was not granted a “membership action plan,” with Bucharest’s promise remaining a “yes in theory” but a “no in practice.” The granting of “new opportunities” partner status in 2020 in a motley group including Australia, Finland, Georgia, Jordan, and Sweden did little to change this situation.

Preventing the resumption of hostilities

This choice, which could have been justified in 2008 in a very different context, looks outdated today. Above all, and this is one of the many strategic errors of Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose actions have pushed Kyiv toward NATO, Ukraine has changed. Until 2014, the Ukrainian population was divided and, as polls showed, overwhelmingly hostile to membership. Today, 91% of Ukrainians say they are in favor. The policy of appeasement toward Moscow has not borne fruit. On the contrary, since 2014, Russia has been engaged in a conflict with Ukraine, the scale of which, since 2022, has disrupted the European security architecture.

Preventing a conflict between Ukraine and Russia is no longer a topical issue, given Moscow has single-handedly unleashed the biggest conventional war in Europe since 1945. The ongoing accession of Finland and Sweden, and the Moldavian debate, show that grey zones and neutrality are no longer considered adequate guarantees in the face of Russia’s attitude. In military terms, the Ukrainian army is one of the most battle-hardened in Europe and would therefore be a potential net contributor to NATO’s security. NATO membership would appear to be the most effective way of preventing the resumption of hostilities once a ceasefire has been reached on the ground. It also fits well with the prospect of European Union membership, as the two processes have often gone hand in hand.

There is obviously no question of bringing a war-torn Ukraine into NATO at the Vilnius summit. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky himself recognized this, envisaging membership “after the war.” In any case, an accession process, even an accelerated one, will require a number of years.

However, it seems appropriate to take the next step and send Kyiv, as early as Vilnius, a clear message about its future and to move away from the ambiguities of the Bucharest summit. French President Macron’s speech in Bratislava is a step in this direction: France believes it is necessary to give “credible guarantees” and opens up the possibility of a clear path toward membership, thus drawing closer to the countries of Central and Eastern Europe while Berlin and Washington remain more cautious.

The West Germany precedent

In the aftermath of the conflict, and even if it is interrupted by a precarious ceasefire, few options are available to prevent a resumption of hostilities. The so-called “Israeli” option amounts to massively arming Ukraine over the long term while providing it with a political guarantee of support. Apart from the fact that the relationship between the United States and Israel is very specific, this option ignores the role of Israel’s nuclear capabilities. A “Korean” variant would be deploying Western forces along the ceasefire line to prevent a resumption of hostilities. It is not certain that this model is sustainable or desirable. Lastly, promises along the lines of the security assurances given to Ukraine in the 1994 Budapest Memorandum on denuclearization by Russia, the US, and the United Kingdom cannot meet Ukrainian expectations since Russia violated these assurances without any direct reaction from the West.

NATO membership therefore seems to offer greater predictability and stability for the Ukrainians, Europe and, perhaps paradoxically, even the Russians. The objection that the entry of a country in conflict, even a frozen one, with its neighbor is unwise contradicts the precedent of Federal Germany, which joined NATO in 1955. While the German Democratic Republic existed, NATO had not recognized it not even defined Germany’s eastern borders (this was not done until 1990). At the time, NATO incorporated West Germany, but only applied the guarantees of Article 5 to the territory of the Federal Republic, and the Allies privately indicated that they would not support a change in the territorial status quo by force.

So what could be a reasonable path to membership? First of all, in the current military phase of the conflict, it is difficult to predict when or under what conditions hostilities will stop. The Vilnius summit could, however, send out multiple messages. Firstly, that of long-term military support for Kyiv. Secondly, that of a new rapprochement with Ukraine through the creation of the NATO-Ukraine Council which will enable the Ukrainians to be more closely involved in NATO’s work and could be mandated to prepare for membership. Lastly, we need to send a clear message to the Ukrainians that membership is possible and hoped for in the near future. It is therefore a question of putting in place the conditions for Ukraine to join NATO without taking an immediate decision. At a time of strategic disruption, it is sometimes necessary to be bold and imaginative.

Camille Grand is a former NATO Assistant Secretary General, researcher, and head of defense studies at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

Photo Credit: The attached photo belongs to NATO and is used under NATO’s newsroom content policy.