Tightening the Ukraine-NATO Knot

On July 11 and 12, NATO leaders met in Vilnius Lithuania for the annual NATO summit. The important summit brought into focus the many contradictions and conundrums in the difficult NATO-Ukraine knot.

The Membership Action Plan

In the weeks leading up to the summit, President Joe Biden was asked if the U.S. would “make it easy” for Ukraine to join NATO, referencing talk of dropping the requirement for a Membership Action Plan (MAP) for Ukraine. The MAP advises NATO aspirants on reforms they have to make to meet NATO standard for admission. Biden pointedly answered, “No. Because they’ve got to meet the same standards. So we’re not going to make it easy.”

But after the first day of the summit, NATO announced that Ukraine could skip the MAP, because “we recognise that Ukraine’s path to full Euro-Atlantic integration has moved beyond the need for the Membership Action Plan.”

But the paradox was resolved by what came next. While saying that “Ukraine’s future is in NATO,” NATO said nothing about when that future would be. They also said that NATO “will be in a position to extend an invitation to Ukraine to join the Alliance when Allies agree and conditions are met.” In other words, Ukraine does not need a MAP to advise on the reforms they need to make to join NATO, but they need to make all the reforms that are needed to join NATO. They have to fulfill the MAP without having a MAP.

The paradoxical nature of the announcement he had waited a year for was noted by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who lashed out, “It’s unprecedented and absurd when time frame is not set neither for the invitation nor for Ukraine’s membership. While at the same time vague wording about ‘conditions’ is added even for inviting Ukraine.”

And Ukraine will have to make those reforms because, as Biden said just days before the summit, “Ukraine isn’t ready for NATO membership.” White House national security spokesman John Kirby said, “Now there’s some reforms — good governance, rule of law, political reforms — that Ukraine needs to work on.” The most interesting item on the list, highlighting the contradiction in the NATO-Ukraine knot, is “political reforms.” Biden told CNN two days before the summit that there are “other qualifications that need to be met, including democratization and some of those issues.” That is a paradoxical requirement for membership since Biden has framed the war as a battle between democracy and autocracy and declared Ukraine democracy’s champion against the Russian autocratic threat. Though the champion of democracy in the war, Ukraine needs reformation to “democratize” before it can get into NATO.

That’s a knotty paradox: Ukraine will get easier entry into NATO by being exempted from an MAP as long as they fulfill the MAP, and to fulfill the MAP, the champion of democracy will first have to become a democracy.

The Summit Communiqué Precludes Negotiations

The U.S. has long claimed that the war will have to end at the negotiating table and that their motivation for supporting Ukraine on the battlefield was to put them in a stronger position prior to negotiations. But the NATO communique after the summit contained two declarations that make negotiations impossible. If there are to be no negotiations, then, judging by the state of the battlefield, the war can either end with a Ukrainian defeat or  go on indefinitely. Neither option is doing any favor to Ukraine, whom the NATO summit was meant to offer security.

The first is NATO’s insistence that “Ukraine’s future is in NATO” and that “[w]e reaffirm the commitment we made at the 2008 Summit in Bucharest that Ukraine will become a member of NATO.” A legally binding promise that Ukraine will never become a member of NATO is non-negotiable for Russia. Taking that item off the table renders a negotiated settlement impossible. As Putin said again the day after the NATO summit, “the threat of Ukraine’s accession to NATO is the reason, or rather one of the reasons for the special military operation.” It was the refusal of the U.S. to allow talk of a guarantee that Ukraine would not become a member of NATO after Russia’s December 2022 security proposal that led Putin to turn to “military-technical measures.”

The second is NATO’s insistence that “[w]e do not and will never recognize Russia’s illegal and illegitimate annexations, including Crimea.” That Crimea is part of Russia is non-negotiable, not just to Putin, but to any Russian leader. It is also non-negotiable to the majority of Russians and the majority of Crimeans, as shown repeatedly in polls. The refusal to recognize Crimea as Russia is the refusal to negotiate an end to the war.

That too is a knotty paradox: NATO support for Ukraine is meant to strengthen Ukraine in negotiations to end the war but the NATO communiqué precludes the possibility of negotiations to end the war.

The Promise of Membership Precludes Membership

The third contradiction is that the promise of NATO membership to Ukraine precludes the possibility of NATO membership for Ukraine.

As NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg pointedly stated, “unless Ukraine prevails, there is no membership to be discussed at all.” But Ukraine has clearly and repeatedly stated that prevailing means recapturing Crimea and all of the Donbas. And recapturing, or attempted recapturing of Crimea and all of the Donbas, means war. Russian officials have repeatedly warned that an attack on Crimea would be viewed as an attack on Russia. When U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan recently said that “What we have said is that we will not enable Ukraine with U.S. systems, Western systems, to attack Russia. And we believe Crimea is Ukraine,” Russian Ambassador to the U.S. Anatoly Antonov responded that a Ukrainian attack on Crimea would be viewed by Moscow in the same way “as an attack on any other region of the Russian Federation.” Even U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has acknowledged, “A Ukrainian attempt to retake Crimea would be a red line for Vladimir Putin that could lead to a wider Russian response.”

Prevailing means recapturing Crimea. But attempting to recapture Crimea means the continuation of the war. The continuation of the war means Ukraine hasn’t prevailed. And if Ukraine doesn’t prevail, “there is no membership to be discussed at all.”

There is a second reason why the promise of NATO membership precludes the possibility of NATO membership. It is not simply that continued war means Ukraine has not prevailed. The promise of NATO membership assures the continuation of the war because continuation of the war precludes NATO membership.

In order to join NATO, aspirants must have “a commitment to resolve conflicts peacefully.” They cannot be at war. NATO requires that “States which have ethnic disputes or external territorial disputes, including irredentist claims, or internal jurisdictional disputes must settle those disputes by peaceful means in accordance with OSCE principles. Resolution of such disputes would be a factor in determining whether to invite a state to join the Alliance.”

A country has an “irredentist claim” as long as it claims the right to restore any part of their country that they believe used to belong to them. So as long as there is fighting over Ukraine’s claimed territory or as long as Russia continues to defend Crimea — which is forever — Ukraine will have an irredentist claim that precludes its membership in NATO.

And that’s the loophole that forms the third knot of the Ukraine-NATO conundrum. If NATO promises membership to Ukraine, Russia has two options. They can make the promise impossible by defeating Ukraine and imposing neutrality, or, as long as victory eludes them, they can keep the war going indefinitely, since ongoing war also makes fulfillment of the promise impossible. Either way, the promise of NATO membership to Ukraine precludes the possibility of NATO membership for Ukraine.

The NATO summit in Vilnius, Lithuania produced a series of paradoxes that have only tied the NATO-Ukraine knot up even tighter, including over Ukraine’s path to membership and the possibility of negotiations. And, in the end, it produced a self-destructive paradox over the very possibility of membership itself.

Ted Snider is a regular columnist on U.S. foreign policy and history at Antiwar.com and The Libertarian Institute. He is also a frequent contributor to Responsible Statecraft and The American Conservative as well as other outlets.