Would Ukraine’s Formal Membership in NATO Really Matter?

During the prelude to the NATO summit in Vilnius, there was extensive speculation about whether Ukraine would be given a clear path to membership in the alliance, with a specific timeline. Much to the disappointment of Ukraine’s government and its ardent supporters in the West, NATO leaders opted for a more limited commitment.

In the final communique, summit participants stated that they would “continue to support and review Ukraine’s progress on interoperability as well as additional democratic and security sector reforms that are required.” They also affirmed that the alliance “will support Ukraine in making these reforms on its path towards future membership.” The money quote, though, was “We will be in a position to extend an invitation to Ukraine to join the Alliance when Allies agree and conditions are met.” The country’s ongoing war with Russia, the active territorial disputes involving Crimea and the Donbas, and the increasingly obvious backsliding on democratic practices would continue to be serious obstacles.

Indeed, the commitment was not much more substantive than the promise of eventual NATO membership that was first issued at the Bucharest summit in 2008. President Volodymr Zelensky was furious about the lack of a specific timeline, and his anger verged on being an outright temper tantrum. His lack of gratitude for the extensive financial and military support that his government has already received in turn irritated NATO leaders and drew explicit rebukes. No one likes an uppity puppet, and Zelensky had seemingly forgotten his status as NATO’s pawn in the alliance’s proxy war to weaken Russia.

Largely missing amidst the verbal turmoil was whether it mattered all that much if Ukraine became a formal NATO member. True, the symbolic importance would be considerable for all parties. Russia would regard such a move as a final slap in the face and a brazen disregard of the country’s core security interests. The Kremlin had issued repeated warnings long before the February 2022 invasion that alliance membership for Ukraine would cross a bright red line and create an East-West crisis. Conversely, formal membership clearly has been a high priority for Kyiv. By allowing Ukraine to join the alliance, NATO would signal that it would be adopting a full-blown, anti-Russia containment policy akin to the Cold War pursued against the Soviet Union for more than four decades. President Joe Biden clearly has such a policy in mind.

In terms of strategic military significance, though, Ukraine’s formal membership would not change the current situation very much. Alliance partisans attach great importance to the Article 5 security guarantee that proclaims that an attack on any NATO country is an attack on all. However, the substance of Article 5 is widely misunderstood among Western publics. The conventional belief is that the United States (and other NATO countries) would be obligated to attack a designated aggressor with their own military forces, even at the risk of a retaliatory strike against their homelands.

However, Article 5 contains no such obligation. The pertinent language in that article commits each member only to “assist the Party or Parties so attacked by taking forthwith, individually and in concert with the other Parties, such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force, to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area.” Any assistance, presumably even confined to very limited logistical aid, would seemingly fulfill the commitment. 

The extent of military aid already given to Kyiv by numerous alliance members indisputably meets that standard. Among the weapon systems provided are massive quantities of small arms and ammunition, javelin anti-tank missiles, Patriot air defense systems, Abrams tanks from the United States and Leopard tanks from Germany, and U.S. F-16 fighters transferred from Poland and other NATO countries, along with a variety of short and medium-range missiles. France has now indicated that it is prepared to send Cruise missiles to Kyiv. In addition to such weapon shipments, the United States, Britain, Poland, and other alliance members routinely have shared crucial military intelligence information with Ukraine.

It is hard to see how the policies would have differed significantly if Kyiv had held a formal NATO membership card. The country is already being treated as a de facto member. No rational person wants a full-scale armed conflict between NATO and Russia over Ukraine, since that development would mean World War III, with the potential for massive nuclear devastation. Indeed, even the current level of assistance is unduly risky.

Zelensky and his associates, as well as some of their more zealous supporters in the West have viewed membership as essential, even if that meant NATO becoming locked into a direct military engagement against Russia. The Biden administration and its counterparts, though, have exercised somewhat greater prudence. Their ongoing risk-benefit calculations, not whether Ukraine has an Article 5 guarantee, has determined their policy. Thus far, they have at least refrained from making the worst utterly reckless moves, and one must hope that they will continue to do so. The formal membership question, though, is (and will remain) largely irrelevant to that decision-making process.

Author: Ted Galen Carpenter

Ted Galen Carpenter, Senior Fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute, is the author of 13 books and more than 1,100 articles on international affairs. Dr. Carpenter held various senior policy positions during a 37-year career at the Cato institute. His latest book is Unreliable Watchdog: The News Media and U.S. Foreign Policy (2022).