On March 20, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky told a CNN interviewer that he personally requested the leaders of NATO members "to say directly that we are going to accept you into NATO in a year or two or five, just say it directly and clearly, or just say no. And the response was very clear, you’re not going to be a NATO member, but publicly, the doors will remain open." When Zelensky recently renewed his request for NATO membership, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan responded with the brush off that Ukraine’s application "should be taken up at a different time." The door to NATO membership remained closed to Ukraine.
But the back door is open.
Membership in NATO has not always been monolithic. There is a history of permissiveness for nuanced memberships. East Germany entered NATO with limitations on foreign forces and nuclear weapons on their territory. Denmark, Norway, and Iceland ascended to NATO while restricting or refusing nuclear weapons, bases and even some military activities on their territory. Spain became a member in 1982 but refused to fully integrate with NATO militarily until 1999. And France pulled out of NATO’s integrated military command in 1966 for decades while maintaining full membership.
The US and NATO considered, but rejected, the idea of admitting Eastern European nations but granting them something less than Article 5 protection. They rejected the idea then, but they seem to have resurrected it now.
NATO has denied de jure membership to Ukraine, but it has granted it a sort of de facto membership, as Zelensky recently stated.
An important reason for closing the door to membership is that membership for Ukraine could immediately trigger Article 5, which promises that "an armed attack against one or more of them . . . shall be considered an attack against all of them," and lead to a NATO war with Russia and, potentially, a third world war.
But the apparent back door seems to let Ukraine into NATO but without Article 5. As Zelensky says, Ukraine seems, de facto, to be a member in every other way. Several recent events have made that very clear.
Since the beginning of the war, the US and its NATO allies have been providing the weapons, training the Ukrainian soldiers to use them and providing the intelligence on where to target them. The provision of weapons has expanded as the war lengthened to include each piece of sophisticated weaponry as it was needed: even long-range missile systems capable of reaching Russian territory.
But the US has not only been providing the weapons. They have secretly been maintaining them. In September, it was revealed that expert US troops are remotely assisting Ukrainians to repair and maintain everything from howitzers to Javelin launchers and long-range HIMARS missile launchers via encrypted digital chats.
The US and NATO have also expanded the training. The US has been training Ukrainian troops in Poland and on US military installations in Germany. NATO countries even have trainers on the ground in Ukraine. CIA personnel as well as commandos from the UK, France and Canada are in Ukraine training and advising Ukrainian troops.
On October 17, the European Union approved a $104 million plan to train 15,000 Ukrainian troops in Poland and Germany. The training mission will also involve Belgium and France.
The US is not only providing and maintaining the weapons and providing the training, they are becoming increasingly involved in the war planning. The US is providing "stepped up feeds of intelligence about the position of Russian forces, highlighting weaknesses in the Russian lines." During the recent Ukrainian counteroffensive, the US essentially took over the planning, conducting war-games and "suggesting" which "avenues . . . were likely to be more successful."
And most apparently and provocatively, NATO in October announced a ten year plan that would realize Zelensky’s vision of Ukraine being a de facto member of NATO. The plan will provide training and equipment that will make "Ukraine fully interoperable with NATO," said a senior NATO official." The plan will shift the Ukrainian military "away from Soviet equipment … to NATO-compatible Western equipment." Then decade long project "could eventually transform Ukraine into a NATO country by default, even if it is not a member of the alliance," according to the Politico article that reported on the plan.
And that is the back door into NATO.
In defending Ukraine against the Russian invasion, the US has stretched its role to the limits of a proxy war. The US and NATO are providing and maintaining the weapons, conducting the training, providing the targeting intelligence and the strategy and integrating Ukraine into NATO. The US is providing everything but the recruits who use the weapons: NATO is fighting a war against Russia, with Ukrainian men and women as the recruits. That is the price of admission for Ukraine at the back door to NATO.
Ted Snider has a graduate degree in philosophy and writes on analyzing patterns in US foreign policy and history.