Stoltenberg’s Provocative Pledge on Ukraine’s NATO Membership

At the NATO foreign ministers’ summit in Bucharest on November 29, both the foreign ministers of the member states and the Secretary-General of NATO, General Jens Stoltenberg, renewed NATO’s 2008 pledge to welcome Ukraine into NATO.

But Stoltenberg’s comments were provocative and insincere in at least three ways.

In a “doorstep statement” ahead of the meeting of NATO Ministers of Foreign Affairs, a reporter said that “In 2008, NATO declared here in Bucharest, that someday Ukraine would be a member of NATO.” The reporter than asked, “Where stands NATO now today, on behalf of this declaration?”

Stoltenberg replied, “You are right that we made decisions on Ukraine, Georgia, on membership here at the NATO Summit in 2008. I was here myself at that time as Norwegian Prime Minister, so I remember that meeting very well.” He then, perhaps counterproductively, pointed out that NATO has significantly strengthened its “partnership” with Ukraine and that NATO has, for many years before the current war, supported, strengthened and equipped the Ukrainian Armed Forces. Stoltenberg admitted a partnership, if not a membership, and hinted at the credibility of Russia’s claim that, if Ukraine is not already in NATO, then NATO is already in Ukraine.

It is true that Stoltenberg was in Bucharest in 2008 when NATO declared that it “welcomes Ukraine’s and Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations for membership in NATO. We agree today that these countries will become members of NATO." But it is not clear that the Nordic countries always backed NATO membership for Ukraine nor that they did not see the risks.

A decade earlier, when NATO entertained membership for the Baltic states, the planned expansion troubled the Nordic nations. According to M.E. Sarotte, author of Not One Inch, the heads of the Nordic countries implored the Baltic states to learn from their experience of living beside Russia. Sweden begged the Baltic states to “work out a modus vivendi with the Russians and normalize relations.” Finland told them that “all of us [in the region] must establish businesslike relations with the Russians.” 

Norway, itself, though a member of NATO was sensitive to the provocative danger of a heavily armed NATO country pressing on Russia’s border and, when it joined NATO, insisted on that no troops be stationed on its territory except in case of war, no nuclear weapons be placed there and even that all military exercises take place at a distance from the Russian border.

In reply to the reporter’s question, Stoltenberg went on to say, “On Ukrainian membership, we stated that Ukraine will become a member” and added that “I expect that foreign ministers will at the meeting here in Bucharest today and tomorrow, reiterate that NATO’s door is open.” Russia, he said, could not stop that: “President Putin cannot deny sovereign nations to make their own sovereign decisions that are not a threat to Russia.”

But that statement was insincere. NATO has long known that Russian leaders since the end of the Cold War–not just Putin–have perceived NATO’s eastward expansion, and particularly its expansion to Ukraine, as a threat. In response to NATO’s statement at the 2008 summit in Bucharest, the Russian leadership made clear that they saw this promise as an existential threat. Putin warned that NATO membership for Georgia and Ukraine was "a direct threat" to Russian security. Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said that Russia would do “everything possible” to prevent Georgia and Ukraine from becoming NATO members. Putin explained, with reference to Georgia, Russia’s logic. As a NATO member, Georgia “would have to follow the discipline of the bloc and. . . . NATO’s purpose is aimed against the sovereignty of Russia. . .. After joining NATO your sovereignty will be limited, and Georgia, too, will be a threat to Russia.”

How much worse in the case of Ukraine who hosts the Russian Black Sea Fleet at Sevastopol? “Can you imagine,” Putin asked, “Sevastopol with a NATO base there? Just think of the impact that would have.”

Russia had long stopped believing NATO was a benign defensive alliance. NATO caused that disillusionment when, only three weeks after threateningly encroaching on Russia’s borders by absorbing its first eastern European members, it bombed Russia’s Serbian ally without UN authorization. Russian President Boris Yeltsin had begged Washington to find a diplomatic solution.

How could Russia not see NATO as a threat? A 1990 State Department memo analysis concluded that the US should resist “an anti-Soviet coalition whose frontier is the Soviet border,” warning that it would look predatory and “lead to a reversal of current positive trends in Eastern Europe and the USSR.” How else could Russia perceive an alliance that moved to its borders, absorbed its neighbours, but exclusively excluded it as anything but hostile? Robert Gates observed that it was "recklessly ignoring what the Russians considered their own vital national interests."

Putin had been concerned with US missile defence units in Eastern Europe and NATO bases in Bulgaria and Romania. In June, 2022, the US announced the addition of a permanent US base in Poland. 

Putin knew the 2001 US announcement that it would unilaterally withdraw from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty offered “totally groundless” explanations. The US, he said, was “striving for unilateral superiority in the military field.” The US wanted to undermine nuclear arms control and create an environment in which they could win a nuclear war.

Russia did not keep these security concerns secret. In 2015, Russia’s National Security Strategy would note that NATO’s "continued expansion and the approach of its military infrastructure to Russia’s borders, all create threat to national security."  

In a February 2022 press conference, Putin said, “Today we see where NATO is: in Poland, in Romania and in the Baltic states. . .. Now anti-ballistic missile launchers are deployed in Romania and are being set up in Poland. They will probably be there soon if they are not yet built. These are MK-41 launchers that can launch Tomahawks. In other words, they are no longer just counter-missiles, and these assault weapons can cover thousands of kilometers of our territory. Isn’t this a threat to us?”

Weeks before, Putin had also complained that "elements of the US global defense system are being deployed near Russia." He spoke again of the MK-41 launchers in Romania and, soon, in Poland. At that time, he added that "If this infrastructure continues to move forward, and if US and NATO missile systems are deployed in Ukraine, their flight time to Moscow will be only 7–10 minutes, or even five minutes for hypersonic systems. This is a huge challenge for us, for our security."

Stoltenberg’s comments also lacked sincerity when it came to the core question of Ukraine’s NATO membership. “Where stands NATO now today, on behalf of this declaration . . . that someday Ukraine would be a member of NATO?” the reporter had asked. The Secretary-General answered in words that were carefully chosen. 

“We have demonstrated,” Stoltenberg said, “that the decision in Bucharest that NATO’s door is open is something we live up to, not only in words, but also in deeds, by actually allowing more members to come into the Alliance.” But not Ukraine, as promised in Bucharest. NATO allowed “Macedonia and Montenegro to become members and now also Finland and Sweden.”

“On Ukrainian membership,” he said, “we stated that Ukraine will become a member. I expect Allies to reiterate also that position.” But he then quickly took away the promise and put that expectation into context: “However, the main focus now is on supporting Ukraine. We are in the midst of a war, and therefore we should do nothing that can undermine the unity of Allies to provide military, humanitarian, financial support to Ukraine.” Ukraine would not become a NATO member any time soon.

Stoltenberg was repeating a scripted response he had used before. In September, when Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky issued a renewed plea for Ukrainian membership in NATO, Stoltenberg, also repeated that the door is open to all European countries before closing the door again by saying that “our focus now is on providing immediate support to Ukraine to help Ukraine defend itself against Russia’s brutal invasion.” National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan then locked the door, saying Ukraine’s application “should be taken up at a different time.”

When Zelensky asked the leaders of NATO states "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.. . . the response was very clear, you’re not going to be a NATO member, but publicly, the doors will remain open."

Stoltenberg phrased “NATO’s door is open” as a factual; he reiterated the Ukraine promise only as a “position” or a potential. He never wed Ukraine to the factual open door.

On Ukraine’s NATO membership and on its not being a threat to Russia, Stoltenberg’s comments sounded as insincere as they did provocative.