Too Soon, Too Late: What’s Really Blocking Ukraine’s Entry To NATO?
Volodymyr Zelensky has made his demand clear: full NATO membership for Ukraine, perhaps as soon as this year. Yet member countries, from the U.S. to top European allies, are still stuck in the mindset of not “provoking” Russia. But if not now, when?
PARIS — Volodymyr Zelensky knows what he wants, and he’s not afraid to say it loud and say it clear. Yesterday in Chisinau, Moldova, before the leaders of 47 European states, the Ukrainian President demanded that NATO open its doors to Ukraine — and to do it as early as 2023.
"This is the year of decision", he added before an impressive array of heads of state and government gathered in Moldova, just across the border from his war-torn country.
But it’s not that simple. Several of the Alliance's heavyweights, starting with its leader, the United States, are more than reluctant to let a country at war join an organization whose charter includes Article 5. This is the article that defines automatic solidarity with a member state under attack.
And beyond the United States, also Germany, and until recently France, which has begun to take action, fear being drawn unwittingly into a direct confrontation with Russia. For the past 15 months, they have been careful to calibrate their involvement so as not to become "co-belligerent," though that has not prevented them from arming Ukraine.
Between now and next month’s NATO summit in Vilnius, the U.S and its allies must find an answer to the pressing demands of Ukraine and its friends in Eastern Europe.
Ukraine’s accession to NATO is not a new issue. In 2008, France and Germany – at the time led by French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel – fought hard at the NATO summit in Bucharest to block Ukraine's entry. Paris and Berlin feared provoking Moscow. The Bush administration was in favor. The result was an ill-judged decision: yes to membership, but one day... When? It wasn't said.
It’s either too late or too soon. Other solutions must therefore be found: they will undoubtedly take the form of security guarantees which, although not those of Article 5 of the Atlantic Charter, will satisfy Ukraine and act as a sufficient deterrent.
French President Emmanuel Macron spoke out in favor of "tangible and credible" security guarantees, something halfway between the Israeli option – i.e., U.S. assurances and aid to the Jewish state – and full NATO membership. The President of the European Commission, Ursula Von der Leyen, also spoke of "guarantees from like-minded states."
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and Volodymyr Zelensky talk at the European Political Community Summit in Moldova
Such guarantees can only come from states that have the means and the credibility to do so. The United States, the United Kingdom and France, three nuclear powers and permanent members of the UN Security Council, stand out, as does Germany, the continent's leading economic power. A country on NATO's "eastern flank" will also be involved, no doubt Poland, which is investing massively in defense.
But what are such state commitments really worth? Ukraine has had a sad experience of this: in 1994, it received such assurances of non-aggression in the "Budapest Memorandum," signed in exchange for its renunciation of Soviet nuclear weapons. Among the signatories was Russia, and the rest is history...
There are still six weeks to go before the Vilnius summit to define an acceptable solution for Zelensky, whose main argument to impose himself is always the same: Ukraine is fighting for you. Indeed, this is the "blood money" that explains NATO’s current sense of urgency.
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