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The Surprise That May Finally Bury NATO: The Ukrainian Army

The system of post-World War II alliances has ultimately proven insufficient at the moment the Russian threat turned into actual war. Ukraine’s military has risen to the challenge in a way that may help reorder the system of security for decades to come.

Ukrainian soldiers on a tank.

Ukrainian soldiers after the liberation of Hostomel.

Anna Akage


Here’s a joke that’s been circulating the past few weeks in Ukraine: When the war is over, NATO will be asking to join Ukraine.

Stay up-to-date with the latest on the Russia-Ukraine war, with our exclusive international coverage.

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The punchline makes a point of both the pride in the Ukrainian army’s stunning efforts to repel the Russian invaders, and the bitterness at the North Atlantic alliance’s hesitations to open membership to Kyiv.

But the subtext goes even further, raising questions about where the entire system of international security will wind up after the war in Ukraine.

Turn back 77 years, when Europe thought its final war was over. The military alliances created after World War II and the treaties signed on non-aggression, disarmament and non-nuclear status, were designed to keep civilization from repeating the mistakes of the past that had led to perennial instability and tens of millions of violent deaths.

A Cold War logic

On April 4, 1949 NATO was created with a mandate to: “promote democratic values and enable members to consult and cooperate on defense and security-related issues to solve problems, build trust and, in the long run, prevent conflict.”

More pertinient, were the alliance’s powers when conflict cannot be prevented: “If diplomatic efforts fail, (NATO) has the military power to undertake crisis-management operations. These are carried out under the collective defense clause of NATO's founding treaty - Article 5 of the Washington Treaty or under a United Nations mandate, alone or in cooperation with other countries and international organizations.”

It was an alliance that for the next four decades would fit soundly in the Cold War logic of détente. So in 1991, when the USSR collapsed and Ukraine (along with other Soviet republics) became independent, the rationale of NATO and its bylaws would essentially begin a slow burn.

The Cold War was over and the world began to disarm. Ukraine was one of the ex Soviet nations that renounced nuclear weapons in exchange for security guarantees from partner countries. In 1994, the Budapest Memorandum was signed, under which Russia, Britain and the United States undertook to respect Ukraine's independence, sovereignty and existing borders and to seek immediate action by the UN Security Council should Ukraine fall victim to an act of aggression.

Two protesters in support of Ukraine.

Two protesters ask Nato for a no-fly zone over Ukraine.

Michael Brochstein/ZUMA

Russia breaks the model

Twenty years later, the Budapest Memorandum was violated when Russia annexed Crimea and then invaded Ukraine in 2014, first occupying part of the Donetsk and Lugansk regions. Another eight years has brought us to the present, with Moscow’s unleashing of a full-scale war against Ukraine. And this is where we see how outdated the old system of alliances really is.

One of the motives the Kremlin has given for the war is the prospect of Ukraine joining NATO, although when the war began there was no realistic possibility of this for at least 10 years.

From the outset of the war, Ukraine asked the U.S. and NATO to secure a no-fly zone over the country, which was quickly refused. The reason is obvious and comprehensible: the fear that the entry of the alliance countries into the war could set off what U.S. President Joe Biden called “World War III,” which could include nuclear weapons. That, we must acknowledge now more than ever after the atrocities of last week, leaves thousands of Ukrainian civilians to die by so-called “conventional” weapons.

Poland looks to Kyiv

Where does that leave Ukraine? And NATO? Despite all the moving speeches Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has made before the parliaments of NATO countries, the alliance has proven to be ineffectual in the face of real war. That brings us back to the joke: What was left, instead, was the Ukrainian army.

The stubbornness and professionalism of Ukrainian soldiers and military command came as a great surprise even to the all-knowing U.S. intelligence service. That has also prompted Ukraine's neighbors, primarily Poland, to propose future military alliances with Ukraine, with UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson also expressing interest.

It sounds like an antiquated idea but is more relevant than ever: a professional army that wins on the battlefield is itself still a very important diplomatic argument in the 21st century. Yes, brute force is sometimes more important than bureaucratic formalities.

Moreover, the other countries bordering Russia, especially those with territorial disputes with Putin, will be looking for reliable allies in case Moscow tries to settle these disputes by force. Is that NATO? No, the indispensable ally tomorrow increasingly looks to be Ukraine.

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