What Ukraine Needs from NATO

Ukraine is bleeding. Without new U.S. military assistance, Ukrainian ground forces may not be able to hold the line against a relentless Russian military. The U.S. House of Representatives must vote now to pass the emergency spending package that the Senate overwhelmingly approved last month. The most urgent priority is to appropriate funds to resupply Kyiv with artillery shells, air defense missiles, deep-strike rockets, and other critical military needs.

But even once Ukraine receives this much-needed support, a fundamental question remains: how to help Ukraine secure its future. That is a question NATO leaders will need to answer when they meet this July in Washington for their 75th anniversary summit.

Russia’s war on Ukraine is about more than just territory: it is about Ukraine’s political future. The Kremlin seeks to make sure that Ukraine’s future is decided in Moscow, not Kyiv. Ukraine is fighting for the freedom to chart its own future—and a vast majority of Ukrainians want their country to become a member of NATO and the European Union.

Last year, the EU opened accession talks with Kyiv. But that process will take years to complete. Meanwhile, Ukraine seeks an invitation to join NATO. But NATO countries are divided over when Kyiv should join. Some members, led by the Baltics, Poland, and France, want the alliance to issue a formal invitation at this July’s Washington summit. They believe that the persistence of security vacuums in Europe entices Moscow to fill those gray areas militarily—as it has in Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova. Other members, including the United States and Germany, are not prepared to move that fast. The outgoing Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, who may well be NATO’s next secretary-general, captured this perspective at the Munich Security Conference last month: “As long as the war is raging, Ukraine cannot become a member of NATO.”

Former officials have proposed various ideas to bridge this chasm. One is to issue an invitation to Ukraine but not act on it until some later, unspecified time. This would be an empty gesture, as no treaty provisions would apply until all 32 members ratify Ukraine’s accession. Another idea is to invite Ukraine to begin accession talks, a model borrowed from the EU enlargement process. But EU candidate countries follow a well-trodden path, adopting and implementing the EU’s body of law over years. NATO’s equivalent is the Membership Action Plan, but in Vilnius last year, NATO members agreed that Kyiv “had moved beyond the need” for that process. Unless the goal and timing of the accession talks are clearly defined, an invitation to begin talks would leave Ukraine in the same netherworld where it has been since 2008, when NATO agreed that Ukraine “will become” a NATO member.

The Washington summit provides an opportunity to bridge this chasm and build consensus on Ukraine within the alliance. The first step is to clarify the reforms Ukraine must complete and the conditions that need to prevail on the ground before it can join the alliance. Second, NATO needs to take over the coordination of military assistance provided by the 50-plus-nation coalition and help Ukraine build a modern, interoperable military. Finally, NATO leaders need to step up their support for Ukraine’s defense by supplying advanced weapons, such as long-range missiles, that some NATO members have been reluctant to provide.


At the Vilnius summit, rather than agreeing to give Ukraine the invitation it desired, NATO leaders promised that “Ukraine’s future is in NATO,” while noting that they would extend an invitation only “when Allies agree and conditions are met,” kicking the issue down the road.

While it’s clear that Ukraine will not get an invitation at the Washington summit, the Vilnius language suggests a way forward: NATO must clarify what “conditions” must be met, then invite Kyiv to engage in direct talks in the NATO-Ukraine Council about when and how that can be done.

To create consensus among allies, NATO leaders should agree on two conditions that must be met before they formally invite Ukraine to join the alliance. First, Ukraine should complete the democratic, anticorruption, and security sector reforms outlined in Ukraine’s Annual National Program, the formal structure that prepares Ukraine for membership. At the Washington summit, NATO leaders should commit to working together to help Kyiv finalize these reforms within a year. Second, the fighting in Ukraine must end. As long as there is an active military conflict in Ukraine, Ukraine’s membership in the alliance could lead to a direct confrontation between NATO and Russia—a gamble most NATO members are not prepared to take.

Before the second condition can be met, NATO must stipulate what it would consider a satisfactory end to the fighting. It cannot be an end to the war, for that presupposes a peace agreement, which would be exceedingly difficult to accomplish any time soon. The common belief that all wars end through negotiations is wrong. Most wars end through mutual exhaustion or one-sided victory; very few end with a negotiated peace. For the foreseeable future, the most that can be hoped for is a frozen conflict—a cessation of hostilities without a political solution.

NATO must clarify what “conditions” must be met before they formally invite Ukraine to join the alliance.

At the Washington summit, NATO leaders should agree to invite Ukraine when the fighting has effectively ended, either through an unlikely Ukrainian victory or through a durable cease-fire or armistice. At the conclusion of active conflict, Kyiv need not accept any loss of territory to Russia as permanent, only that any change to the status quo would need to be achieved politically, not militarily.

After Ukraine joins NATO, the alliance’s collective defense commitment under Article 5 would apply only to the territories under Kyiv’s control. This condition would be painful for Kyiv to accept, as Ukrainians will fear a lasting division of the country. But the reality of a frozen conflict may lead Kyiv to decide to consolidate the territory it controls and lock in NATO membership. Alliance leaders may want to make clear that if fighting were to resume because of military actions taken by Ukraine, Article 5 would not apply.

There are precedents for extending a security guarantee to a country with contested borders. The Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between the United States and Japan, signed in 1960, commits the United States to defend only “the territories under the administration of Japan,” not in the Northern Territories seized by the Soviet Union at the conclusion of World War II (and occupied by Russia to this day). Similarly, the Federal Republic of Germany’s accession to NATO in 1955 extended Article 5 only to West Germany; communist East Germany, including the democratic enclave of West Berlin, was excluded until the country’s peaceful reunification in 1990. Before being granted membership, West Germany had to agree “never to have recourse to force to achieve the reunification of Germany or the modification of the present boundaries of the Federal Republic of Germany.”

At last year’s NATO summit in Vilnius, Ukrainian officials were understandably concerned that “conditions” was code for ever-moving goalposts. If NATO never defined the conditions, it could always add hurdles for Ukraine to clear. Ukraine deserves clarity, and NATO needs to define the term for its own internal unity and cohesion. At this year’s summit, all 32 members must coalesce around a shared understanding of Ukraine’s path to NATO membership.


To be sure, making an end to armed conflict a condition for Ukraine’s accession to NATO gives Moscow an incentive to prolong the war. For as long as Russia continues fighting, NATO will not accept Ukraine as a new member. That is why Kyiv and its allies must demonstrate their resolve; they must convince Moscow that it is fighting an unwinnable war. To that end, NATO leaders should agree on three additional measures, all aimed at strengthening Ukraine’s defense and helping it build a modern military.

First, NATO must take over from the United States in leading the Ukraine Defense Contact Group, a roughly 50-country coalition that meets regularly to discuss Ukraine’s military needs and decides which country will provide the required equipment. Expanding NATO’s role would institutionalize the alliance’s support of Ukraine, ensuring continuity at a time when the United States’ commitment to Ukraine is in question.

Second, NATO must work with Ukraine to articulate a long-term vision for the country’s military. Currently, multiple coalitions are focused on its various components: demining, F-16 capabilities, information technology infrastructure, armor and artillery, and long-range strike capacity. NATO can and should coordinate these efforts, which would help the Ukrainian military develop into a fully integrated and interoperable force.

Third, NATO should establish a Ukraine training mission, taking over the coordination of training Ukrainian forces from the United States, the United Kingdom, and other individual countries. Training is critical for Ukrainian soldiers on the battlefield today, as well as for the interoperability of Ukraine’s future force.

The shared aim of these three measures is not to diminish the engagement of individual countries but to enhance the efficiency of existing efforts in support of Ukraine by bringing them under NATO’s purview. Institutionalizing these functions within NATO will signal to the Russian President Vladimir Putin that he will not outlast Western support for Ukraine.


No longer-term efforts will matter, however, if Ukraine loses the war. That is why NATO must fortify Ukraine’s defenses and consider supplying Kyiv with weapons that are currently off the table, such as U.S. ATACMS and German Taurus long-range missiles. At the outset of the war, NATO members sought to balance support for Ukraine with the need to avoid a direct confrontation with Russia. NATO countries restricted the kinds of weapons they would send and limited the ways in which Ukrainian forces would be permitted to use them (for example, no attacks on Russian soil).

This initial hesitation may have been understandable, given the uncertainty over how Ukraine would fare. But some countries have been too cautious for too long. A number of NATO members, such as Germany and the United States, had expressed concerns about sending everything from tanks to F-16 fighter jets. But the situation has changed. Having finally secured U.S. approval last year, Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands, and Norway will soon send F-16s, which will help Kyiv counter Russian airstrikes and hit deeper behind enemy lines. The United Kingdom and France were the first to send long-range missiles last year, allowing Ukraine to hit targets in Crimea.

There is a bright line between confronting Russian forces directly and providing Ukraine with the means to defend itself. NATO combat troops would fall on the wrong side. But supplying Ukraine with training, intelligence, surveillance, jamming, and military equipment falls on the right side. NATO members have wrestled with finding the right balance between fear of escalation and faith in deterrence. Although NATO countries should remain vigilant in avoiding escalation, they can do more to ensure that Russia does not win.

Putin denies Ukraine’s legitimacy as a sovereign nation; he sees Ukraine as an integral part of what he calls “the Russian world” (Russkiy mir). Yet if his goal in invading the country was to bring Ukraine back into Russia’s orbit, he achieved exactly the opposite. The war ignited a fierce Ukrainian nationalism that hadn’t existed before. And Ukraine is never going back.

What’s more, NATO’s eastern enlargement, which was one of the reasons Putin gave for invading Ukraine, has only continued. His actions have made the country’s membership in NATO more likely, not less. And when Finland joined NATO last April, as a direct result of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, NATO’s land border with Russia more than doubled. Sweden’s accession earlier this month turned the Baltic Sea into a NATO lake. For all these reasons, the war has been a strategic failure for Russia. The day Ukraine formally joins NATO will be Russia’s ultimate strategic defeat—and Ukraine and all of Europe will be the safer for it.


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