Ukraine's Counterproductive NATO Ambitions

Unwelcome as it may be for many to hear, Ukraine should save itself the heartache and give up on its hopes of ever joining NATO. As Peter Brookes has written, Ukrainian membership in NATO “will have to wait until after the war, at least.” “At least” is a Western politic way of saying “never.” Such a fact of life need not be a calamity, however. Ukraine, in fact, has the potential to be much safer than by placing itself under the presumed shelter of what is an increasingly ineffective alliance. Preparing itself mentally and physically (easier now than ever before), Ukraine can become a fortification unto itself, a status that will no doubt prove to be a much more enduring, and realistic, option than NATO membership.

The likelihood of NATO adopting into its fold a member state facing a bleeding and implacable foe is vanishingly small. “Russians will never never give up Ukraine,” explains “Bryan” a Ukrainian-born volunteer fighter and former Soviet Spetznaz paratrooper. He would know. It is a refrain I’ve heard time and again across the country, from Kostyantynivka to Kharkiv. The war over Ukraine, in other words, is not a rational strategic territorial dispute for which NATO membership might pose a calculated deterrence. Instead, it is a bitter blood feud, a conflict destined to smolder for generations.

This means the likelihood of Article V triggering over Ukraine is all but guaranteed, a fact NATO strategists have clearly baked into their waffling ambiguity over potential membership. Not only is this added risk a problem but the further diffusion of NATO membership and the attendant political complexities (as in Finland and Sweden’s accession) make Ukraine’s membership in NATO a bridge too far. NATO and Western leaders would help everyone with a more accurate, and frankly kinder, message that Ukraine membership “ain’t gonna happen.”

For Russia’s part, Ukraine is a lost cause that it hasn’t registered yet. Tails Russia loses, heads Ukraine wins. In the end, Russia may wind up retaining parts of Luhansk and Donetsk, but it will be a brutal occupation of a generally surly and resistant population, and its next decades will be violent ones. Russia will therefore return from this war, whatever its outcome, lick its wounds, and await the day to try again. An imperial enemy chastened by its smaller weaker adversary is unlikely to be content with any territorial gains, as Crimea clearly demonstrated. With a “decadent” West blamed by Russia for giving Ukraine the means to withstand absorption, the powder charge is set for an enduring and violent standoff. NATO cannot, and therefore will not, go here.

A far better option for Ukraine, one that is increasingly whispered, is simply to learn to bristle as a defensive bulwark against the inevitable incursions of the future—to become Europe’s bastion against totalitarian expansion. Denys, a brigade commander in Severs’k, suggests Ukraine “become another Israel,” leveraging strategic partnerships to arm and train itself to be a world-class lethal force to be reckoned with. Indeed, the cultural ties between Ukraine and Israel are strong enough to make the prospect even easier to accept. Compulsory military service, top-tier training, and a committed civilian defensive posture are, at this point, second nature within mobilized Ukrainian society. Inflamed and united as never before, Ukraine can withstand the inevitable impending attacks. NATO, as it has already proven, can well afford to supply the type of training and equipment that will bring Ukraine up to or, preferably, surpassing the level of mainline NATO militaries. It is realistic to envision Ukraine as a stand-alone military force backed by, but not formally allied with, NATO nations.

As the unwilling but de facto shield of Europe, the last thing Ukraine needs now is integration into a massive political establishment of NATO that will invariably tie its hands in countless unforeseen ways.

So why the persistent flirtation? Some of it may be pure grandstanding. The ambiguous NATO offer may well be a ploy by planners to leave Russia guessing, though if this is the case, it is a dangerous game indeed.

More likely is the very real desire, by both Ukrainians and NATO members, to be formally allied against the very expansionist ambitions that prompted the creation of NATO in the first place. Desires, however, seldom align with sober calculations. As one NATO officer told me:

Though we almost seem allies against Russia at the moment, Ukraine has not been allowed accession to the EU for decades because of widespread government corruption and frankly, for being an unstable political state. Being at war, the symptoms are less noticeable, and under martial law, Zelenskyy has more political power to silence opposition, but ultimately, when the war has ended in a frozen conflict (which it will), neither the EU nor NATO can afford another ‘swing state’ member like Hungary or Turkey if either of these institutions wants to remain relevant for the coming global power competition in the second-half of the twenty-first century.

And there you have it. The frank and sober assessment needed to prompt Ukraine to drop its illusions of alliance. And in all honesty, it’s probably a good thing. NATO, and most of the rest of the free world has Ukraine’s back and is unlikely to cease civil and military aid for the foreseeable future. Not just on moral grounds, but from a geopolitical one as well, it is in the interests of the West to support Ukraine against Russian expansion. As the unwilling but de facto shield of Europe, the last thing Ukraine needs now is integration into a massive political establishment that will invariably tie its hands in countless unforeseen ways. Membership in NATO would be, as the Ukrainian saying goes, “a spoonful of tar in a barrel of honey.”

So, Ukraine, stop wasting your time and focus instead on becoming self-sufficient. As the widely understood shield of the free world, you have plenty of paying allies. Let your inhuman and relentless foe beat itself against your walls (Russia may crumble sooner than you think) and save your manpower for the long haul. Stand up, NATO-free, as the beacon of liberty and decency in a beleaguered and brutal theater. You’ve got this.