President Volodymyr Zelensky had high hopes for the NATO summit in Vilnius and a clear message on Ukraine’s membership. The results fell short, but Ukraine today is closer to membership, which Alliance members seem to view as all but inevitable.
Ukrainians make a strong case for joining NATO. They have met most Alliance criteria for aspiring members and have demonstrated with their blood that Ukraine can contribute to Euro-Atlantic security. Ukrainians regard their struggle against Russia not just as a fight for national survival, but also as a fight on behalf of Europe.
They are not wrong. Ukraine has destroyed or captured a substantial part of Russia’s conventional military power that could threaten NATO, including 60 percent of Russia’s modern main battle tanks. Vladimir Putin has portrayed the war as a bid to recover “historical [Russian] lands.” Well, check a map of the Russian Empire in the late 19th century; it included not just most of modern-day Ukraine but Finland, the Baltic states and a good part of Poland.
Do Putin’s ambitions go beyond Ukraine to, say, eastern Estonia? The chances are small but not zero—just what analysts would have said in 2020 about a massive Russian assault on Ukraine.
Still, it was unrealistic for Kyiv to expect an invitation to join or a date certain for receiving one. It is challenging to see how Ukraine can enter NATO while it remains at war with Russia. President Joe Biden has made that point, and other allied leaders agree.
Zelensky nevertheless will return home with tangible gains. NATO will make its comprehensive assistance package for the Ukrainian military a multi-year program. The French and Germans announced decisions to provide Scalp cruise missiles, more armored vehicles and Patriot air defense systems. Ukrainian pilots will begin F-16 flight training next month.
Moreover, G7 leaders committed to bilateral arrangements with Ukraine to sustain its fight against Russia and, when the war is over, to help Ukraine build a modern and robust military to deter Russian attack in the future. Biden underscored that in his speech at the University of Vilnius. These G7 commitments cannot be the end point for Ukraine’s security quest—if a future Kremlin forgets the lessons of the past 16 months, it might be tempted to try again—but they can provide a way station on the path to the best guarantee of Ukraine’s security: membership in NATO.
Zelensky did not get a date for membership, but Vilnius reflected a mood shift underway across the Alliance. The 2008 NATO Bucharest summit declaration that Ukraine would be a member was not convincing. It came about as a last-minute sop to then-President George Bush, who failed in his effort to secure NATO consensus to give Kyiv a membership action plan (MAP).
Many who opposed a MAP for Ukraine 15 years ago did so in deference to Russia’s concern about Ukraine joining NATO. Yet that deference did not prevent Russia from seizing and illegally annexing Crimea, did not prevent Russia from instigating a nasty conflict in Donbas, and did not prevent Russia from launching an all-out invasion that turned the Russia-Ukraine fight into Europe’s largest and bloodiest war since World War II.
By its brutal and aggressive actions, the Kremlin has forfeited any legitimate claim to deference for its concern about Ukraine in NATO.
NATO leaders will gather again next year in a summit that will mark 75 years since the Alliance’s establishment and 25 years since the first former Warsaw Pact states took their seats at the summit table. NATO and Ukraine should begin talking in the newly formed NATO-Ukraine Council about how that summit will advance Ukraine’s membership, perhaps with a specific roadmap, even if it may not fill in all the dates. They should also consider practical steps to deepen NATO-Ukraine integration now, such as placing additional Ukrainian liaison officers at NATO headquarters in Brussels as well as at specific subordinate commands.
A stable and secure Europe requires a secure Ukraine. NATO membership offers the best way to achieve that. Vilnius provides a foundation on which to build toward that goal.
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