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It takes two to tango: Ukrainian path to NATO

After February 24, 2022, the international security system de facto ceased to exist. Safeguards that have been in place since the end of the Cold War – such as collective security rules, international law, and global cooperation organizations – have simply failed to work under the conditions of classic Realpolitik imposed on the world by a full-scale Russian invasion. And that is why Ukraine, along with the armed struggle for its own existence and the future of its people, seeks long-term and reliable formats for its own security. No matter how you look at it, the only really working option to guarantee Ukraine’s long-term security has always been and remains its full-fledged membership in NATO.

President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelenskyy had a meeting with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg,
who arrived in Ukraine on a visit.
Photo: Official website of the President of Ukraine

Formed on the upward trends of the beginning of the Cold War, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization today represents a benchmark security bloc that skillfully combines elements of ideological commonality, technological exchange, and broad-based political and economic cooperation on a level with classic “hard security”. The Washington Treaty of 1949 – NATO’s opus magna – sets out the main visions of the organization’s goals, its tasks, and certain basic requirements for membership. All of them boil down, in fact, to the readiness to protect common interests and security in the North Atlantic area and promote common values for all participants in the agreement:

They are determined to safeguard the freedom, common heritage, and civilisation of their peoples, founded on the principles of democracy, individual liberty and the rule of law.

Given the above, it is important to understand several key points very clearly: why is Ukraine so determined to join the Alliance? Is Ukraine ready to become part of the North Atlantic Community? And what benefits will the Alliance itself have from having Ukraine as its member?

Ukraine’s part of the bargain

The advantages of membership in NATO for Ukraine are absolutely obvious: collective security guarantees and the presence of a “nuclear umbrella” from the key players of the Alliance will guarantee that the repetition of aggression by the Russian Federation will essentially become impossible. Several strategic aspects are important for Ukraine in this regard, both today and in the long run.

The first and most important item on the security agenda for Ukraine is nuclear security. This applies not only to the situation around the Zaporizhzhia NPP, where the Russian Federation uses terrorist methods to blackmail Ukraine and the whole world. Russian speakers also frequently resort to irresponsible rhetoric on using nuclear weapons as a means of blackmail and pressure. 

Only with an absolute understanding that Moscow will not be able to use nuclear blackmail and, even more so, will not be able to use nuclear weapons, will Ukraine and Europe as a whole be truly safe. That is why Ukraine’s membership in NATO is essential not only for the country itself: global nuclear security, which was called into question by the Kremlin’s criminal actions, now depends on the ability of the leading countries of the West to provide a “nuclear umbrella” for Ukraine and prevent this type of escalation.

If we look at NATO membership from a strategic point of view, it can also become a guarantee of the non-repetition of Russian aggression against Ukraine in any form. As we saw in the example of Finland and Sweden, the presence of a clear prospect of joining the North Atlantic Alliance plays the role of a safeguard and prevents dictatorial regimes from making claims against democratic states. 

A ditch, an embankment, a reinforced concrete fence with barbed wire:
a wall is being built on the border with Belarus.
Photo from Kyrylo Tymoshenko, Deputy Head of the Office of the President of Ukraine

Global security will only benefit from the fact that dictators will have fewer opportunities to threaten small and medium-sized democratic states. In addition, extrapolating this case to the global level, a successful example of prevention and deterrence of aggression can be a “warning shot in the air” which will deter any potential aggressors around the world from violating their neighbours’ borders. 

Finally, membership in NATO will be a booster for recovery and reform in Ukraine. Despite the absence of a clear list of requirements for each applicant, membership in the North Atlantic Community entails certain responsibilities and requires the achievement of a specific level of social, political, and economic development. In the context of the process of rebuilding the Ukrainian economy and infrastructure after the war, the eventual strengthening of the reform process in Ukraine will undoubtedly play into the hands of the process of Ukrainian accession into NATO.

It is also important to note that NATO support in Ukraine has been gradually growing over the past few years and reached its historical peak during the full-scale invasion of Ukraine by Russian troops – for example, in March 2022, 86% of Ukrainians supported NATO membership for Ukraine.

Win-win decision

Closer cooperation between Ukraine and NATO, which should result in full membership, is beneficial for both sides. Today, the Ukrainian fight against Russian aggression is a decisive factor in maintaining security in Europe. But how else can Ukraine be beneficial to the Alliance?

The Madrid Summit Declaration of 2022 ushered in a new era in the history of the alliance. However, to put it more accurately, this new era was partially a return to the strategy of the 70s and 80s of the last century. At the peak of the Cold War, both sides of the conflict built up their own forces in Europe, constantly expecting mutual provocations. 

Accordingly, the basis of the strategy at that time was the presence of a huge number of forces and means on the Eastern border of the Alliance that could respond to any threats in the shortest possible time – and that is why a year ago a decision was made to increase the presence of NATO troops in the countries of the Eastern flank by 10 times with all the necessary equipment and ammunition. At the same time, the unconventional capabilities of the alliance, such as resistance to hybrid, informational, and combined threats, have also been strengthened.

In each of these areas of NATO’s security interest, Ukraine already has almost ten years of experience effectively resisting Russian aggression. Thus, with the existing level of cooperation and compatibility between NATO and the Armed Forces of Ukraine, it becomes obvious that the Ukrainian military can become an integral part of this new strategy of the alliance on its own eastern borders. 

The professionalism and real combat experience of Ukrainian units, in addition to the geographical proximity of Ukraine to the territories of Russia, greatly increase the effectiveness of the rapid response doctrine on the eastern flank of the alliance – the Ukrainian army will be able to come to the aid of, for example, the Baltic states much faster than the American troops. 

During the full-scale invasion of the Russian Federation, the Ukrainian military and volunteers repeatedly demonstrated innovative and sometimes unexpected methods and tools in the use of both Western weapons and Western tactics. In addition, Ukrainians themselves developed most of the modern tactics of using various types of combat drones, from small reconnaissance to unmanned aerial vehicles of the tactical level for a wide range of applications. Already now, there is an active exchange of experience and practices in this field at joint exercises between the Ukrainian military and the military of the alliance countries.

Ukrainian troops during their training at Bovington Camp in Dorset, England.
Photo: Andrew Matthews / PA

Additionally, the Ukrainian industry, although badly affected by the Russian missile and drone attacks, will be able to complement the arms production chains for NATO countries with due modernisation. 

During the full-scale Russian invasion, Ukraine got the experience that no NATO state has received since the alliance’s creation: the experience of repelling conventionally prevailing armed aggression on its territory, in other words – the experience of a full-fledged war. NATO should be interested in having a country with such expertise to improve its own threat response protocols. Also, as Dmytro Kuleba notes in his article for Foreign Affairs, the Ukrainian troops during the last 16 months had the opportunity to prove or disprove the effectiveness of certain elements of NATO’s military doctrine (decentralization, training, and command methods, etc.).

Ukrainian defenders fire shells at the positions of Russian occupiers in the Kherson region.
The American howitzer М777 is in action. January 10, 2023.
By Konstantyn & Vlada Liberov

Even from an ideological point of view, Ukraine is an integral part of the North Atlantic community. Each NATO member must respect democracy, human freedoms, the rule of law, and accountable governance. These are the values for which hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians are now fighting on the battlefield. In this sense, Ukraine is not simply an outpost, i.e., the far frontier of Western civilization, but the spiritual centre of what is a democratic world. 

Political dances

On the political part of the spectrum, there are also obvious benefits of Ukrainian accession to NATO. First and foremost, Ukrainian admission will ensure stable and predictable relations with Russia. Former NATO Secretary General Rasmussen wrote that “peace and stability in Europe relies on a secure and independent Ukraine.”

This stems not only from Ukrainian experience and Ukrainian contribution but also from two crucial strategic concepts: the prestige of the alliance and Russia’s ambitions. First, ensuring Ukraine’s security through NATO membership would demonstrate to countries hesitant to join NATO that joining would be the right decision, thereby increasing the alliance’s military power and prestige. Secondly, Ukraine, as a member of NATO, will be able to push away potential new Russian aggression from more western countries that were previously considered “frontline countries”: Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and, accordingly, from the whole of Europe.

As President Reagan once famously stated, “it takes two to tango”. This immortal political illustration of reciprocity and a two-way approach to tasks is as true as ever for the case of Ukrainian membership in NATO. As provided above, both the Aliance and Ukraine will win from a decisive and unified approach for their common future.