By Alastair Kocho-Williams, Clarkson University of Potsdam, New York, USA
(Bias: Originally from the United Kingdom, Kocho-Williams came to Clarkson in 2018. He holds degrees from the University of Manchester in the UK. Before coming to Clarkson, he was Senior Lecturer in Modern European History at Aberystwyth University. Prior to that, he was Senior Lecturer in International History at the University of the West of England, and Lecturer in Soviet History at the University of Leeds. Kocho-Williams is an elected fellow of the Royal Historical Society. He is also a member of the Institute of Historical Research, the British Association for Slavonic and East European Studies, the Association for Slavic, East European and Eurasian Studies, the Society for Co-operation in Russian and Soviet Studies and the British International History Group.)
International concern about Russia’s provocative stance toward Ukraine continues, even as Russian President Vladimir Putin denies plans for an attack — and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy cautioned on Jan. 28, 2022, against the idea that “there is war here.”
Putin has allegedly built up more than 100,000 troops along the Ukrainian border, and the U.S. is ready to deploy thousands of troops to East European nations. The U.S. has also asked the United Kingdom and other NATO allies to deploy hundreds of soldiers to Eastern Europe.
Putin says he will stand down if NATO prohibits Ukraine from joining its alliance – a demand that has been rejected.
Understanding NATO and its history with Ukraine offers insight into the weight of this ultimatum.
What is NATO, anyway?
NATO is a military alliance established in 1949 by the United States, Canada, France, the United Kingdom, and eight other European countries. Additional countries have since joined NATO — most recently North Macedonia in 2020. Thirty nations are now part of the organization.
NATO’s 4,200 staff members and member country embassies are headquartered on the outskirts of Brussels.
The alliance works with the United Nations, and the two are sometimes confused – including in my classroom, where I teach history of the Soviet Union and the Cold War.
But NATO does have some things in common with the U.N. Both are international organizations that participating countries financially support. Both are dominated by the political influence of Western powers, including the U.S.
But the organizations are not the same. NATO is designed to fight war, if necessary, with its military alliance. The U.N. works to avoid war through peacekeeping, political negotiations and other means.
NATO’s key, traditional principle is “collective defense.” This means an attack on one or more members is considered an attack on all members.
NATO has invoked the collective defense principle only once: immediately after the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, when it deployed European military planes to patrol U.S. skies.
But NATO has used other political and legal means to justify engagement in the Kosovo War in former Yugoslavia during the 1990s and in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars in the 2000s. The U.S. interprets NATO’s military mandate broadly, for example, as the right to use force whenever its members’ interests are at stake.
NATO has long responded to Russian military threats and served as a bulwark to protect against potential Soviet aggression during the Cold War.
Countries could vote by consensus to respond with military force to protect members in the event of any eventual Russian attack on Ukraine. But this military force would not directly protect Ukraine under the collective defense principle, as is not yet a NATO member.
Why does Ukraine want to join NATO?
Ukraine has had a partnership with NATO since 1992. NATO established a Ukraine-NATO commission in 1997, providing a discussion forum for security concerns and as a way to further the NATO-Ukraine relationship – without a formal membership agreement.
Membership with NATO would significantly increase Ukraine’s international military backing, allowing for NATO military action within Ukraine and alongside members of its military. This guarantee of military might would act as a firm deterrent to Russian aggression.
NATO is clear about the limits of its support to nonmember countries. While it has supported nonmember countries like Afghanistan during humanitarian emergencies, NATO does not commit to deploying troops to a nonmember state.
Membership would draw Ukraine more firmly toward Europe, making it more likely that Ukraine could join the European Union — another policy goal for Ukraine. Membership would also help the country build a closer relationship with the U.S.
Joining the alliance would also pull Ukraine further away from Russia’s sphere of influence.
But regional tensions could be exacerbated if Ukraine becomes a NATO member, as Russia has said it would interpret the alliance’s expansion as a direct threat.
So, is Ukrainian membership in NATO likely?
While Ukraine is making progress toward gaining NATO membership, it is unlikely to join NATO quickly, if at all.
All NATO members must unanimously approve a new country, based on factors like a functioning democracy and “unresolved external territorial disputes,” so the Russian troops camped on Ukraine’s border pose a problem.
NATO membership is open to any European country that can “contribute to the security of the North Atlantic area.” Aspiring member countries follow a Membership Action Plan, an application process that involves countries detailing their security and political policies. It can take a country 20 years to complete the plan and gain admittance, as in the case of North Macedonia.
Former Ukrainian president Leonid Kuchma publicly announced Ukraine’s interest in NATO membership in May 2002.
Ukraine then applied for a Membership Action Plan in 2008. This process stalled in 2010 under former President Viktor Yanukovich, a Putin-backed politician who did not want to pursue a NATO relationship.
Ukraine has more recently re-energized its plans to join NATO, especially in the face of the building Russia-Ukraine conflict and Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014.
In 2017, Ukraine adopted a constitutional amendment that committed itself to NATO membership.
Ukraine then adopted a National Security Strategy aimed at developing its NATO partnership in 2021.
The NATO application process “has been dragging on for an indecently long time,” Ukraine Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said in September 2021.
But Ukraine joining NATO now would, quite simply, be a liability. The threat of an imminent conflict between Ukraine and Russia would commit NATO to take military action against Russia.