Why NATO Should Not Offer Ukraine and Georgia Membership Action Plans
Why did Russia deploy roughly 100,000 troops to the Ukrainian border earlier this year? The move alarmed Western policymakers from the Baltics to the Beltway about the possibility of an all-out invasion. While Moscow ultimately redeployed some of those troops and the crisis deescalated, the buildup highlights Ukraine’s vulnerability and the West’s powerlessness to Russian hard power in the region.
Russia’s foreign ministry spokesperson gave a very specific reason for the country’s moves at the beginning of the military buildup — she warned that Ukraine’s bid for NATO membership could entail “irreversible consequences for the Ukrainian statehood.” President Vladimir Putin in his subsequent address to the nation cautioned the West against crossing Russia’s red lines. In short, Russia was flexing its military muscles in no small part to prevent Ukraine’s attempt to draw closer to NATO membership. Preventing Ukraine — along with Georgia — from joining NATO is one of Russia’s key geopolitical objectives, and it is certainly one that it is willing to use military force to achieve.
The election of President Joe Biden and the prospect of a NATO summit in the summer (now scheduled for June 14 in Brussels) seem to have triggered new hopes about NATO enlargement in both Ukraine and Georgia. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said in a interview earlier in the year that if he had a chance to ask Biden a question, it would be, “Mr. President, why are we [Ukraine] still not in NATO?” In the midst of the Russian military buildup, Zelensky urged that Ukraine be invited to participate in the Membership Action Plan, which is NATO’s fast-track roadmap for enlargement, as a “real signal to Russia” and “the only way to end the war in Donbas.” The Ukrainian government reiterated its case that a roadmap for quick membership is a necessary step to confront aggression and autocracy in Europe. Insofar as Georgia is concerned, it remains a longstanding and highly ambitious NATO contributor, in the words of President Salome Zurabishvili earlier in the year, and “has shown its dedication to reaching the ultimate objective of integration.” Antony Blinken, then in the process of confirmation as secretary of state, said that NATO’s door remains open to Georgia if it meets the requirements.
In responding to Russia’s intimidation, Western countries voiced strong support for Ukraine, while the NATO secretary general declared that only NATO would decide on enlargement. However, the unfortunate truth is that NATO will not offer membership to Ukraine and Georgia any time soon. The reluctance of the alliance to do so is based on sound geopolitical reasoning and a sober evaluation of the two countries’ limited progress on much-needed reforms. NATO should not officially close its “open door” to new members, but Ukraine and Georgia remaining outside the alliance is ultimately the best policy for NATO given the circumstances.
The Geopolitical Dimension
The debate on NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia dates back 13 years, when the alliance was split in half on this very issue. At the Bucharest summit in April 2008, NATO agreed that the two countries “will become members,” without granting membership plans or specifying when and the circumstances under which this would happen. Prior to the Bucharest decision, Putin had warned the alliance and dismissed the claim that enlargements were not against Russia because “national security is not based on promises.” Russia’s aggression against Georgia later that year, in August 2008, and subsequently in Ukraine since 2014 has pushed enlargement into the deep unknown. Today, it is necessary to approach the question as honestly as possible to avoid future missteps and renewed escalation.
While NATO deplores Russia’s bullying behavior against its neighbors, none of the allies are willing to risk a military confrontation with Russia over Ukraine or Georgia. It became clear during Russia’s short war in Georgia in August 2008 that not even the United States at the height of its post-Cold War power was willing to risk a war with Russia. When Russia attacked the Donbas and annexed Crimea in 2014, NATO was even less willing to intervene on behalf of Ukraine and more worried about Russian intentions again existing allies. Granting the Membership Action Plan expresses an intention to enlarge the alliance in the near future: If NATO wishes to take this step with Ukraine and Georgia, it should go without saying that the alliance must be serious about the defense of the aspiring new members against the military threat from Russia. As NATO membership in itself will not deter Russia, the question is whether allies will be willing and able to invest in the immense effort required to make collective defense credible.
In reaction to Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, NATO put in place rotating multinational battlegroups in the Baltic states designed as a “trip wire” to assure those allies about the collective defense guarantees. Moreover, the alliance tripled the size of its NATO response force, including by the creation of a “spearhead force” to react at very short notice. A much larger U.S. deterrence initiative involves prepositioned equipment in Poland and large-scale military exercises at an annual cost of between $4.5 and $6.5 billion as a cornerstone of the broader NATO effort to deter Russian aggression in Europe. Nevertheless, Russia continues to have military superiority in the region as demonstrated, inter alia, by wargames conducted by the RAND Corporation that concluded Russia would able to overrun the Baltic states within just a few days unless NATO deployed more substantial forces until reinforcements could arrive.
If Ukraine and Georgia were to join NATO, the alliance would have to ready itself for an adequate assurance of its new members and an unprecedented conventional deterrence of Russia. Defending a country the size of Ukraine or as remote as Georgia puts in doubt NATO’s ability to deploy the substantial in-theater and backup forces and equipment this would require. It also puts in doubt America’s willingness to greatly enhance its existing deterrence initiative and not least carry the financial burden. NATO has a hard enough time showing a credible defense its current members in Eastern Europe. Extending a security commitment to Ukraine and Georgia would extend NATO requirements beyond any degree of realism. Moreover, combat troops are neither trained nor structured to assist with the gray zone operations below the threshold of collective defense that Russia may be tempted to test again in eastern Ukraine, similar to the situation in 2014. In sum, the fact that NATO seems unable to make its security commitments credible in Ukraine and Georgia would expose enlargement as a gigantic bluff that would kill NATO’s credibility as a defense alliance in any theater.
The Domestic Dimension
The case for Ukraine or Georgia to join NATO is further undercut by the reality that neither country is in control of all of its territory. Russia has annexed Crimea and supports separatist republics in the Donbas in Ukraine, and it has de facto annexed Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia. Russia is the main perpetrator, but it is nonetheless a power-political reality that cannot be ignored. The key question is: Would NATO be ready to exempt the breakaway regions from its collective defense clause or would Ukraine and Georgia be willing to give them up de jure, if this is the price for entering the alliance? Neither option seems plausible. Moreover, while a steady and overwhelming majority of Georgians support NATO membership, a significant portion of the Ukrainian people concentrated in the country’s southern and eastern parts closer to Russia are against joining the alliance.
Finally, neither Ukraine nor Georgia can demonstrate an impressive reform record that would make them obvious NATO candidates today. Ukrainian civil society argues that a Membership Action Plan could give the country the necessary momentum to kickstart security sector reform. However, Ukraine has missed so many European Union, International Monetary Fund, and U.S. reform encouragements since 2014 that it is doubtful that a membership plan this time around would be a big game changer (and besides, the Membership Action Plan instrument, Annual National Programs, is already in place). Vested interests remain a strong impediment to increased democratic control over the armed forces and to curbing the extensive powers of the security service of Ukraine. Georgia, despite a long history of defense reform since 2003, continues to suffer from politicization, the lack of transparency, and imperfect democratic control. The recent jailing of Georgia’s opposition leader shows the deficiency of its political system and the rule of law. Although domestic politics are ultimately of secondary concern (NATO in the past tolerated autocracies like Portugal and Turkey), it makes the case for alliance enlargement even less credible.
The Diplomatic Message
Ukraine and Georgia under continued Russian pressure are naturally inclined to draw closer to NATO. However, for good reasons, the alliance remains unwilling to risk a military escalation with Russia over the two countries. Nevertheless, the status quo is preferable to extending Membership Action Plans, which likely would lead Russia to escalate the hostilities in eastern Ukraine and perhaps its pressure against Georgia to prevent this from happening. NATO’s open door policy applies to Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia, and Kosovo (should the alliance recognize it) as well as to Sweden and Finland, even though they are unlikely to join the alliance for domestic political reasons. In Eastern Europe, conversely, the open door would apply only if the geopolitical circumstances there change fundamentally. Specifically, Russia would have to abandon its idea of a privileged sphere of interests that it needs to enforce militarily — and such change seems unlikely to happen in the current generation of Russian elites.
Ukraine and Georgia may again call for Membership Action Plans approaching the NATO summit on June 14. While they may realize this is unrealistic, they do so as part of a lobbying game to make NATO offer them additional support. Be that as it may, it puts NATO in an uncomfortable position because Russia constitutes a de facto veto on its post-Cold War mission to unite Europe under one security umbrella. At the same time, NATO has nothing to gain, and may in fact invite further Russian aggression, if it were to officially rescind its Bucharest declaration that Ukraine and Georgia will become members. Instead, NATO’s private message to the two countries should be an appeal not to publicly push for a plan for membership since that would force NATO to publicly state the brutal reasons why the alliance will not follow through on offering them membership any time soon.
NATO (and the European Union) members should continue to support Georgia and Ukraine politically, financially, and, to a limited extent, militarily. However, they must also leverage the implementation of defense, rule of law, and economic reform that the countries have formally committed to but which remain long overdue. NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia remains a distant aspiration. In the meantime, Ukraine and Georgia, with NATO’s help, need to focus on improving the resilience of their defense forces.
Henrik Larsen, Ph.D., is a senior researcher at the Center for Security Studies at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich. He served as political adviser for the European Union in Ukraine from 2014 to 2019. He is the author of NATO’s Democratic Retrenchment: Hegemony after the Return of History (2019). He tweets at @HenrikLindbo.