With Russia massing troops on Ukraine’s border and demanding an end to NATO enlargement, a heated international debate has broken out over whether limits on future membership in the alliance might resolve the crisis and avert war. Some have argued that it is time to close the door to new members, while others argue it would be a grave mistake to let Russian President Vladimir Putin dictate the terms of European security. Yet one all-important question has been missing from the debate: what being welcomed into NATO—or kept out—would mean for Ukraine itself. 

Instead of looking at what is at stake for Ukraine, much commentary has centered on the alliance’s founding rules and principles, especially the open-door policy. The countries that created NATO at the start of the Cold War expected to admit new members over time, and doing so has served the alliance well. The addition of Germany, Greece, and Turkey in the 1950s and Spain in the 1980s made NATO stronger. After the Soviet Union collapsed, the prospect of EU and NATO membership offered eastern European governments an extra incentive to create Western-style institutions. 

Even so, the case for keeping the door to membership open to everyone for all time—just because that approach worked well in the past—is unlikely to persuade those who believe peace now hangs in the balance. The alliance, after all, made a famous exception to the policy once before, because it believed that doing so would strengthen European security. In 1955, the victorious powers of World War II—France, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, and the United States—signed a treaty guaranteeing Austria’s permanent neutrality. Today, those who want to keep Ukraine out of NATO are asking, Why, if this agreement showed creative Cold War statesmanship in 1955, is something like it out of bounds in 2022?

Whether Ukraine qualifies for membership is another divisive part of the debate, even though no one claims the country does. U.S. President Joe Biden and other Western leaders routinely declare that in failing to overcome systemic corruption, Kyiv has not met the criteria that would make it a credible candidate. Some alliance members doubt Ukraine will ever qualify to join—and hint that they will never vote to admit it. This way of talking about the issue only adds to the determination of those who favor an explicit and permanent ban to keep Ukraine out. If war can be averted simply by agreeing not to do something that no one really wants or expects to do anyway, they ask, then why not agree?

In the debate over Ukraine’s possible membership in NATO, neither side takes the other seriously anymore. Those who stand by the open-door policy sound to their critics like defenders of a meaningless principle, not serious diplomatic problem-solvers. Meanwhile, those who favor a permanent ban sound like enablers of Russian imperialism. Each side claims the other threatens the peace and security of Europe.

Both sides may actually be right. Understanding why, however, requires a different debate—one that looks at what being admitted to NATO or kept out permanently would mean for Ukraine. A definitive resolution of its status—one way or the other—would in fact do the country far more harm than good. It would deepen Ukraine’s internal divisions, undermine its stability, and keep the region as a whole in crisis. A serious effort to promote European security needs to focus not only on how to satisfy the great powers but also on how to hold together the country they are so vehemently arguing about. Proposals that ignore Ukraine itself cannot strengthen European security.  

DIVIDED LAND

Consider what bringing Ukraine into NATO would mean for the country’s domestic politics. Putin’s famous remark to U.S. President George W. Bush in 2008 that Ukraine is “not a real country” was a ridiculous exaggeration of the country’s linguistic, ethnic, and religious cleavages. Even divided countries can have national identities, loyal citizens, free elections, and strong institutions. Still, good policy should unite rather than divide, and there is little doubt that in Ukraine’s east—where Russian faith, language, and culture are the strongest—many people do not want to feel cut off from Russia or in a state of permanent hostility, much less war, with it. If they feel pushed into confrontation with their eastern neighbor, they will be more receptive to extremist political appeals, more willing to excuse violent opposition to the government in Kyiv, and more tolerant of Russian meddling. More likely, in other words, to feel they are not part of a real country and owe it nothing.

For many Ukrainians, NATO membership has unfortunately become a civilizational marker of sorts. Polls now put support for joining the alliance at 60 percent or more—a significant increase from a decade ago, when sentiment was evenly divided. By seizing Crimea in early 2014 and launching a separatist war in eastern Ukraine, Russia made itself the main external threat to Ukrainian unity, sovereignty, and security. Those who say Putin has unified Ukraine and pushed it westward are right. 

For many Ukrainians, NATO membership has unfortunately become a civilizational marker.

Yet the country’s pre-2014 divisions have hardly disappeared. Attitudes toward NATO still vary widely from region to region, and the intensity with which they are held has inevitably increased. Eight years into the separatist standoff in eastern Ukraine, some people there have clearly turned against Russia for bringing them so much grief. Others, meanwhile, denounce the government in Kyiv for its inability—unwillingness, they say—to end the conflict. In this setting, the United States and its allies should aim to keep the latter group as small as possible. Ukraine’s future depends on how many of its citizens want to be part of it.

These realities—not Biden’s list of qualifications for NATO membership and certainly not Putin’s claim that he feels threatened by a handful of U.S. advisers helping train and equip Ukraine’s army—are the true reason that bringing the country into NATO any time soon would be a bad idea. But here is where those who favor the Austrian neutrality model need to take a deep breath. Permanently barring Ukraine from NATO membership could destabilize the country just as much as bringing it into the alliance would, and for largely the same reasons. 

CAUGHT IN THE MIDDLE

Just as many Ukrainians in the east fear that joining Western institutions will make them enemies of Russia, many in the rest of the country are fiercely determined to continue integrating with the West. A permanent roadblock on the path to NATO membership would dash their hopes. Worse, it would seem to consign them to a Russian sphere of influence in which all important national decisions would be subject to Moscow’s veto.

In their fury at this outcome, some Ukrainians might blame spineless, unsupportive Western politicians. But many more would direct their anger at those of their fellow citizens who they felt had betrayed their country and opened it up to Russian manipulation. Ukraine would become harder to govern. Partisan politics would become more ethnically driven and consumed by the search for an enemy within. And radical militias, which Kyiv has sought in recent years to bring under its control, would once more proliferate. 

To integrate into Western institutions, Ukraine has to better integrate itself.

Previous efforts to cut Ukraine’s ties to the West have triggered precisely this type of instability. The Maidan uprising that brought down President Viktor Yanukovych in 2014 began when he broke his promise to seek closer relations with the European Union and chose alignment with Moscow instead. Although Ukraine has made progress toward national unity since then—all three of the major presidential candidates in 2019, for instance, were from Russian-speaking areas—other signs of polarization have increased. Politicians and officials considered too ready to deal with Moscow are regularly accused of treason. (That is the astonishing new charge against former President Petro Poroshenko, who stands accused of overseeing coal purchases from separatist areas to keep the lights on in the rest of the country.)

Most Western discussion of permanently postponing NATO membership for Ukraine seems to assume that its citizens would swallow their disappointment and carry on. This is almost surely wrong. They are far more likely to take their disappointment out on each other. Just ten years before Austria accepted neutrality in 1955, it had been part of the Third Reich. Its citizens were not divided by rival affinities for Moscow and Washington. Being kept out of the Cold War did not destabilize their country. In Ukraine, no one should take such a result for granted.   

STRAIGHT TALK

If neither permanent exclusion from NATO nor early inclusion are good options, some Western policymakers may conclude the best path is continuing—or even increased—strategic ambiguity about how open the door to membership really is. In diplomacy, double talk is often a good choice. But the better way to avoid the drawbacks of leaning too far in either direction is to give the issue as little attention as possible. NATO’s 2008 Bucharest summit declaration, which said Ukraine would someday become a member, showed how easily policy sleight of hand can backfire. The statement added to Moscow’s grievances without deepening Kyiv’s unity. Far better to have said nothing at all.  

At this moment of national emergency, moreover, Ukraine hardly needs more equivocal talk. It needs unequivocal help. To survive and become more unified over the long term, it has to survive in the short term. It needs weapons and training, trade and investment, and solidarity. It needs international recognition as a real country that is trying to hold itself together. It needs advocates who push back against Putin’s threats and his absurd claims that Western help threatens Russian security. 

Yet neither verbal ambiguity nor single-minded support will by themselves produce an effective, sustainable policy toward Ukraine. That requires more open, honest, and straightforward talk about why the country is not a good candidate either for NATO membership or Austrian-style imposed neutrality. Such an approach would have three important and clarifying results.

The first involves the way the United States and its allies think about European security. A peaceful Europe—“whole and free” as President George H. W. Bush described it in 1989—depends just as much on the stability of smaller states as on the agreement of great powers. A deal that exacerbates division within Ukraine—with its more than 40 million people, not a small state at all—undermines the security of all Europe. The most powerful case against a Russian sphere of influence that covers Ukraine is not that it would be immoral but that it would be destabilizing.

Greater honesty about Ukraine and NATO can also help Western governments speak more constructively to Putin. A refusal to permanently settle the issue of alliance membership will frustrate him. Ever ready to take offense, he may even dislike hearing that one reason for a neither-in-nor-out stance on Ukraine’s membership is to limit Russian meddling and malevolence. But Putin can, if he chooses, also find some reassurance in a Western understanding of Ukraine’s divisions that, at least in part, overlaps his own. Putin would continue to deny that this divided country deserves respect; Western governments should continue to insist that it needs support. But they would at last be talking about the same thing. Let Moscow and Washington argue about whose ideas can best achieve security and stability.

Finally, honest talk about NATO membership can put discussions with Ukraine’s leaders on a better footing. They also know—and should hear from their friends—that the country’s divisions are its greatest vulnerability. To integrate into Western institutions, Ukraine has to better integrate itself. Western governments should offer to help Ukraine achieve that goal through increased economic, political, and even military support. But real national unity—probably a generational enterprise—has to be Ukraine’s own project. Nothing else can bring the country’s other goals within reach.

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  • STEPHEN SESTANOVICH is George F. Kennan Senior Fellow for Russian and Eurasian Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Professor of International Diplomacy at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs.
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