Thinking About the Unthinkable in Ukraine
What Happens If Putin Goes Nuclear?
One of the few positive outcomes of recent exchanges among U.S., European, and Russian diplomats has been the firm rejection by the Biden administration and its allies of Kremlin demands that NATO “never, never, ever” admit Ukraine as a member. Acquiescing to such a demand would leave Ukraine and Georgia in a dangerous gray zone, neither with NATO nor with Russia. It would violate NATO’s founding charter, which maintains an open-door policy toward prospective European states; the United Nations’ founding charter; and the Charter for European Security of 1999, which updated the Paris Charter of 1990 and reiterates “the inherent right of each and every participating State to be free to choose or change its security arrangements, including treaties of alliance.” Like the Charter of Paris, the Charter for European Security—which Russia signed and is obligated to observe—declares that no state “can consider any part of the [European] area as its sphere of influence.”
And yet a sphere of influence is exactly what Russian President Vladimir Putin seeks. Some Western analysts seem to be taking his side, arguing that NATO should close its door (as Michael Kimmage recently did in Foreign Affairs) and no longer follow through on the pledge it made in 2008 that Ukraine, along with Georgia, will ultimately become members of the alliance. Ukraine is not going to join any time soon anyway, these analysts argue, so why not make this concession to Putin in the hope it would reduce the possibility of a Russian military attack? After all, they assert, the encroachment of NATO on Russia’s borders over the years has been one of the main sources of friction in relations with Moscow.
These arguments are flawed and should be rejected once and for all. To follow their recommendations would be to reward Putin for his aggression and assign blame for the current state of affairs not to the Russian leader, where it belongs, but to the enlargement of NATO, which has helped stabilize the European continent for more than seven decades. Putin invokes NATO enlargement as a convenient excuse when his real fear is the emergence of successful, democratic, Western-oriented countries along Russia’s borders—especially Ukraine. Indeed, when Russia’s 2014 invasion began, there was not a single U.S. tank in Europe, and no prospect of U.S. or NATO missiles being deployed to Ukraine (even as the Kremlin deployed Iskander missiles to Kaliningrad). To focus on other countries’ interest in joining NATO as the cause of Putin’s aggression gets it backward: Russia’s neighbors feel the need to look to the West, including to NATO, because of Putin’s revanchist aggression.
Above all, it is a mistake to assume Putin would be assuaged by assurances that NATO membership for Ukraine (and Georgia) is off the table. On the contrary, concessions would likely lead him to up the ante, as he would view such pledges as a sign of weakness and could raise the stakes to include no European Union membership either. After all, it was closer ties to the EU, not NATO, that led to Putin’s intervention into Ukraine in 2013 and 2014.
To close NATO’s door would be to reward Putin for his aggression.
The fact that additional countries want to join NATO is a testament to the costs of Putin’s aggression and to the alliance’s success, with its nearly unparalleled record of deterring attacks on its members. It is for those reasons that Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, has made pursuing NATO membership a staple of his foreign policy, even if an invitation to join is not imminent. Closing the door to NATO, especially now, would demoralize Ukraine, make it more vulnerable to Putin’s designs, and split the alliance.
Although the Kremlin was never thrilled with NATO enlargement, it was Putin who really began invoking it as the cause of Russian insecurity, especially in a 2007 speech in Munich. This focus came in the wake of “color revolutions” in Georgia in 2003, Ukraine in 2004, and Kyrgyzstan in 2005, which made Putin increasingly nervous about his own grip on power at home. NATO enlargement became a convenient foil, an argument for brushing back Western influence and for justifying his increasingly repressive rule.
NATO enlargement was a demand-driven process. Indeed, Western leaders were initially lukewarm about requests to join from leaders such as the Czech Republic’s Vaclav Havel and Poland’s Lech Walesa. The alliance, which had enlarged beyond its original 1949 membership by taking in Greece and Turkey in 1952 and Spain in 1982, began growing again after the Cold War because countries that previously were subjects under Soviet domination believed membership in the alliance would allow them to become part of a Europe “whole and free.” It was a key step toward joining the economic and security structures of Europe and gaining security against the possibility of a revanchist Russia. (Claims that the United States pledged never to enlarge to the east in the first place have been rejected by both then-Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and then-Secretary of State James Baker.)
Russia’s first post-Soviet president, Boris Yeltsin, sent mixed signals about NATO’s enlargement eastward and the prospect of Russian membership in the alliance. During a visit to Warsaw in 1993, Yeltsin said he understood Poland's desire to join NATO and said it did not threaten Russian interests. A month later, he sent a letter to President Bill Clinton opposing enlargement but reminding his American counterpart of his expressed interest in membership for Russia.
Russia’s most stable and secure borders are with NATO members.
In 1999, the first wave of post-Cold War enlargement brought the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland into NATO. The people in these countries would sleep better at night with Article 5 security guarantees, especially after Putin, a former KGB officer, replaced Yeltsin in Moscow. Less than a year later, Putin, who was then acting president, broached the possibility that Russia, too, might be interested in joining. “I don't see why not,” he told BBC interviewer David Frost when asked about Russian membership. “I would not rule out such a possibility—but I repeat—if and when Russia's views are taken into account as those of an equal partner.”
The problem was that Putin wanted Russia to be able to join on Russia’s terms, as an equal, and not have to meet the criteria for new members. Russia was also in the middle of a brutal campaign against the rebellious republic of Chechnya, which reflected a disregard for human rights inconsistent with NATO membership. In the end, the Kremlin never seriously sought membership, and NATO didn’t actively pursue it. Nor did Russia ever make a serious effort to use the NATO-Russia Council, the consultative mechanism that was created in deference to Russian sensibilities and concerns about the enlargement process.
The next wave of enlargement, in 2004, included the three Baltic states (Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania), along with Bulgaria, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia. Russia was unhappy about this development, even though it did not cause Russia’s security situation to deteriorate. In fact, Russia’s most stable and secure borders are those with the Baltic states, which pose absolutely no threat to Moscow—though that didn’t stop Russia from fostering a massive cyberattack against Estonia in 2007.
In 2008, Ukraine and Georgia requested a membership action plan (MAP) as a step toward eventual membership. German Chancellor Angela Merkel was firmly opposed and worked out a compromise with President George W. Bush in the Bucharest summit declaration, which stated that the two countries would become members without specifying when and how. Five months later, Russian troops invaded Georgia, even though that country had not been offered a MAP. Critics of the Bucharest declaration contend that it provoked Putin into taking measures, in particular occupying parts of Georgia in August 2008, to ensure that the pledge would never come to fruition. In fact, the mistake of Bucharest was that it didn’t go far enough. It both gave Putin an excuse to stir up trouble that might lead to regime change in Georgia—he hated Georgian leader Mikheil Saakashvili and feared Georgia’s growing distance from Moscow—and suggested that Western support for Georgia was hesitant. Moreover, the summit declaration’s convoluted formulation may have suggested to the Kremlin that it had a narrow window to force change in Tbilisi. It is, of course, impossible to prove the counterfactual: that offering a MAP would have deterred Putin from invading his neighbors. But it is clear that Russian hostility toward Georgia and Ukraine and fear of their tilt toward Europe was already highly overdetermined before Bucharest, and unlikely that a vague restatement of NATO’s existing open-door policy made the difference.
For all of Putin’s recent focus on Bucharest, it similarly had little to do with his aggression toward Ukraine in 2014. In fact, there had been little momentum behind the idea of NATO membership for Ukraine. Following elections in 2010, Ukraine’s president at the time, the pro-Russian Viktor Yanukovych, signed legislation making Ukraine a nonaligned state and disavowed any interest in seeking membership; support among the population was in the low teens. So what prompted Putin’s decision in 2014 to invade Ukraine and illegally annex Crimea? In 2013, Yanukovych was on the verge of signing agreements with the European Union. Putin, concerned that such agreements would reduce Moscow’s influence in Ukraine and deepen connections with the EU, pressured Yanukovych at the last minute into not signing. That, in turn, triggered Ukraine’s Revolution of Dignity in late 2013, culminating in Yanukovych fleeing to Moscow a few months later. Putin’s invasion began right after that.
Putin was not driven by NATO but by the fact that Ukrainians had rejected a pro-Russian leader and demanded an end to corruption and a vibrant democracy that would integrate more closely with the Euro-Atlantic community. If Ukrainians succeeded in realizing those goals, Putin worried, Russians might demand the same. So he sought to upend the revolution, starting with Crimea’s annexation and then moving into the Donbas region, where Russian aggression is responsible for more than 14,000 deaths. As Latvian Prime Minister Arturs Krisjanis Karins commented in January, “Moscow is not afraid of NATO forces but Ukrainian democracy.”
Not surprisingly, after Russia’s invasion, support for joining NATO among Ukrainians has jumped to roughly 60 percent. And yet Zelensky’s push for membership commitments from Western leaders has largely fallen on deaf ears. President Joseph Biden has expressed “unwavering support” for Ukraine in its struggle with Moscow, but he has cited problems of corruption as holding back Ukraine’s NATO aspirations. Few observers, including most in Moscow, believe Ukraine’s membership in NATO is likely any time soon. In a January 19 press conference, Biden reinforced that impression: “The likelihood that Ukraine is going to join NATO in the near term is not very likely based on much more work they have to do in terms of democracy and a few other things going on there, and whether or not the major allies in the West would vote to bring Ukraine in right now.” Biden reportedly reiterated his lack of support for NATO membership in a call with Zelensky on January 27.
In a 7,000-word tirade published on the Kremlin website last July, Putin argued Ukraine was part of Russia and not a real nation. He mentioned NATO twice, but neither reference had anything to do with Ukraine’s possible membership. It is more recently that Russian officials made a major issue of Ukraine’s interest in membership, to the point of demanding legal guarantees that NATO slam its door shut on any new members in Russia’s neighborhood. They likely saw this as another wedge issue they could exploit to sow divisions within Europe, between Europe and the United States, and reportedly even within the Biden administration itself. (The State Department is more reluctant to abandon the traditional open-door policy and negotiate limits on NATO military activities than are parts of the National Security Council.)
Ukraine and Georgia have criteria to satisfy before they would qualify for membership, but both already have contributed more to NATO operations, especially in Afghanistan, than some current members. Both also have, as the victims of Russian military aggression, extensive combat experience with Russian forces and their proxies, which could provide NATO with useful lessons.
Closing the door to NATO for Ukraine and Georgia—while many Russian guns are pointed at Ukraine—would be a terrible mistake, punishing two countries that have already suffered thanks to Putin while rewarding the Russian leader for his aggression. Neither may be joining the alliance imminently, but keeping the possibility alive signals that NATO does not recognize Putin’s claim to a sphere of influence. Rather than pointing out how distant Ukraine’s hopes of joining NATO are, the Biden administration should take a very different approach: reiterate the traditional open-door policy; point out that a democratic Russia would be a potential member; make statements that address Swedish and Finnish concerns about whether the door remains open to them; and insist that Russia live up to its existing international obligations before negotiating any additional confidence-building measures or limitations on conventional forces.
Failure to keep NATO’s door open will only encourage Putin to engage in more land grabs on the assumption that he can kill aspiring countries’ chances for membership by engineering territorial disputes. NATO must prove Putin wrong, reaffirming that he has no veto over NATO membership, and that aggression will harden the alliance’s determination to live up to its commitments and make more likely the very thing he purports to fear.
The Alliance Is Too Big—and Too Provocative—for Its Own Good