Bringing Ukraine Into NATO

The Biden Administration is pushing for a half measure.

WaPo (“Amid NATO divisions, U.S. backs incremental step for Ukraine’s entry“):

The United States is giving tentative backing to a plan that would remove barriers to Ukraine’s entry into NATO without setting a timeline for its admission, a modest step that American officials hope can bridge divisions among member nations over Kyiv’s path to joining the transatlantic military alliance.

A senior U.S. official said the Biden administration is “comfortable” with a proposal from NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg that would permit Ukraine to forgo a formal candidacy process that has been required of some nations, a move that could hasten its entry.

“This is a potential landing zone in this debate,” said the official, who like other officials spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe sensitive diplomatic discussions.

The NATO chief’s proposal, if accepted by all 31 members, would cap a polarizing debate about what to offer the government of President Volodymyr Zelensky — which has demanded Ukraine’s swift inclusion in NATO as it battles Russian invaders — when alliance leaders gather for a major summit next month in Vilnius, Lithuania.

Under the plan, NATO would declare that Ukraine can circumvent the alliance’s Membership Action Plan, a process in which candidate countries receive assessments and advice as they take steps to meet NATO criteria on defense and other matters. That would put Ukraine in a category with new member Finland, which skipped that step. North Macedonia, in contrast, took part in a two-decade MAP program before its 2020 entry.

But the proposal would still require Ukraine to carry out reforms and, contrary to the wishes of NATO members in Eastern Europe, it would not attach any time frame for Ukraine’s accession. U.S. officials said the proposal goes beyond the preferred course of NATO countries that fear that Ukrainian membership could intensify the West’s standoff with Russia. The senior official declined to name those countries, but officials from France, Germany and the United States have urged caution in the past.

Biden’s ambassador to NATO, Julianne Smith, echoed widespread concerns this month when she said that Ukraine would probably be unable to join while it is locked in an existential battle with Russia.

Consultations are underway to see if there is wider backing for the plan, the official said. “This is a middle-ground approach, and we are for an approach that can build a consensus” ahead of the summit, he said. “So we’re testing this proposition.”

As a moral and philosophical matter, I support bringing Ukraine into the Alliance. They’ve stood strong against Russia and admitting them would be a further signal that Putin’s aggression has backfired.

As a practical matter, however, this seems at best feckless and at worst dangerous. The central premise of NATO is that its member states treat an attack on one as an attack against all. Yet, rather clearly, most Alliance members—and certainly the United States, France, the UK, and Germany, the most powerful members—are unwilling to go to war with Russia over Ukraine’s sovereignty.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Kathy says:

    I don’t see any country being allowed to join any peacetime alliance while it’s involved in a war.

    Far more complicated is what kind of settlement would be acceptable to Ukraine, NATO, and Mad Vlad. If Russia keeps Luhansk and Donetsk, or they are set up formally as independent states, does Ukraine renounce all claims on them or not?

    If not, NATO would not be obligated to aid Ukraine if it should seek later to retake them. Well and good, but that if such an attempt prompts Mad Vlad, or his successor, to attack Ukraine? Can Article V be invoked then or not?

    I can see negotiations on how and when to let Ukraine in dragging on for years.

  2. Michael Cain says:

    IIRC, one of the rules is that no country can be admitted to NATO unless all land that country claims is actually under their control.

  3. Argon says:

    Can we trade Ukraine for Hungary? It would make Rod Dreher happy not having to associate with ‘woke’ NATO in his new ‘Beneditch Option’ – Adjacent Authoritarian country.

  4. drj says:

    One problem with Ukraine being automatically promised full NATO membership after the current war is that this might cause Russia to not admit defeat and to prolong low-level hostilities (similar to the period 2014-2022) simply to keep Ukraine out of NATO.

    The reality is that Ukraine will never be in a position to occupy Moscow, which means that there has to be some sort of negotiated settlement to conclude the war. I don’t think Russia will be inclined to any kind of settlement if that automatically means that Ukraine will become a NATO member.

    Russia has domestic policies/a domestic audience, too.

    A peace deal would be easier to sell if Ukraine’s formal NATO membership gets postponed by a couple of years.

  5. Michael Reynolds says:

    The purpose of a military alliance is to deter aggression. Would Russia be deterred by this half measure? Would they be deterred by full membership? Yes, I suspect they would, particularly in view of their exposed military incompetence. If Czar Vlad the Shirtless ends up creating not one (Sweden) not two (Finland) but three new NATO members, he’s bound to walk too close to a high window. Russia itself could even come apart.

  6. Kathy says:

    @Michael Cain:

    I’ve heard about that.

    I figure then there has to be a settlement in the current war, and Ukraine will either recover all invaded territory, or be forced to give some of it up.

    We’re nowhere near an end to this mess Vlad the Butcher cooked up. I don’t see either Putin or his successor ending this thing without any gains at all. Imagine how the Russian people would feel if they’d gone through so much death, suffering, and hardship for nothing.

    I’m less sure what Ukraine would be willing to cede. Having lost Crimea and endured civil war in Luhansk and Donetsk for years, they won’t be in the mood to cede anything at all. if they do, NATO membership or not, what keeps Russia from trying again later? Not necessarily another invasion, but sowing internal dissent, supporting “separatists,” instantiating civil war, or merely trying to instigate civil war, etc.

  7. Jay L Gischer says:

    This kinda sounds to me like a bargaining position. Would Putin/Russia be willing to give up territorial gains in Ukraine in exchange for Ukraine dropping a progression into NATO? They will only agree to a deal with that, if they think it’s worth it, if they think there is a credible threat of it.

    The credible threat maybe looks like: Settle with Russia on existing boundaries, then join NATO to protect those boundaries. It has to look like A) Ukraine will do this and B) NATO will do this to be credible.

    And so we hear news like this. Not saying it’s a bluff, though. Just a possible branch.

  8. MarkedMan says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    he’s bound to walk too close to a high window

    Who would do the pushing? The thing about failed dictatorships is that they can take so very long to end. Unfortunately, maintaining a dictatorship seems to be within the skill set of rulers that are incompetent in every other facet of government.

  9. JohnSF says:

    @Michael Cain:
    It’s not actually in the treaty or the preamble.

    West Germany claimed to be the rightful ruler of the former eastern territories, until IIRC 1970 and the Treaty of Warsaw.
    Which was one great big exception to the rule.

    “Not so much rules, as guidelines.”

  10. JohnSF says:


    …might cause Russia to not admit defeat and to prolong low-level hostilities

    That’s a sword that cuts both ways.
    In addition to the current “Free Russian Legion” operation in Belgorod (still ongoing) check out the number of “accidents” occurring across Russia, the increasing number of drone strikes on Russian targets, etc.

  11. JohnSF says:

    Ukraine has every intention of taking back everything, including bothe Crimea and all of Donetsk/Luhansk.
    How realistic?
    If they can wreck the Russian defences sufficiently to get to the Sea of Azov, Crimea is going to become very difficult for Russia to hold. And if that sort of demolition job is possible, they similarly have every prospect of rolling up the Russian lines at least back to the old DNR/LNR lines i.e. retaking the western two thirds of Donbas.
    If Russia has a sufficiently coherent army left to hold DNR/LNR in that srt of scenario.
    No much idea. Except for a vague suspicion that if Ukraine cracks the main defensive line anywhere, Russia will have a struggle to recover.

    Main thing being, neither side is operating with air supremacy, so “blitzing” is difficult.
    IMO perhaps the most instructive benchmark in modern warfare might be the 100 Days Battles of 1918.

  12. drj says:


    That’s a sword that cuts both ways.

    I’m not entirely convinced that Putin (or a putinesque successor) wouldn’t believe that to be a price worth paying.

  13. Kathy says:


    Ukraine has every intention of taking back everything, including bothe Crimea and all of Donetsk/Luhansk.

    I think these days, intentions only count for wealthy criminal defendants who are clearly guilty and have no defense.

    How realistic?

    Exactly. That’s were intentions tend to crash against the wall of reality.

    I understand Zelenskiy has to go all in. Fighting to lose as little of your nation as possible, is not exactly an inspiring battle cry that will foster determinativo and resistance. And I hope they can kick every last Russian soldier out. But I don’t know what to expect.

    I wonder, too, how long Western support will last. It’s cheap, as it only takes money (a lot of it to be paid to their own domestic arms producers, too). So it can be sustained for a good long while. Again, I don’t know what to expect.

  14. dazedandconfused says:

    @Jay L Gischer:
    It can be a bargaining position both ways. If this war drags on membership in NATO could be a carrot to Ukraine to accept some concessions, perhaps ceding the break away republics, ending the war in exchange for a guaranteed peace.

    Diplomats are conditioned to set up for end-game scenarios, and as early as possible.

  15. JohnSF says:

    Depends on how close to the cutting gets, perhaps.

    I have a feeling that the recent drone strike on the Kremlin, square on the flagpole with a explosive payload less than that drone type can carry, was both a taunt, and a threat.

  16. JohnSF says:

    If NATO is the carrot for Ukraine, and the former DNR/LNR and Crimea is the carrot for Russia, what is the stick for Russia if it pockets what’s offered and reneges?
    For instance, uses Crimea to blockade the Ukraine as it was, partially and periodically, doing before February 2022?
    Or reverts to restarting the shelling in Donbas again as it did repeatedly from 2015 to 2021 using “implausible deniability”?
    In that situation will the West be willing to arm and support Ukraine to a war of retaliation to retake LNR/DNR and Crimea.
    Because if not, I foresee Russia playing its old “frozen conflict” games again, and again, and again.
    Which is going to massively impact Ukraine’s capacity to get the external investment needed for reconstruction.

  17. Gustopher says:

    Ukraine has to either be brought into NATO or any peace will be temporary. That’s just going to have to be part of the final status.

    This might require Ukraine to cede some territory, as contested borders would just be signing up NATO for an immediate hot war.

  18. DK says:

    As a practical matter, however, this seems at best feckless and at worst dangerous.

    Agreed. This is asking for a US-Russia hot war. No thanks.

    Moreover, if NATO can help Ukraine repel/expel Russia by proxy, what does Ukraine need actual NATO membership for?

    Not to mention all the logistical barriers. As others point out, NATO technically cannot expand into a country engaged in active hositilies over disputed territories. Not that Turkey and Hungary would even agree to Ukrainian acension anyway.

    This is a discussion to be had 1) *after* the current crisis ends, hopefully with Putin’s thorough defeat and humiliation and 2) after European nations have agreed, promised, and guaranteed that it will take more responsible for European security, starting with its current NATO members actually meeting their defense spending and manufacturing targets.

  19. dazedandconfused says:


    Then, to you, the Ukrainian objective can be nothing less that Russian surrender and regime change as terms of peace. How likely is that?

  20. JohnSF says:


    Then, to you, the Ukrainian objective can be nothing less that Russian surrender and regime change as terms of peace.

    No, I don’t think that’s their objective at all.
    I think their absolute minimum are the frontiers of 2021 and a solid guarantee against the resumption of hostilities. They will certainly try for the borders of 2014, both militarily and diplomatically.
    They also would like compensation payments, possibly from confiscated assets, war crimes trials, and only graduated lifting of sanctions.
    But at least some of those they may be prepared to negotiate down.
    As to the surrender of Russia, they don’t expect it. They do expect to be able to enforce a peace that Russia does not like.
    Because anything short of annexation of “Novorossiya” and the subjugation of the rest of Ukraine will be a peace Russia does not like, and an utter humiliation for Putin.

    As for regime change, they’d love to see all the current leadership of Russia dead. But beyond that, they don’t much care. and I don’t think they actually expect that.
    Their hatred and contempt for the moskals is such that they expect them to just stew in their own mess.
    Basically, all they want from Russia is to be left alone.

  21. dazedandconfused says:


    IMO you are begging the question of what “Russia” wants. Even now Putin is afraid to call for general mobilization. When the war started the reaction of the Russian people was widely reported as incredulous. Putin made no to little effort to gin up his people for this war.

    Putin may be satisfied with some condition he can spin as a victory. Retaining the two break away oblasts might be enough. An agreement to return to the pre 2014 condition of Ukraine, with the guaranteed access to Sevastopol base might be as well.

    For the moment both sides believe the odds their military can achieve their objectives are high. This too will pass. The diplomats are preparing for that time.

  22. JohnSF says:

    IMO Putin at present believes he can win the “long war”.
    That eventually the west will get fed up, and force Ukraine to come to terms.

    Then he can (in this hypothetical projection of his possible option plans) either grind on until Ukraine collapses, or if necessary make a truce, end sanctions, restart “implausibly deniable” proxy conflict at a time of his choosing, work to prevent Ukraine recovering economically, prepare for renewal of full-scale war if it seems opportune.

    If the West has political cohesion, that would be mistaken.
    The question is: does the West have such cohesion?
    Ukrainians are extremely worried that the support coalition will collapse.
    With reason: Trump, and other MAGA Republicans.

    Therefore Ukraine is determined to maximise its gains this year. Probably aiming at minimally an effective stoppage of the land corridor to Crimea, when their main offensive push begins (probably late July) and shaving off a fair slice of north Donbas.
    That would set them up for a second offensive next year.

    Putin may be satisfied with some condition he can spin as victory; but then again, he may not. Or may merely pretend to be.
    The safest course all round would be to arm Ukraine sufficiently to break the Russian army in Ukraine.

  23. Kathy says:


    For the moment both sides believe the odds their military can achieve their objectives are high. This too will pass. The diplomats are preparing for that time.

    It can take an awful lot of time to pass.

    Any military can achieve the political objectives, if these are changed with every setback. For instance, based on the troop disposition and wide scope of the original Russian attack in 2022, it was clearly intended as a takeover of all Ukraine, with a decapitation attack aimed squarely at Kyiv.

    When Ukraine proved quite capable at fighting, Mad Vlad had to withdraw troops from the outskirts of Kyiv, the north and much of the east of Ukraine, while claiming everything was going according to plan.

    Next, as best as I can tell, the objective shifted to taking over all of Ukraine’s Black Sea coast. Probably to cut off much of Ukraine’s trade. That failed as well, but the Butcher’s Assistant known as Putin, kept insisting things were still going according to plan.

    I’ve no idea what the current objective is, past holding on to any gains already achieved. But I’m sure if all of Vlad’s army winds up retreating to Russia, he’ll claim things are all going according to plan.

    From Ukraine’s perspective, the objective is far clearer: expel all Russian troops from all Ukrainian territory, including Crimea. I noticed that Zelenskiy did not announce when the latest counteroffensive would start, what assets would be involved, nor what the objectives are. If you don’t claim you’ll do X, you don’t need to spin things later when you fail to do X.

    This means any Ukrainian advances or gains, be they meager, respectable, spectacular, or ludicrous*, can be claimed as being the objectives the counteroffensive intended to achieve. If meager, he can then build his forces back up, as far as that’s possible, and try again at a later time.

    I’m not claiming this is Zelenskiy’s plan or design, but it’s a possibility.

    * For ludicrous gains I mean something comparable to the 6 Day War, when Israel took the Golan Heights, the West Bank, Gaza, and the Sinai Peninsula in six days.

  24. dazedandconfused says:

    @Kathy: As you say objectives change in war, so it is entirely plausible, considering the massive failures, that Putin’s have changed, and now it’s another “peace with honor” campaign, like the one we engaged in in Vietnam. How it goes will depend on those boys in the field. They run? He loses. They fight like their great grand-pappys in Stalingrad? I suspect the cost of taking the big towns in the break away provinces will be too expensive, and certainly terribly destructive, and he just might retain that much. I am very pessimistic valor will save his bacon in Zaporizhia though. Too open. Just a matter of time before NATO equipped forces pulverize them there.

    For the Ukrainians I suspect, like Ukraine’s top artillery officer who goes by the nom de vid “Arty Green” has said, that the 2022 borders are the real minimum. They take that back and perhaps they might be open to negotiations, not before.

    Not going to get absolute guarantees that someone might or might not do something in the future so there is no point in demanding that. Diplomats must work within the realm of Doable.

  25. Andy says:

    This is such a dumb idea that I think there must be some messaging strategy behind it. DK’s points on the practicalities are entirely relevant here. But if it’s messaging strategy, then floating this is just the sort of thing that incentivizes both sides to keep fighting, as DRJ noted upthread. So, why? Boost Ukrainian morale during this difficult offensive? I dunno, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to me except for that.