Compromise at Vilnius: Ukraine’s path to NATO membership

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An alliance divided

Ukraine insists on Western security guarantees and eventual NATO membership to protect it from future Russian aggression. The NATO allies are very divided on this key question, but feel a strong need to preserve unity, in both appearance and fact, at the alliance’s summit in Vilnius next month.

Membership minus

At the Vilnius summit, NATO will not offer Ukraine an invitation to join – but it will offer the country some sort of path to membership, a sort of ‘Bucharest plus’ that builds on the 2008 Bucharest summit promise that Ukraine will eventually join NATO.

  • The wording will be original, highly negotiated, and thus open to interpretation. But in the end, it will be a form of compromise that provides a perspective for Ukraine (and by extension Moldova) to understand what it needs to do to achieve membership in the future.
  • The unspoken US concept will be that membership will only come when the current war, or at least the current fighting, ends. That proviso, however, will likely only be implicit in the summit communiqué.

Inexorable promises  

The allied divisions over NATO membership for Ukraine run deep:

  • The United States and Germany feel membership would lock in conflict with Russia and perhaps result in direct Russia-NATO war, possibly including a nuclear exchange.
  • The easterners, the Nordics, and even now France feel that conflict is already locked in. Membership will deter Russia from new attacks or escalation to other parts of Ukraine. They want an accelerated path to membership that relieves Ukraine of some of the usual conditions for joining.
  • Most of the rest of the allies are keeping quiet, but probably dreading the prospect of importing the Russia-Ukraine conflict into NATO. Nonetheless, they will not get in the way of an agreement between the US and the easterners.
  • As always on NATO issues, Turkey and Hungary remain uncontrollable wild cards.

However, this fight over membership is not so different to previous rounds of NATO enlargement. Since the end of the cold war, the US has had a policy of non-expansion of NATO that has been remarkably unsuccessful.

In each case, a combination of supporters among the NATO allies and supporters in the US Congress convinces the American president that, in the interests of allied unity and his domestic political standing, he needs to move forward. He then usually looks for a compromise in the mould of the “Partnership for Peace” of the 1990s or the “Membership Action Plan” of the 2000s that seeks to preserve unity while avoiding the final question of membership. But that very action increases the momentum towards membership until it eventually becomes unavoidable.

Today, the consequences of Ukrainian membership are potentially more dire, but the need for unity is greater and the domestic pressure to look strong in the face of Russian aggression is ever more intense. President Joe Biden will find a compromise at Vilnius, but he will not be able to hold back the impetus the agreement will create.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Research Director
Director, US Programme

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