Why Ukraine has won the right to join NATO

The new European security order should be based on Ukraine’s security, not Russia’s. This will require Ukraine to join NATO and the EU.

Joint press conference with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg and the President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky on 16 December, 2021
Image by NATO

No one knows how or when Russia’s war on Ukraine will end. It may be a long war, or it may be a short one; it may end with the partition of Ukraine, or it may end with the defeat of Russia. Each passing day brings more evidence for an argument that Robert McNamara, US secretary of defence during the Cuban missile crisis, once made: since the dawn of time, every military leader who has engaged in combat has known that – no matter how carefully planned – the outcome of any war is inherently uncertain.

One certainty for Europe, however, is that the existing security order has been shattered. This makes Putin’s invasion on 24 February 2022 as important as the fall of the Berlin wall on 9 November 1989, Adolf Hitler’s invasion of Poland on 1 September 1939, and Austria-Hungary’s declaration of war on Serbia on 28 July 1914. By invading Ukraine, Russia has failed to comply with its broad commitments to respect the territorial integrity of other states (under Article 2.4 of the UN Charter and, at the European level, the Helsinki Final Act of 1975). Moscow has also torn up the agreements it made with Kyiv to protect Ukraine’s territorial integrity: the Minsk Treaty that formalised the dissolution of the Soviet Union in December 1991; the Budapest Memorandum of 1994, in which Ukraine agreed to hand over its nuclear weapons to Russia in exchange for another security guarantee; and the 1997 Treaty of Friendship between Russia and Ukraine, which reiterated both parties’ commitments to territorial integrity.

More than a month into the war, a second certainty is that Russia’s unjustified and brutal aggression has finally destroyed the Russian narrative that it launched the invasion to protect its security. The false arguments Moscow made about NATO expansion once convinced many Western observers and pundits, but the discussion about the future of European security has now turned upside down. As shown by Russia’s aggression and threats to use nuclear weapons, this war has been possible because the country’s conventional and nuclear strengths made it feel safe from consequences other than the West’s economic sanctions and self-constrained supplies of weapons to Ukraine (which were intended to avoid the risk of further escalation).

Since 24 February, Russia has made clear that its security is guaranteed by the roughly 6,000 nuclear warheads it has and its willingness to use them to support its aggression against other countries. However, by using nuclear threats to deter NATO and other countries from coming to the rescue of a UN member state suffering an unlawful and unjustified attack, Russia has changed the rules of the game. Nuclear powers have traditionally reserved the right to use nuclear weapons in response to a conventional or nuclear attack. But it was widely understood that nuclear powers would only use their nuclear capability to deter other such powers – and not to abuse non-nuclear states.

During the cold war, many regional conflicts between allies of the United States and the Soviet Union took place in Africa, Latin America, and Asia. And both superpowers acquiesced to efforts to arm the other side with all kinds of conventional weapons. This was not limited to anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles as it is in Ukraine today but also included fighter aircraft, advanced anti-aircraft systems, and armoured vehicles. Additionally, the US and the Soviet Union openly trained and supported their allies’ armies, deploying military advisers abroad as part of this. Accordingly, after the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan in 1989, the US armed Afghans without this leading to nuclear escalation. Even today, Iran extensively arms Iraqi Shia militias who fight US soldiers – and yet, again, this has not led to nuclear threats.

But, since Putin’s Russia has plunged Ukraine’s allies and neighbours into a permanent state of insecurity, we cannot continue to use decades-old categories to think about the future of European security.

Russia has changed the rules of the game

Imagine if – as, unfortunately, is likely – Russia and Ukraine reach a peace agreement that includes the humiliating amputation of Ukrainian territory on the grounds of appeasement (a policy that has had dire consequences since 2014). The question is: what security guarantee could Russia offer that it would not invade Ukraine again in two years’ time, once sanctions had been lifted, with its economy better prepared, and having used the time to disengage from the West and shelter under China’s wing? Or, by the same token, what would prevent Putin from invading Moldova or Georgia, or even a democratic Belarus that had rid itself of Alyaksandr Lukashenka and sought to guarantee its security by turning towards NATO and the European Union?

A new European security order will only be possible when the West finds a way to protect the territorial integrity of all states, including those that are not currently members of NATO or the EU. This will only happen if these states become NATO members, accept the stationing of permanent US or NATO forces on their territory, or – as Israel, India, Pakistan, and North Korea have done – decide to secure their own territorial integrity by equipping themselves with nuclear weapons. Of all these solutions, NATO membership is the best one for Ukraine. Given the size of the Russian nuclear arsenal, Moscow would be certain that NATO members had no intention of invading its territory (such an attack would warrant its first use of nuclear weapons). At the same time, Moscow would know that any conventional invasion of Ukraine leading to the partition of the country would meet with NATO’s use of non-strategic nuclear weapons (as with an invasion of the Baltic states or Poland).

Russia has destroyed the existing European security order and replaced it with a de facto disorder in which it uses its conventional and nuclear forces to decide the fate of its neighbours. Europeans can no longer trust Russia’s promises to respect the territorial integrity of its neighbours. At the same time, the West should take Putin’s nuclear threats seriously.

In all, a new European security order worthy of the name seems a long way off. To change this, we need to recognise that Ukraine’s and Europe’s security can only be guaranteed by NATO and EU membership, and by nuclear deterrence against Moscow’s imperial ambitions.

This commentary was adapted from an article published in El Mundo.

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

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Head, ECFR Madrid
Senior Policy Fellow

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