Why Ukraine's hope of NATO membership drives conflict with Russia

WASHINGTON — Visiting Kyiv in early 2008, then-President George W. Bush told Ukrainian leader Viktor Yushchenko that it was time that the Eastern European nation join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or NATO, a military alliance between the United States and European nations meant to serve as a bulwark against the Soviet Union and, after communism’s collapse, Russia.

“Helping Ukraine move toward a NATO membership,” Bush said, “is in the interest of every member in the alliance and will help advance security and freedom in this region and around the world.”

Fourteen years later, Ukraine remains outside the alliance. And President Biden said on Friday that he was “convinced” that Putin has decided to invade Ukraine. With war looming, the issue of NATO membership has emerged as a complex one for President Biden and his European allies. Experts are divided on whether NATO creep into Eastern Europe is central to Russia’s concerns — and how those concerns should be treated by the United States.

“Putin is like a neighborhood bully," John Sipher, who worked in the Central Intelligence Agency’s station in Moscow in the 1980s and supports the U.S. and its allies clearly endorsing Ukrainian membership of NATO, told Yahoo News. “Every time you give concessions, he just looks for more. Essentially, you’ve got to punch him in the nose.”

Others say that while many Ukrainians yearn to pull closer to the West — away from its vastly more powerful neighbor to the East — signaling plans to expand NATO to Ukraine would further destabilize a complex region, where alliances and animosities sometimes date back centuries.

“NATO membership has unfortunately become a civilizational marker of sorts,” Stephen Sestanovich of the Council on Foreign Relations recently wrote in Foreign Affairs. Ukrainians support membership by a 3-2 margin, but Sestanovich thinks long-standing geographic and generational divides suggest the country isn’t ready for membership.

“To integrate into Western institutions,” Sestanovich wrote, “Ukraine has to better integrate itself.”

National cohesion in the most literal sense has been difficult since 2014, when Russia first invaded Ukraine, seizing Crimea and a region called Donbass, on the country’s eastern border. Ukrainians opposed the land grab but could do little about it, thus conceding the territory to Russia and allowing Putin to perpetuate his illegal claims. Until recently, the situation remained restive but more or less stable. But then in December, Putin commenced what the Pentagon described as “unusual military activity” that suggested some kind of move.

A member of the Ukrainian Military Forces on the frontline with Russia-backed separatists
A member of the Ukrainian Military Forces on the frontline with Russia-backed separatists. (Anatolii Stepanov/AFP via Getty Images)

Putin has long been frustrated with NATO’s steady expansion into what is effectively his backyard. The Baltic states — the former Soviet republics of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia — joined NATO in 2004. Not wanting to see a similar situation develop elsewhere, Putin has sought ironclad assurances that Ukraine and other former Soviet republics won’t be allowed to join the alliance.

Explicit assurances of the kind Putin insists on have not yet come from the West, even if it is clear that neither Biden nor any of his European counterparts is willing to risk enraging Putin by offering Ukraine concrete hopes of membership. “Ukraine is not a member of NATO and, to my knowledge, will not be for a while,” a French official recently told the New York Times.

“Obviously, we can't give them a formal assurance,” Benjamin Friedman, a policy scholar at the think tank Defense Priorities, told Yahoo News.

Yet leading Ukraine to believe that membership is forthcoming makes for no more sound policy, Friedman went on to say. “Since we're not going to expand to Ukraine anyway and that’s fairly clear — why not just admit it?”

The resulting situation is one that has left all parties confused and dissatisfied, while also serving as a reminder that the postwar order that has been in place for nearly 80 years is becoming increasingly difficult to maintain, given the currents of nationalism and xenophobia now sweeping across the weary continent.

Putin’s intentions are difficult to read and some wonder if NATO membership truly matters to the Russian leader or if he is merely using the issue as a justification for picking a fight with a much smaller, weaker nation.

“The crisis that Putin has created here is not about NATO. It’s all about crushing Ukrainian democracy,” said Paul Massaro, a senior policy adviser at the U.S. Helsinki Commission, a congressional panel that works on Russia-related matters.

Massaro said that Putin views Ukraine as a threat not only because it has sought to orient itself with the West but because its experiment with democracy could seem increasingly attractive to Russians who have grown weary of living under autocracy.

​"Putin is trying to put a few more decades on a system that is unsustainable," Massaro told Yahoo News in a phone interview.​

Vladimir Putin
Russian President Vladimir Putin. (Sergei Guneyev/TASS via Getty Images)

That effort has been going on for some time. In 2004, when he was the pro-Western opposition leader, Yushchenko was mysteriously poisoned in what appeared to be an assassination attempt. Russia denied responsibility, but poisoning is a favored Kremlin method of dispensing with Putin critics. Yuschenko appeared to win the subsequent election, only to have the pro-Kremlin Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych claim victory.

Protesters took to the streets in what came to be known as the Orange Revolution, an assertion of independence from Russia and its heavy-handed politics that, in many ways, explains the tensions at work today.

Biden has tried to reassert American leadership on the global stage by threatening Putin with severe sanctions if he attacks Ukraine. And although the United States has deployed troops to Europe, he has said there will be no military engagement between the U.S. and Russia.

If Ukraine was a NATO member, on the other hand, the treaty’s collective defense clause, known as Article 5, would require other members to fight on Ukraine’s behalf. Were Putin to invade one of the Baltic nations, for example, war would be all but assured because those states fall under NATO obligations.

Friedman said Ukraine would be best served by a frank acknowledgement that NATO membership is not forthcoming. “They can keep their sovereignty if they compromise with Russia," he told Yahoo News, instead of continuing to seek alignment with the West.

Americans weary with foreign wars want Biden to simply tell Ukraine that the road is blocked entirely. “Biden can very easily prevent a war with Russia by guaranteeing that Ukraine will not become a member of NATO,” said Tulsi Gabbard, the isolationist former presidential candidate. “It is not in our national security interests for Ukraine to become a member of NATO anyway, so why not give Russia that assurance?”

NATO hews to an open-door policy that stipulates each country “has the right to choose for itself whether it joins any treaty or alliance,” without being pressured by superpowers like Russia. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky acknowledged the complex realities of the situation. “The road to NATO and the EU is a very long one," Zelensky said earlier this week, referencing the European Union, which Ukraine would also like to join.

Of course, pressuring Ukraine to drop its NATO aspirations would be a fraught proposition. Biden has described the current geopolitical moment as one in which democratic governance is struggling against the rise of autocracy. Few world leaders represent autocratic rule more than Putin, while Ukrainians’ thirst for democracy has been plain for more than a decade.

Allowing Ukraine to join NATO would help protect its democratic institutions, but could come at the cost of war. On the other hand, appeasing Putin could prove a problem of its own, leaving Ukraine in limbo while emboldening the Kremlin once more.

“He’s never going to be satisfied,” former CIA officer Sipher said of Putin. “He can only be deterred.”

This article was updated to more accurately reflect John Sipher's work for the CIA in Moscow.