June 23. 2024. 8:55

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Is the West ready to defend the Euroatlantic space? 


NATO should invite Ukraine to a clear path to membership at the Washington Summit, write Lesia Ogryzko and Maurizio Geri.

The upcoming NATO Washington Summit in July is not only a celebration of NATO’s 75th anniversary but also a crucial opportunity to reflect on the alliance’s past and reassess its role and effectiveness in protecting the Euro-Atlantic area during these challenging times. Since 2022, NATO has not only supported Ukraine, the first European country to be invaded since World War II, but also unveiled a new Strategic Concept that, for the first time, acknowledged the Euro-Atlantic area is not at peace. This new concept identified the Russian Federation as the most significant direct threat, with China posing broader systemic challenges.

During the 2023 Vilnius Summit, NATO affirmed that "Ukraine’s future is in NATO" but did not lay out a clear pathway for Ukraine’s membership. While the summit established a joint NATO-Ukraine Council, it did not provide the security guarantees Ukraine had requested, nor did it set a timeline for Ukraine’s potential membership. The upcoming summit should therefore address these two critical elements: setting clear security guarantees for Ukraine and outlining a concrete roadmap for its membership.

In theory, there are no formal restrictions on inviting states at war to join NATO. The Alliance is not expecting a Membership Action Plan so could use a fast-track accession procedure for Ukraine, but there is a practical barrier: a lack of political will among some NATO members.

As we wrote one year ago, a minimally satisfactory outcome for Ukraine would be a clearly defined timeline and steps for its accession, not contingent upon the cessation of hostilities.

No NATO rule or regulation prohibits a country at war from joining the Alliance. The idea that a state cannot join NATO during wartime is more a political construct or a convenient excuse than a legal reality. This misconception likely stems from the 1995 NATO Enlargement Study, which suggests that countries seeking NATO membership should aim to resolve ethnic or territorial disputes peacefully before being invited. Ukraine made a concerted effort to do this by participating in the Minsk process and the Normandy format to find a peaceful resolution to the conflict. However, despite over 200 rounds of talks and several ceasefire agreements with Russia from 2014 to 2022, Russia violated these agreements and invaded Ukraine in 2022, proving that it understands only force, not peace talks.

Yet, given the current political climate in Germany and the United States, it is possible that Ukraine will not receive an invitation to NATO neither at the upcoming Washington summit. This decision sends a risky message to Russia and undermines the alliance’s strength in two significant ways.

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First, the sense of disunity and fear among NATO member states poses a threat to the security of the entire transatlantic region. Germany and the U.S. appear hesitant due to fears of escalation, war involvement, and the potential for a third world war. This fear conveys weakness, which Russia could exploit.

Second, NATO’s Strategic Concept identifies Russia as the most significant and direct threat to the security of its members. If NATO fails to invite and adequately support the country—Ukraine—that is at the forefront of countering this threat, it signals that the Alliance is not fully committed to its own strategic objectives.

To send a strong signal to Russia and demonstrate a clear commitment to defending Ukraine, NATO countries must take two actions. First, they need to recognize that this is not just a war against Ukraine but against the broader West. Treating this conflict as an existential crisis of the West will automatically boost more decisive measures. Second, NATO and its member states must view Ukraine as an integral part of the Western alliance that helps the West defend itself. Once these perspectives are accepted, NATO’s response will likely be stronger and more unified.

Regarding the first point, many political circles in the West still fail to understand that Russia’s aggression is directed at the West as a whole. Despite numerous hybrid attacks, including cyberattacks, military provocations, political bribery, maritime espionage, and sabotage, many in the West still underestimate the threat. The full-scale invasion of Ukraine was preceded by years of hybrid warfare. Western countries that feel secure may be naïve not to recognize these hybrid attacks as precursors to a broader military conflict.

Regarding the second point, some countries, particularly Germany, mistakenly view support for Ukraine as a trade-off with their own security. This mindset is flawed. By helping Ukraine defend itself, countries like France understand that they are also protecting their own security. France has shifted toward a leadership role in the so-called coalition of the willing, demonstrating a broader geopolitical understanding. Other European countries need to adopt this perspective and act accordingly.

Indeed, NATO and its member states could do more to support Ukraine and, ultimately, themselves, giving security guarantees while Ukraine waits for full membership. Besides increasing military production and aid to Ukraine, more direct involvement could be considered, especially in light of the recent Western response to Iran’s attacks on Israel. International law allows for self-defense and provides mechanisms for countries to request military assistance from others. This assistance could be given as aid to a country under attack, mirroring Russia’s tactics in Syria, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and the so-called “Donetsk People’s Republic”and “Luhansk People’s Republic”.

Poland and Romania could close the skies over Western and Southwestern Ukraine, respectively, while France, as a leader in the coalition of the willing, could, for instance, patrol Ukrainian airspace with its Mirage jets. Such actions would demonstrate true leadership and commitment to NATO’s values. These steps are crucial in supporting Ukraine’s victory and reaffirming the premise that the war is against the collective West.

Apart from these security guarantees though, the first step is to demonstrate the Alliance commitment to open doors ‘to any European country in a position to undertake the commitments and obligations of membership and contribute to security in the Euro-Atlantic area’, inviting Ukraine to NATO membership with a clear timeline. Will the current leaders of the West be up to the task?

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