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Not Allowing Ukraine into NATO and the EU Is Risky

Vitaliy Sizov
Crowd holding EU and Ukrainian Flag
Lutsk, Ukraine—May 17 2014: Group holding flags of European Union and Ukraine during Europe Day

This is the year for decisions. In summer in Vilnius at the NATO summit, a clear invitation to the members of Ukraine is needed…. In [autumn], a clear, positive decision is needed about our accession to the EU.

The above is part of the statement made by Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky during the European leaders’ summit which took place in Moldova on June 1, 2023. At first glance, the statement is too radical for some influential Europeans (and not just European leaders). Reality may intervene, however, and lead to the EU and NATO approving decisive actions that might seem radical to some but could prevent a worst-case scenario, the slow outbreak of a global conflict.

NATO and the EU have declared a future membership in both organizations for Ukraine, but unless they take concrete steps toward realizing these goals, the West risks getting a big military power—Ukraine—near its border that views Euroatlantic integration and cooperation skeptically.

Abundant Aid, but Little Concrete Progress on Accession

Zelensky’s pressing for action makes sense. The NATO countries and the EU member states have provided Ukraine with an unprecedented amount of military and financial aid. Exact figures are hard to come by, but at the end of 2022, amounts committed or already delivered exceeded €100 billion. The level of political support for Ukraine and support for the sanctions regime against Russia is impossible to estimate, though such support may be no less valuable.

Nevertheless, without an understandable road map for accession to both alliances, which should be provided in the nearest future, there is a risk that disappointment will grow in Ukrainian society. Today, polls of Ukrainians show that a record 86 percent of respondents support EU and NATO integration. Wartime conditions and the giant flows of Ukrainian refugees likely mask fully representative data, but the trend is obvious—the vast majority of Ukrainians support accession.

This is good news also for a peace process in Europe because open, direct plans for accession could prevent Russia from further escalation. This observation may seem counterintuitive, but here is how it could change Russia’s behavior.

Collapsing Russia’s Imperial Ambitions

The main precondition for the first and second Russian invasions of Ukraine—in 2014, when Crimea was unlawfully annexed, and again with the start of the all-out invasion in 2022—was unrelated to Russia’s military dominance or to the limited economic and military capacity of Ukraine. The main precondition was a distrust of the EU’s values and its solidarity. Vladimir Putin is an adept at Realpolitik, nurturing a cynical, utilitarian approach to international relationships. (The “hypocrisy” of the West is one of the cornerstones of Russian propaganda.)

A real step toward Euroatlantic integration of Ukraine could be the axe that finally cracks open this hard shell of propaganda and shows the Russian political elites that EU and NATO integration are not just slogans. The sooner they realize this, the sooner they will be ready for real negotiations aimed at a fair and just peace for Ukraine.

A May 30, 2023, report in the Economistshows that despite the unprecedented sanctions levied against Russia and the enormous amount of aid being provided to Ukraine, the Russian economy has not yet faltered under the burden of the war. The morale in the military could still be worse.

A decisive, transparent position paving the way to Ukraine’s accession to the EU and NATO could undermine the morale of the Russian elites and the military completely. What sense would it make to continue attacking Ukraine if Russia could never acquire the resources to prevail against the Western coalition?

Real steps toward Ukrainian accession to both organizations would, I predict, collapse all Russian ambition in Eastern Europe. As a side benefit, Russian meddling in Moldova and attempts to bring that sovereign state on Ukraine’s border back within the Russian sphere of influence would likely cease as well.

Avoiding a Turkey-like Ending

Today the situation is ambiguous. On the one hand, we see the vast amounts of aid sent to Ukraine. On the other hand, the main topic on NATO’s internal agenda is increasing the level of military expenditure by all member states to at least 2 percent of GDP. (In 2022, only seven of thirty member states met this goal.) This modest amount of military budget shows that claims of Russian propaganda—namely, that Russia is fighting not Ukraine but the United States and NATO in Ukraine—are far from reality. Were either of those entities the actual target of Russian aggression, the West’s expenditure would have been much higher.

In the case of a real existential threat, we cannot be decorously discussing an increase in the military budget. Unfortunately, not all countries understand the real scale of the threat to international security should Russia prevail in Ukraine. All Euroatlantic countries are at risk of being dragged into the ensuing global conflict—but this risk could be minimized by bringing Ukraine under the Western economic and defense umbrella officially.

Ukraine remaining outside both institutions is a bad scenario for Ukraine, but not the worst. It does not mean that the state would cease to exist or that Western help would be limited. But such a scenario could eventually prove much worse for NATO and the EU than for Ukraine.

A confrontation with modern Russia would become inevitable, and both institutions would be happy to have an ally such as Ukraine that could close the eastern flank of the coalition without requiring Allied military units on the ground. That means the NATO Allies are likely to continue to support Ukraine in the military sphere.

NATO-Ukraine cooperation has already made Ukraine the most significant military power in Eastern Europe. The level of cooperation should be extended because of growing threats from Russia. Cooperation on defense should in turn strengthen political and economic cooperation.

The EU already has experience with a huge military power that once had European aspirations but failed to move forward with them. Turkey is a member of NATO (which frequently opposes NATO’s decisions) and much more economically sustainable than Ukraine. The parallels between the two countries are not obvious now, but the same destiny Turkey faced may await Ukraine. Without a decisive step toward Euroatlantic integration, the unprecedented level of NATO and EU approval among Ukrainians could gradually subside into a more skeptical position, conjuring disappointment and feeding an anti-West attitude. This is an especially likely outcome if one considers the price Ukraine is paying in the current conflict.

Ukraine is now highly dependent on Western help, just as the West relies on Ukraine to contain Russia and the Kremlin’s imperial aspirations, but the situation cannot last forever. One day Kyiv will get on its feet and begin to move forward without international help. When that day comes, better a Ukraine that shares EU values and is inside the EU than a Ukraine—with accession continually deferred—that stops trying and has every reason to construct its own, independent policy, based on military power and an ideology of Realpolitik

The opinions expressed in this article are those solely of the author and do not reflect the views of the Kennan Institute.

About the Author

Vitaliy Sizov

Vitaliy Syzov

Journalist; Foreign Correspondent, UATV
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Kennan Institute

The Kennan Institute is the premier US center for advanced research on Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, Central Asia, the South Caucasus, and the surrounding region though research and exchange.  Read more