Ukraine’s NATO Membership: Should It Happen Before the War Ends?

November 13, 2023
Ukraine’s accession to NATO seems untimely to some since Ukraine is at war. However, by delaying the invitation to Ukraine, NATO loses a valuable asset.
Photo credit: Reuters

Given that there are no official restrictions on inviting states at war to join, only the absence of some NATO members’ political will prevents mutually beneficial integration from occurring.

  • UkraineWorld asked Marianna Fakhurdinova, Associate Fellow at the New Europe Center, what are the arguments in favor of inviting Ukraine to NATO but not deferring the decision.

Asset #1. Ukraine has a unique military experience of waging a large-scale war in the 21st century. Moreover, its experience is against a larger and more powerful enemy.

Ukraine has also been working hard to improve its defense sector. It intends to devote 22.1% of its budget to defense and security expenditures in 2024. Simultaneously, Ukraine's military production is increasing. Thus, Ukraine would help to strengthen NATO's European pillar, especially given the criticism leveled at European NATO members for not contributing enough to the alliance's capabilities.

NATO contributes significantly to Ukrainian military training, but NATO members have been learning from Ukraine since the beginning of Russian aggression in 2014. It is more broadly linked to the use of weapons.

Ukraine has become a testing ground for Western weapons, having firsthand experience with them, providing feedback on how they work, and proposing improvement solutions.

Asset #2. Ukraine’s NATO membership would relieve the financial burden on members of the alliance, because it would be a contribution to the end of the war. The sooner Russia realizes that continuing its aggression against Ukraine is useless, the sooner NATO states could stop allocating large sums of money to provide military aid to Ukraine.

Asset #3. Ukraine has already been acting in accordance with the NATO Strategic Concept, which identifies Russia as the most significant and direct threat to Allies' security, as well as to peace and stability in the Euro-Atlantic region. Ukraine joining NATO would strengthen the alliance's resistance to the Russian threat.

Asset #4. An invitation to Ukraine to join NATO would demonstrate the alliance's unity and capability to respond to modern-day threats. Currently, NATO members are unable to reach an agreement on inviting Ukraine, with representatives from Eastern Europe advocating for such a decision and representatives from so-called "Old Europe" and the United States opposing it.

Russia could perceive the absence of a consensus on the issue as a sign of NATO's weakness, which is the worst thing to demonstrate to an aggressor.

On the contrary, readiness to stand up for common values and take real actions to provide Euro-Atlantic security would demonstrate NATO's strength and prevent the spread of instability.

There is a general consensus that a country cannot join NATO if it is at war. On a legal level, this is incorrect.

No document or rule prevents a state at war from joining NATO.

The roots of this misconception can be found in the 1995 NATO Enlargement Study. In the document, there’s a recommendation that a key criterion for the states at war to join NATO is that they should strive to settle either ethnic or territorial disputes peacefully.

Ukraine has done everything possible to resolve the conflict with Russia peacefully. The government held around 200 rounds of talks with Russia from 2014 to 2022, and 20 cease-fire agreements were reached, all of which were violated by Russia. On February 24, 2022, Russia escalated its aggression by launching a full-scale invasion. As a result, Ukraine meets the criterion stated above.

Moreover, the Study on NATO Enlargement states that every decision on inviting a new NATO member should be made on a case-by-case basis. So, the sole obstacle to Ukraine’s membership is the political will of the alliance members.

Ukraine can be invited for membership only at a particular event - the NATO summit. Ukraine hoped to receive it at the Vilnius Summit 2023. Even though the goal wasn’t achieved at that time, Ukraine still received substantial support from its partners.

MAP fulfillment for Ukraine has been canceled. Another important achievement was that France joined the club of states that supports Ukraine’s NATO membership. So, there are signs that step-by-step and summit-by-summit Ukraine moves closer to NATO. Ukraine is gaining more compatibility and interoperability with NATO. It is enacting reforms, and Ukraine's EU integration process is assisting greatly in this regard.

The next summit will be held in Washington, D.C. It is unclear whether Ukraine will be invited to the membership, especially given the domestic political processes in a number of member states.

In this context, it is important to emphasize that, while Ukraine strives to become a NATO member, what we are asking for now is just an invitation to join - a first step in a lengthy accession process.

Anastasiia Herasymchuk, Deputy Editor-in-Chief at UkraineWorld

Marianna Fakhurdinova, Associate Fellow at the New Europe Center