The Hill

NATO Should Invite Ukraine to Join at Seventy-Fifth Anniversary Summit

Senior Fellow, Center on Europe and Eurasia
Volodymyr Zelensky and Jens Stoltenberg shake hands on April 29, 2023, in Kyiv, Ukraine. (Roman Pilipey via Getty Images)
Volodymyr Zelensky and Jens Stoltenberg shake hands on April 29, 2023, in Kyiv, Ukraine. (Roman Pilipey via Getty Images)

In July, the leaders of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization will gather in Washington for a summit marking the alliance’s 75th anniversary. Many want to use the summit as an opportunity to celebrate the accomplishments of NATO since 1949. Under normal circumstances, this approach might be appropriate. But these are not normal times.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022 has led to the largest war in Europe since World War II. North Korean missiles and Iranian drones routinely strike Ukrainian cities. Belarus is now thought to be home to Russian nuclear weapons. Meanwhile, Russia and China are growing closer than ever before. The outcome of the Ukraine war will define the contours of European security for the rest of the 21st century.

Despite NATO’s diamond anniversary fanfare, all eyes in July will be on what the alliance does, or does not do, about Ukraine. Instead of celebrating its history, NATO should make history at the summit by extending an invitation for Ukraine to join. An invitation does not mean immediate membership, but it does show commitment.

An invite for Ukraine to join NATO is not without controversy. But with some creative thinking and political will, the summit could go down in history as one of the most consequential in the alliance’s 75 years.

Understandably, some NATO members do not want Ukraine to join the alliance while it is at war with Russia. There is a concern that Ukrainian membership today would trigger NATO’s Article 5 mutual defense clause. The Ukrainians understand these concerns too. Last year, President Volodymyr Zelensky acknowledged that Ukraine “will not be a NATO member, while the war is waging.”

But the war does not make it OK for NATO to sit back and do nothing to advance Ukraine’s path toward membership at the summit. There is a huge policy space between reheating stale wording from previous summit communiques about Ukraine’s NATO aspirations and admitting Kyiv immediately into the alliance. There is a middle ground that should be pursued.

Ukraine is not seeking NATO membership at the upcoming summit. Instead, the best outcome would be for NATO to extend an invitation for Ukraine to join the alliance. The final date of membership will be determined when all members agree that the security environment inside the country is satisfactory. This reasonable approach is good for NATO, satisfies Ukraine’s expectations and recognizes the realities on the ground. In parallel to an invite, NATO members should double their efforts to arm Ukraine to win against Russia, and not just to survive the war.

There is a strong case for extending an invitation for Ukraine to join NATO. For starters, inviting Ukraine to join the alliance is the logical conclusion of what NATO has already promised. In every summit communique since 2008, leaders have pledged that Ukraine will become a member of NATO. Last year at the Vilnius Summit the alliance went one step further and declared “Ukraine’s future is in NATO.” An invite for Ukraine to join is simply the next step of a process started in 2008.

Ukraine’s EU prospects also offer an example of how a country at war can begin the formal process of joining an organization that has a mutual security arrangement. The EU has its own mutual defense clause (Article 42.7 TEU) based on the ideas of NATO’s Article 5. Yet, this mutual defense clause did not prevent Ukraine from becoming an EU candidate country in June 2022 or for Kyiv to begin accession with Brussels last December. NATO’s Article 5 should not prevent Ukraine from being invited to join the alliance at the summit either.

Furthermore, at least 12 NATO members have already signed bilateral security agreements with Ukraine, including the U.K., Germany, France, Italy and all five Nordic countries. Behind the scenes, more bilateral agreements are being negotiated with Kyiv. Last summer, the G7 nations also pledged long-term support for Ukraine. These agreements form the foundation on which Ukraine’s future NATO membership will be built.

America’s friends and foes alike will be watching the summit closely. Instead of simply managing events, NATO should start shaping them. It is time for policymakers to think in the long term. In the early 1990s, the idea of the Baltic states or Poland joining NATO was unthinkable. Today, they are some of the best members in the alliance. The same can be true of Ukraine.

Ukraine has sizable amounts of natural resources, is home to a young and tech-savvy professional class, possesses vast economic potential, serves as the breadbasket of Europe and has proven at the ballot box and on the battlefield that its destiny is in Europe. The prize of someday having a strong, prosperous and secure Ukraine in NATO is great. It is likely that a future NATO with Ukraine as a member will form the cornerstone of the European security architecture for the rest of the 21st century.

Now is the time to be bold. NATO’s leaders need to recognize the historical times in which we live and rise to the occasion. Ukraine must be invited to join NATO in July.

Read the full article in The Hill.