Vladimir Putin, always the adroit extortionist, has just demanded that NATO withdraw its support for eventual membership for Georgia and Ukraine, a commitment originally made at the 2008 Bucharest Summit. Rescinding that declaration is his condition for not invading Ukraine.
Needless to say, neither the United States nor other NATO countries should give in to this demand. Even discussing it would show incredible weakness, and would give legitimacy to one of the flimsiest pretexts for war in recent memory. Despite the Bucharest Declaration, neither country has been given a Membership Action Plan (MAP), which would be the first step toward meeting a series of conditions for eventual membership. Since 2008, there has been very little enthusiasm for accepting either country, both of which have parts of their territory occupied by Russian troops.
This said, NATO membership for either country has been and will for the foreseeable future be a bad idea. The Bucharest Declaration should never have been issued in the first place. The Bush administration encouraged Georgia to think that membership was around the corner, a belief that likely played a role in making that country’s then president, Mikheil Saakashvili, overconfident of U.S. support. He took steps that same year that gave Russia the excuse to intervene in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, where its troops have been lodged ever since.
Saying this upsets many of my Georgian and Ukrainian friends, but there are very good reasons for shelving the NATO membership issue for the foreseeable future. My reasons have to do with the essence of NATO. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization is a military alliance, built around its Article 5 guarantee that an attack on one member would be considered as an attack on the whole alliance. Were NATO to accept Ukraine as a member today, its members would immediately be engaged in an ongoing war with Russia—a position no member of the alliance wants to be in.
The current situation arose because of the changing balance of power between the United States and Russia. After the Soviet Union collapsed thirty years ago, the Russian threat receded and was replaced by other concerns like the “war on terror.” NATO came to be seen less as a military pact, than as a kind of political club signaling alignment with the West. Many U.S. troops were withdrawn from Europe, most NATO members cut military spending, and joint exercises and war games became less frequent up until the occupation of Crimea in 2014.
The period of American hegemony promoted some very unrealistic thinking about what the alliance could do. NATO was regarded as a kind of talisman, mere membership in which would magically confer protection on the country in question, independently of issues like force structure, geography, or military logistics. But to the extent that NATO ever had deterrent power against Soviet attack during the Cold War, it was because it had forces on the ground that could inflict serious costs on an aggressor.
Defending Ukraine from Russian attack poses insuperable military challenges. Russia shares a long border with it, and has troops already stationed on Ukraine’s territory in Crimea and Donbass. The latter region has many Russian speakers who may be more sympathetic to Russia than to the regime in Kyiv after eight years of occupation and Russian propaganda. NATO, by contrast, faces daunting obstacles moving troops and military equipment from Central Europe to Ukraine’s borders. Russia could likely get its forces halfway across Ukraine faster than NATO could call a Council meeting to discuss the crisis.
What will deter Russia from attacking Ukraine at this point is not the opening of a MAP or signature on a treaty document, but forces on the ground—Javelin anti-tank missiles, Turkish drones, modern command-and-control systems, and other military gear that can raise the costs to Russia of an invasion. The burden must fall on Ukrainians themselves to defend their country, either through their conventional military forces or through partisan warfare in the event of further occupation. And they need to be materially supported in these efforts by other democracies.
Ukrainian leaders should simply stop talking about eventual NATO membership. It is not going to happen anytime soon, and if it were to happen, it would confer zero defense capability on the country. When President Zelensky talks publicly about NATO membership, Biden administration officials are driven to ritualistically mouth support for him, despite knowing that it would never happen. This process then gives Putin further talking points in building a justification for attacking Ukraine. This does not mean that Washington or NATO should formally renounce the Bucharest Declaration as Putin is demanding. Rather, we and the Ukrainians need to take a deep breath, forget about NATO membership for now, and focus on concrete measures to raise the cost of intervention through economic sanctions and military preparedness.
The world has changed dramatically since 2008 and the Bucharest Declaration. That year marked the high point of American unipolarity, when there were no serious geopolitical challenges to American hegemony. Back then it was possible—though unwise—to contemplate NATO’s continued eastward expansion. But at that very moment the United States was finding itself bogged down in Afghanistan and Iraq, and experienced a deep financial crisis that laid the groundwork for polarization a decade later. What was scarcely credible back then is not at all credible today, and simply plays into the hands of a risk-tolerant autocrat.
American Purpose newsletters
Sign up to get our essays and updates—you pick which ones—right in your inbox.Subscribe