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  • Writer's pictureJames Maclaren

Is joining NATO an answer to future crisis in Ukraine?

By: James Maclaren

In 1997 I was talking to a Ukrainian Lieutenant General and his colleagues in a comfortable officers’ mess on the outskirts of London. The talks were part of the NATO PFP programme, a U.S. led initiative to provide security to a large group of nations struggling to untangle themselves from communism and wary of a new Russia that was down but not beaten. PFP gave eastern European nations some security while their economies, societies and militaries transitioned but fell short of the firm security guarantees that came with NATO membership.

‘If we don’t join NATO,’ the general told me, ‘Then at some point we will have to fight Russia. They simply will not forgive us.’

Ukraine did not join NATO, the West baulked at pushing the Russian bear too far in its near-abroad and the general was right. Sitting as a buffer between the East and the West, Ukraine has with its limited economy and resources done its best to pull away from the gravitational pull that Russia exerts – it may well have overstepped the mark in emphasising its nationalism. That country was not completely abandoned by western powers. Behind the fragile curtain of diplomacy military assistance has been given, access to intelligence resources, funding for discreet capabilities. The UK in particular has remained extremely active in supporting Ukraine and has quietly done so when many in Europe, as is often the case, turn inwards on the world’s problems to be left behind and flat-footed when crisis erupts.

None of this was enough to stop Russia from pursuing its ambition of restoring itself as a great power. Emboldened by the lack of meaningful reaction to the annexation of the Crimea, it was only time before Russia turned its attention to Ukraine proper. While the so-called Special Military operation has not gone to plan; regime change was not possible and the Ukrainian preparation to fight over territory they have had two decades to plan was good, there is now no turning back the clock. But Russia has enormous resources, and it is regrouping to grind out an eventual victory. The high-tech western weapons shoring up Ukrainian resistance are simply too few in number and Ukraine does not have the military-intelligence-technology eco-system, especially in air power to use them beyond tactical success. Emboldened by optimistic western commentary and inspiration at some offensive progress in the autumn it has massed the resources to try and push back the Russian invade. But the lack of Ukrainian combat power means its much-vaunted counter-offensive is already stalling. Western weaponry, too few and too difficult to replace, is being lost as the Russian forces absorb the blows that Ukraine can inflict.

So, the conflict returns to the political battlefront as the West identifies what it can do to help the Ukrainians to an unlikely victory with words and statements. The notion of Ukraine joining NATO after the Ukrainian victory is mooted. The theory being that Russia would no longer dare attack a nation protected by NATO Treaty, specifically the Article 5 clause of collective response. Calls for more NATO engagement increase and the strategic wish of Ukraine edges closer.

But although Ukrainian diplomats are trying to put substance on the words of NATO diplomats, there is not much chance that such a move could happen and Russia knows it. The words of support at summits and press conferences will continue, and even within the inner workings of the Alliance itself the move to admit Ukraine to the organisation will create passionate debate. Certainly, there is popular support for throwing a protective geo-strategic arm around Ukraine (only after they have won). But behind the media messaging curtain, amongst the individual members there will be mixed feelings on the wisdom of granting Ukraine the status it is desperately seeking. Sending strong messages to Moscow is one thing, actually allowing Ukraine into its club is quite another. Face painting, Euro song competitions, yellow and blue emojis, hugs and brave walks on Kiev streets are useful public signals, but inviting Russian retaliation against your energy supplies is a new level of risk for countries who are not sure the price of a Ukrainian security guarantee should be a new cold war and economic confrontation.

While support would be greater amongst those Eastern European countries who still recall with feeling the grip of the communist yoke on their societies and who look at Ukraine and think: ‘That could have been us’, a more hardened approach is taken by the U.S. who would inevitably shoulder the hard burden of increased military deployments in Eastern Europe and Germany which from the long shadows of history prefers strategic rapprochement with its vast eastern neighbour. Certainly, there is no appetite for the major increases in defence expenditure that a further NATO expansion and one that is contentious confronting a powerful strategic rival. The risk of a Russian reaction is too large and the cost of maintain forces at the necessary level of deterrence against a wounded, strategically insecure adversary with over 3,000 nuclear warheads is too great.

So, the rhetoric of Ukraine joining NATO is just that: rhetoric. But it is another politicking ratchet in the political machinery that draws the risk of conflict between Russia and the West closer. The notion of NATO membership will continue mainly because the West has very little else to offer. If Ukraine is unable to break the Russian stranglehold on its eastern lands, if the incremental infusion of available western military equipment does nothing more than allow Ukrainian forces to maintain the current operational stalemate, what is the way forward?

Even if the circumstances to support Ukrainian accession could come to pass after a peace of sorts is arrived at in the present conflict would the region become safer? This seems unlikely. The Ukrainian eastern regions and a future NATO boundary will be contested and in a special state of tension even when the guns fall silent, not least from a dangerous Russian-backed insurgent movement. Even if NATO was willing to have its fingers in the mangle of such an ongoing conflict the risk it would be exposed to a state-on-state conflict of global proportions would be enormous.

So, while politicians struggle to offer anything meaningful the notion that the West will formally offer NATO membership is a false one.

NATO accession is no more a long-term solution to the Ukraine-Russia situation. It could have been and the people who did not ask for war have been let down by political decisions that did not accurately predict a foreseeable future. They have been let down by the strategic failure of the West to allow Ukraine the protection of NATO when it could have been offered and when Russia was too feeble to have done anything about it. At the turn of the century the West’s principal interest was not Ukraine. At the time rehabilitation of Russia was the priority and the long-term security of Ukraine the price.

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