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Ukraine in NATO Is a Bad Idea

The bloc must resist internal pressure at its upcoming Vilnius conference to rush into a faddish but untenable configuration.

(Anatolii Stepanov/AFP via Getty Images)

At The American Conservative's recent tenth annual foreign policy conference, congressional lawmakers laid down a series of strong perspectives on our nation's involvement in the war in Ukraine. Senator Mike Lee of Utah warned of Russia that "a standoff with a nuclear power, particularly this particular nuclear power, requires a considerable amount of prudence and judgment—not peacocking and popping off." Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky argued that America's involvement in overseas wars such as the conflict in Ukraine should be voted on. 

Multiple House members lamented the state of the war and America's sunk-cost spending on it. Representative Eli Crane from Arizona said of our nation's blank check military aid for Ukraine: "I think it's a very foolish move. I think that we're pushing the world toward a possible nuclear World War III.... It's almost like that falls on deaf ears."


These lawmakers’ concerns have merit and come at a time of crucial importance. Discussions surrounding Ukraine’s potential membership in NATO are intensifying ahead of an upcoming Alliance summit in Vilnius, where Eastern European NATO members intend to make a ruckus about giving Ukraine a pathway to membership. Recently, even French President Emmanuel Macron, who has long stood in opposition to Ukraine's entry into the alliance, has said, "I'm in favor...to offer tangible and credible security guarantees to Ukraine." 

For Americans, it is essential to weigh carefully the tradeoffs and risks associated with such a decision. While Ukraine's desire to strengthen its security ties and align itself further with Western powers is understandable, U.S. and European policymakers must consider the broader geopolitical implications and exercise prudence in assessing whether to extend NATO security guarantees to the country. 

Ukraine’s accession could have far-reaching consequences for regional stability and international relations. It is important to recognize the delicate geopolitical balance in Eastern Europe, where Russia has historically viewed NATO's expansion as a direct threat to its security interests. Indeed, perceptions around NATO’s 2008 declaration that Ukraine and Georgia would become members of the alliance were used to drum up support for the war in Georgia, the 2014 seizure of Crimea, and the war in Ukraine today. Feeding into Russia’s paranoia won’t alleviate it—it will only encourage further backlash. 

Worse, the credibility of NATO's security guarantees comes into question when evaluating Ukraine's potential membership. The ongoing conflict in Ukraine has demonstrated that Western nations, including NATO members, are unwilling to use military force to come to Ukraine's defense. If existing members are hesitant to intervene in Ukraine's war, expanding NATO to include Ukraine would raise doubts about the alliance's willingness to fulfill its commitments in the future. This undermines NATO's credibility, weakening the deterrence capabilities of the alliance as a whole. Western powers should only be entering obligations they’re serious about and capable of keeping.

Ukraine's membership in NATO could also compromise the security of existing NATO members. Russia has demonstrated its willingness to use military force to protect what it perceives as its sphere of influence. Extending NATO security guarantees to Ukraine, which is likely to be in bitter security competition with Russia for decades to come, heightens the risk that the entire alliance could be drawn into a larger conflict. While Russia has depleted its military during this war, many experts, such as Michael Kofman at CNA’s Russia Studies Program, suggest that Russia is more than capable of bouncing back stronger later. It is crucial to avoid a scenario where NATO and the United States must go to war with a nuclear power. 

Ukraine would also require further significant financial and military resources to integrate its armed forces into the alliance's command structure and meet the required standards. Given Ukraine's current economic challenges and the need for substantial military recovery, it may not be practical to expect Ukraine to meet NATO's rigorous criteria in the short-to-medium term. The burden of supporting Ukraine's defense capabilities could strain existing NATO members, diverting resources away from pressing internal priorities or challenges elsewhere in the world, such as the Indo-Pacific. 

Rather than pursuing immediate NATO membership, alternative approaches should be explored to enhance Ukraine's security and stability. Engaging in cooperative security arrangements, such as enhanced partnerships, military cooperation, and diplomatic initiatives, can offer Ukraine the necessary support and reassurance it needs in the wake of this conflict, without triggering unnecessary escalations or further compromising regional stability. A nuanced approach that accounts for the concerns and interests of NATO-Europe, Ukraine, and even Russia is crucial in navigating the complex security dynamics in Eastern Europe. 

While Ukraine's aspiration to join NATO and receive security guarantees from the alliance is understandable, it is important to approach this issue with caution. The geopolitical context, the credibility of NATO's commitments, security risks, and economic and military burdens all call for evaluation of the consequences and alternatives to Ukraine's NATO membership. By exercising restraint and exploring alternative approaches, the international community can work toward sustainable solutions that prioritize regional stability and reduce the chances of further escalation in Eastern Europe.