From the beginning of Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine, I have argued that the overarching priority of Western governments should be to end the hostilities as quickly as possible, and to do so by peaceful negotiation.
Not only would a rapid, negotiated resolution limit the suffering of the Ukrainian people, but it would also lower the current, highly elevated risk of nuclear war. When it comes to resolving this conflict peacefully and expeditiously, the stakes could not be higher.
For negotiation to have any chance of success, however, the role of NATO in this conflict must be addressed with due regard to the facts.
The role of NATO in the lead-up to Russia’s invasion
In the lead-up to Russia’s invasion, a central point of contention – indeed, the overarching issue – appears to have been the question of Ukraine’s membership in NATO.
Fifteen years ago, at the Munich Security Conference of 2007, Vladimir Putin left no doubt as to the Russian government’s deep distrust toward NATO expansion, stating (my emphasis):
I think it is obvious that NATO expansion does not have any relation with the modernisation of the Alliance itself or with ensuring security in Europe. On the contrary, it represents a serious provocation that reduces the level of mutual trust. And we have the right to ask: against whom is this expansion intended? And what happened to the assurances our western partners made after the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact? Where are those declarations today? No one even remembers them. But I will allow myself to remind this audience what was said. I would like to quote the speech of NATO General Secretary Mr Woerner in Brussels on 17 May 1990. He said at the time that: “the fact that we are ready not to place a NATO army outside of German territory gives the Soviet Union a firm security guarantee”. Where are these guarantees?
The stones and concrete blocks of the Berlin Wall have long been distributed as souvenirs. But we should not forget that the fall of the Berlin Wall was possible thanks to a historic choice – one that was also made by our people, the people of Russia – a choice in favour of democracy, freedom, openness and a sincere partnership with all the members of the big European family.
So too did a broad range of other Russian officials. As stated by current CIA Director Bill Burns “hostility to early NATO expansion is almost universally felt across the domestic political spectrum [in Russia].” In 2008, Burns wrote in a memo to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that “Ukrainian entry into NATO is the brightest of all redlines for the Russian elite (not just Putin). In more than two and a half years of conversations with key Russian players . . . I have yet to find anyone who views Ukraine in NATO as anything other than a direct challenge to Russian interests.”
Numerous luminaries of the US foreign policy establishment, including former US Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, former US Defence Secretary, William Perry, and former US ambassador to Ukraine, Stephen Pifer, warned against NATO expansion. Former US Ambassador to the USSR James Matlock stated in 1997 that NATO expansion was “the most profound strategic blunder, [encouraging] a chain of events that could produce the most serious security threat […] since the Soviet Union collapsed.” Writing in the New York Times in 1997, former US ambassador to the USSR George Kennan declared that “expanding NATO would be the most fateful error of American policy in the entire post-cold-war era.”
Tragically for the people of Ukraine, NATO powers callously disregarded these warnings.
In 1997, three former communist countries – Hungary, the Czech Republic and Poland – were invited to join NATO. All three accepted. Expansion continued with the accession of seven more Central and Eastern European countries to NATO: Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovenia, Slovakia, Bulgaria and Romania. They joined NATO in 2004. Two of those states (Estonia and Latvia) border on Russia. Then, in 2008, notwithstanding Putin’s statements at the Munich Security Conference in the prior year, NATO invited Albania and Croatia to begin accession talks and declared that “NATO Allies welcomed Ukraine’s and Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations for membership and agreed that these countries will become members of NATO” [my emphasis].
Since then, Putin has repeatedly warned NATO that Ukraine’s membership in NATO was a “red line” for his government. Nonetheless, in a December 2021 video call with Putin, US President Joe Biden refused to rule out Ukraine’s accession to NATO.
The promise NATO powers made to the USSR
The historical record is abundantly clear that, in exchange for the USSR’s acquiescence in the reunification of Germany, NATO powers assured the government of the USSR that NATO would not expand “one inch eastward”. According to the National Security Archive at George Washington University:
U.S. Secretary of State James Baker’s famous “not one inch eastward” assurance about NATO expansion in his meeting with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev on February 9, 1990, was part of a cascade of assurances about Soviet security given by Western leaders to Gorbachev and other Soviet officials throughout the process of German unification in 1990 and on into 1991, according to declassified U.S., Soviet, German, British and French documents… [emphasis added]
Attempts by NATO apologists to obfuscate on this issue cannot withstand scrutiny: NATO powers committed to leaving Eastern European countries out of NATO.
Does Ukraine have a ‘right to join NATO’?
Notwithstanding the historical record, the argument that Ukraine should not be admitted to NATO, and should agree to remain neutral, is met frequently with assertions that Ukraine has a sovereign right to join whatever military alliance it elects to join, and that Russia has no right to dictate whether Ukraine may join NATO.
After I recently tweeted an article advocating for Ukrainian neutrality, I was met with this very criticism, repeatedly. The following comment is typical of the criticisms I received:
Should the status of Ukraine geopolitically be decided by other nations? Should Ukrainians not have a say as to whom they enter into alliances with through democratically elected leaders? After all, previous to this war it was assumed that Ukraine and its people are able to choose to whom they want to associate with. Through the Euromaidan revolution and subsequent elections I think they made it clear. They prefered the EU over Russia. In statements to the press President of Ukraine stated NATO membership would be persued after a referendum. Is this not a valid process? Should Ukraine’s neutrality be determined by a cruel pragmatic reality that they live too close to a highly militarized petro-state? I read this admission as a statement that you agree that a larger state can impose it’s [sic] will on a smaller weaker state if lives are threatened. I find this to be the ultimate irony given your activism.
The fundamental flaw with this argument, however, is that it ignores the agency of NATO’s member states and prioritizes Ukraine’s sovereignty over the sovereignty of the other nations whose security interests would be affected by Ukraine’s admission to NATO.
Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty (also known, tellingly, as the “Washington Treaty”) stipulates that, with respect to parties to the Treaty:
an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all and consequently they agree that, if such an armed attack occurs, each of them, in exercise of the right of individual or collective self-defence recognised by Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations, will assist the Party or Parties so attacked by taking forthwith, individually and in concert with the other Parties, such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force, to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area.
Thus, the admission of any state to NATO could have profound consequences for existing NATO members. In the era of nuclear weapons, the consequences of an obligation to engage in collective self-defence could even be existential.
Indeed, we Canadians might well ask how NATO membership for Ukraine, a country on the eastern edge of Europe that historically has had close cultural, religious, economic and military ties with Russia, advances the security of Canadians. Does admitting Ukraine into NATO, which would oblige us to wage war upon nuclear-armed Russia (and any other state that attacks Ukraine), make Canadians more safe?
Of course, the Article 5 obligation of collective defence is reciprocal, which means that, if Ukraine were admitted to NATO, Ukraine would have an obligation to defend Canada in the event that Canada is attacked. The geopolitical reality, however, is that Canada, which shares a border with only one country (the United States), and which is separated from Russia by the Arctic Ocean, is far less likely to come under attack than Ukraine.
Also, as the poorest country in Europe, does Ukraine actually have the capacity to come to Canada’s defence in any meaningful way if Canada were attacked?
Furthermore, would Canada even need Ukraine’s assistance if Russia (or some other hostile state) attacked Canada? The United States, which possesses the world’s most powerful military, would almost certainly act decisively to prevent the entry of hostile forces into Canadian territory. It would do so in its own interests, not in the interests of Canada. Thus, the mere fact that Canada borders on the world’s most powerful state is an enormous deterrent to an attack on Canada. Indeed, no state has attacked Canada during the entire post-WWII period.
In fact, that same argument applies to all of NATO’s European members, not just Ukraine. States that are hostile to Canada do not refrain from attacking Canada because of Canada’s military alliance with European states. If anything, they refrain from attacking Canada due to Canada’s geographical proximity to the United States – a superpower that spends almost three times more on its military than China and Russia combined. The formidable deterrent of proximity to the United States would continue to exist even if Canada was not a member of NATO.
The reality – which no one in the Canadian security establishment dares to acknowledge – is that, from a security perspective, Canada gains essentially nothing from NATO membership, and yet Canada has exposed itself to considerable risk by assuming an obligation of collective defence with respect to European states. For Canada’s security, there is essentially no upside from NATO, only downside, and Ukraine’s admission to NATO would constitute a particularly bad deal for Canadians.
As far as I am aware, no Canadian politician who supports Ukrainian admission to NATO – as most of them seem to do – has articulated a remotely plausible explanation for how Ukraine’s admission to NATO would make Canadians more safe. The claim that Ukraine’s admission into NATO serves Canada’s interests is simply assumed to be true. Under the Trudeau government, Ukraine’s membership in NATO has become an article of political faith which bears no relationship to military or geopolitical reality.
Whatever one may think of the benefits and disadvantages of collective self-defence, there is no doubt that Canada and the other, existing members of NATO have a sovereign, legal right to refuse Ukraine’s admission to NATO. Indeed, under Article 10 of the North Atlantic Treaty, no state may be admitted to the military alliance without the “unanimous agreement” of existing NATO members. Thus, every single member of NATO, including Canada, has a right of veto over the admission of Ukraine or any other country into the military alliance. This right of veto reflects the fact that the assumption of an obligation of collective self-defence with respect to a new member state can have profound consequences for the security of each and every existing member of NATO.
Ukraine’s sovereign right to request NATO membership simply does not trump the right of each NATO member to refuse Ukraine’s request. NATO members remain free to say ‘no’ to Ukraine, if they adjudge it to be in their security interests to do so.
Moreover, as sovereign nations, NATO member states are free to limit their freedom of action by making commitments to other sovereign states in exchange for concessions from those other sovereign states. That is exactly what NATO members did when they assured the government of the USSR that NATO would not expand ‘one inch eastward’ in exchange for a commitment from the USSR that it would not oppose German reunification. Ukraine’s sovereign right to seek membership in NATO simply does not trump the pre-existing commitments of existing NATO members toward non-NATO states.
That said, refusing Ukraine’s admission to NATO does not mean that NATO states would necessarily abandon Ukraine. By declining to admit Ukraine into NATO, all that NATO members would do is avoid a legal obligation to defend Ukraine in the event that Ukraine is attacked. NATO members would still have the freedom to assist Ukraine if they so chose, and to do so by whatever lawful means are available to them.
By insisting on Ukraine’s ‘right to join NATO’, NATO members are throwing Ukraine to the wolves
Thus far, if Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has proven anything, it is that NATO members are (mercifully) unwilling to risk nuclear war with Russia in order to defend Ukraine. Indeed, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky effectively acknowledged as much yesterday, stating “For years we heard [from NATO] about the apparently open door, but have already also heard that we will not enter there, and these are truths and must be acknowledged.”
Preserving the possibility of Ukraine’s admission to NATO is designed to persuade the world that the U.S. government and its allies are still the boss: on the issue of Ukraine’s neutrality, NATO is saying ‘no’ to Russia simply because saying ‘no’ is what the boss gets to do. In order to perpetuate the possibility of NATO membership, innocent Ukrainians are being left to die, and they will continue to die in ever-larger numbers unless this terrible war is ended by negotiation. However well-intentioned they may be, those who insist on Ukraine’s supposed ‘right to join NATO’ are prolonging Ukrainian suffering.
Those who oppose a guarantee of Ukrainian neutrality should reflect carefully upon the now-infamous words of U.S. Democratic Congressman Adam Schiff, who publicly declared in January 2020, at the opening of Donald Trump’s first impeachment trial, that the “United States aids Ukraine and her people so that we can fight Russia over there, and we don’t have to fight Russia here” [my emphasis].
Who, we may ask, is the “we” in Schiff’s statement? U.S. soldiers are not the ones who are fighting and dying in this war. A more truthful formulation of Schiff’s statement would be that the ‘United States aids Ukraine and her people so that Ukrainians can fight Russia over there, and we don’t have to fight Russia here.’
Defenders of Ukraine’s purported ‘right to join NATO’ have unwittingly aligned themselves with the U.S. government, a ruthless ‘ally’ which evidently views the Ukrainian people as mere cannon fodder. If you are truly committed to minimizing the suffering of Ukrainians, then you should break ranks with that government and demand that NATO support the neutrality of Ukraine in exchange for Russian guarantees of Ukrainian security. And you should demand it now.