NATO Summit in Vilnius- Meeting between NATO Secretary General and the President of Ukraine

Autor foto: NATO

NATO’s Enlargement: How Ukrainian Membership Could Benefit NATO

NATO’s Enlargement: How Ukrainian Membership Could Benefit NATO

September 20, 2023

Author: Iryna Budz

NATO’s Enlargement: How Ukrainian Membership Could Benefit NATO

NATO Summit in Vilnius- Meeting between NATO Secretary General and the President of Ukraine

Autor foto: NATO

NATO’s Enlargement: How Ukrainian Membership Could Benefit NATO

Author: Iryna Budz

Published: September 20, 2023

There is no alternative to admitting Ukraine if NATO’s goal is to ensure the security of the Euro-Atlantic community. Leaving Ukraine exposed will only lead to further instability and Russian aggression.

On February 24, 2022, Russia began a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, committing severe crimes to exterminate the Ukrainian nation and causing irreparable environmental damage. (The latter includes blowing up the Kakhovka Dam.)[1] The consequences of the war have been visible in the whole world: squeezed supply of goods, skyrocketing prices, especially for energy. If Ukraine, however, had been a member of NATO as of 2022, it is likely that the damage could have been avoided. Today, there is a chance that NATO’s enlargement into Ukraine could be a solution with many benefits for both sides.

History of NATO-Ukraine relations

In 1992, Ukraine became the first country to support NATO’s enlargement towards Eastern and Central Europe. However, by the definition of several member-states, Ukraine itself was not stable enough to become its part; others feared the escalation with Russia if Ukraine joined, so the dialogue was paused. In 1994, President Clinton played a role in convincing the Ukrainian government to give up the inherited from the Soviets nuclear weapons,[2] but to guarantee the 1991 borders and sovereignty of Ukraine (and get ahead of Russia’s potential will to use nuclear as a lever to seize Ukraine’s territory) the Budapest Memorandum was signed – Russia was one of the signatories. In 1997, the NATO-Ukraine Commission was established to assess the development of relationships between the two and plan further cooperation. In fact, however, Ukraine was left outside of NATO with no nuclear weapons.

During the Orange Revolution,[3] becoming a member was crucial for Ukraine’s independence from the Kremlin’s influence. But, mainly due to the opposition of Germany and France, in 2008, during the NATO Summit in Bucharest, Ukraine was denied the Membership Action Plan (MAP) .

With the beginning of the Revolution of Dignity,[4] according to the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology, in 2014, 44.1 percent of Ukrainians supported joining NATO, and, in 2015, following the annexation of Crimea and the war on Donbas, 56 percent were in favour. Ukraine has become a predominantly pro-Western country, whose people were dying under the EU flag, hoping to join the EU and NATO. In 2016, during the NATO Summit in Warsaw, a Comprehensive Assistance Package was put together to support Ukraine,[5] and, in 2018, Ukraine became an “aspiring member”. In 2019, the Constitution of Ukraine was amended to include membership in NATO as a strategic foreign and security policy objective. Despite this, at the end of 2021, when over 100,000 Russian troops were deployed near the Ukrainian border, President Zelenskyy continued appealing to NATO to let Ukraine in,[6] but NATO asked for more reforms from the Ukrainian side to be eligible, overusing this pretext as an excuse for the absence of political will.[7]

Possible consequences for NATO and Poland

For more than a year Ukraine has been defending against Russian aggression. Through  defending sovereignty, independence, and democracy, Ukraine has also contributed immensely to NATO’s security and has great potential to continue to bring in more benefits.

  1. Re-defined sense of strength and unity of NATO, and improved relationship between Ukraine and Poland

One of the arguments against membership of Ukraine in NATO was that the issue divides the alliance. If we go back to what happened before Ukraine received EU-candidate status, and where Poland played a significant role in supporting Ukraine’s aspirations, there were fears of Ukraine’s candidacy dividing the bloc too, but last year the “issue” gave the EU a new sense of strength, unity, and purpose. Something similar happened with the Ukrainian-Polish relationship: with the beginning of the war, the two nations redefined their sense of unity that hopefully would lead to stronger economic, political, and security cooperation.

  1. NATO’s military advance

Since 2022, Ukraine has actively been sharing with the alliance what it had learned from the battlefield: the efficiency of methods and technologies used, the value of the local initiative, and the use of civilian support for military operations and civic defence. This significantly improved NATO’s capacity to fight modern high-intensity wars. Since Ukraine has indispensable experience in conducting information warfare, countering hybrid threats, and, at the same time, ensuring the resilience of critical infrastructure and state institutions, these skills can be used to bolster NATO’s security, once Ukraine is its part. Also, Ukraine’s capacity for technological innovation is enormous, as demonstrated by examples of the creative use of Western weapons by its military and the development of homegrown weapons and military software by civilians, later used in battle. (During Soviet times, Ukraine was a major producer of armaments in the USSR; its research, development, and manufacturing capabilities still have immense potential.) Finally, Ukraine’s accession to NATO can add new trained, motivated, and capable forces of defence to European security.

  1. Geopolitical security and stability in Europe.

Ironically “there is no alternative to admitting Ukraine if NATO’s goal is to ensure the security of the Euro-Atlantic community. Leaving Ukraine exposed will only lead to further instability and [R]ussian aggression,” in the opinion of Dmytro Kuleba, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine.[8]  Indeed, “Ukraine in NATO” could balance security in Europe by eliminating the remnants of the territorial division artificially created by Russia in Europe after the USSR collapsed and could play a significant role in Russia’s internal transformation. Throughout history, Russia was always prepared to attack countries it considered as its sphere of influence, especially one-on-one with Russia (conflicts in Transnistria, Abkhazia, or South Ossetia). When an independent country moved towards democratic governance and followed the rule of law, Russia always saw it as a threat – this never depended on whether the country was in the EU/NATO. Thus, Ukraine’s neutrality regarding NATO would never be a sufficient concession.

However, most likely, Russia would avoid conflict with Ukraine, which was backed by an alliance, such as NATO, as it had to fight the combined forces of all thirty states, and the consequences were far more severe – no economic relations with the EU and the war with the US.[9] Article 5 of the Washington Treaty states that “The Parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all” and that they agree to “assist the Party or Parties so attacked by taking forthwith, individually and in concert with the other Parties […], including the use of armed force.” [10] “[Instead] [R]ussia would understand that, so to speak, “the train has left” and that Ukraine cannot ultimately return to the zone of its influence. And, most likely, the tension would subside”, as Andrii Zahorodniuk, former Minister of Defence of Ukraine, mentioned in 2021 to “Radio Svoboda”.[11] Finland’s accession to NATO clearly supported the argument. Finland, just like Baltic states, and like Ukraine, is on the borders of Russia, but in response, the Kremlin just downplayed the importance of the event to avoid focusing on its failure to keep Finland out of NATO when the world was watching. If the threat were real, Moscow would have reacted with hostile actions in its neighbourhood after every NATO step in eastward expansion, especially, in 2004, when NATO brought in seven new members from Eastern Europe, including former Soviet states. Nevertheless, in 2004, the Russian Duma only adopted a resolution criticising the expansion and publicly complained about it.

Possible consequences for Russia

As of 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea and started a war in Donbas, Ukraine, even in its laws, had no intentions of joining NATO, and, before February 2022, being a country with ongoing conflict, Ukraine was non-eligible but Russia invaded anyways. This shows that NATO’s eastward expansion could have played a role in the cooling relationship between Russia and the West, but Putin’s actions over the past two decades proved that his goals extend further than stopping NATO’s eastward expansion. On the one hand, considering Russian rhetoric regarding Western support of Ukrainians during Euromaidan, the most probable conclusion is that Putin was afraid that democratisation in Ukraine would cause a “neighbourhood effect” in his own society – people would go on streets, demanding their rights to be respected – and collapse the authoritarian rule.[12] On the other hand, Ukraine in the EU and NATO could break his other plan: re-establishing political and cultural Soviet-like dominance of Russia over nations that once were under Moscow by creating unrest in Europe.[13]

Putin’s expansion intentions are a geopolitical strategic move. When Ivan the Terrible was ruling Russia (1533-1584) and then his son Feodor I (1584-1596), Russia, spread to the Caspian and Black Seas, and the Caucasus Mountains served as a barrier between Russia and the Mongols . Also, having a military base in Chechnya, Russia created a buffer zone and a strategic depth to fall back to if invaded (and no one would attack them from the Arctic Sea or go to the Urals).[14] Later, under the rule of Peter and Catherine the Greats, the Russian Empire expanded westwards to occupy Ukraine, the Carpathian Mountains, and most of current Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. This created a huge ring around Moscow.

By invading Afghanistan,[15] the Soviet Union had great hopes of finally having access to the warm Indian Ocean that does not freeze in winter and free access to the major trading routes in the world,[16] but instead, it was defeated, and the USSR was dissolved. Russian territory shrunk back to the pre-Communist era, bordering independent Ukraine, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Belarus, Georgia, and Azerbaijan. At the same time, Russia lost Moldova and, along with it, access to the Danube River; also, as the Carpathian Mountains curve into the Transylvanian Alps, leading down to the Black Sea on the southeast, it created a corridor into Russia again, which they would prefer to control. In the 21st century, except for gas and oil, Russia was again at a serious geographical disadvantage, so it “had to annex” parts of Georgia and station its troops in Armenia,[17]  thus, the Caucasus Mountains protected it again. In 2014, Crimea came next – now, Sevastopol became the only warm-water port[18] and gave extra capacity.[19] Today, they are heading towards the Carpathians.

Conclusions and recommendations

  1. To truly ensure Euro-Atlantic security, the alliance should finally clearly signal to Russia that it is ready to enlarge Ukraine and will inviolately do so. Since today Ukraine is more than qualified to join the alliance, there would be no need for an action plan setting benchmarks for it to meet before the accession (Sweden and Finland demonstrated such programs are not required).
  2. At the same time, NATO should consider countries like Georgia and Moldova to become members due to their relatively similar position in relation to Russia to continue pursuing more security and stability in the region.

Author: Iryna Budz, external contributor


[1] On June 6, 2023, the Russian military blew up the Kakhovka Hydroelectric Power Plant in the Kherson oblast, causing ecocide and enormous damage to the people of Ukraine.

[2] After the fall of the USSR, Ukraine became the third nuclear power in the world.

[3] From November 2004 to January 2005, a series of protests happened in Ukraine after the 2004 Presidential election, caused by massive electoral fraud.

[4] Started in November 2013 as massive protests, known as Euromaidan, in response to President Yanukovych’s refusal to sign the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement.

[5] The CAP included funds for advisory support on defence issues, training and reform, humanitarian demining operations, and disposing of obsolete ammunition and light weapons.

[6] According to the International Republican Institute, in February 2023, 82 percent of Ukrainians supported Ukraine’s accession to NATO.

[7] Finland’s admission to NATO proves this.

[8] Iryna Shtorhin, “Якби Україну взяли в НАТО” [“If Ukraine were to join NATO”], Радіо Свобода [Radio Freedom], Dec 10, 2021, accessed Sep 15, 2023,

[9] 22 member states of the European Union also have a membership in NATO.

[10] On April 4, 2023, Finland joined NATO and became its 31st member state.

[11] Shtorhin, “Якби Україну взяли в НАТО” [“If Ukraine were to join NATO”].

[12] The “neighborhood effect” is when one country sets an example to the whole region, causing changes in the direction of development of this region.

[13] In February 2023, President Zelenskyy in his speech to the EU leaders in Brussels mentioned that Ukrainian general intelligence found documents stating russia’s intentions to break the democracy in Moldova.

[14] A potential enemy would need a long supply line and a huge army to fight past russian defensive positions.

[15] In December 1979, Soviet troops supporting the Afghan communist government invaded Afghanistan to fight anti-communist Muslim guerillas. The protracted conflict indirectly contributed to the breakup of the USSR.

[16] The Murmansk and Vladivostok ports are the largest Russian posts, ice-locked for four months.

[17] After the 2008 Russo-Georgian war, the South Ossetia and Abkhazia regions were controlled by Russia.

[18] Russia has an insignificant naval presence in Tartus (Syria).

[19] Since annexing Crimea, Russia has been building the Black Sea fleet at Sevastopol, which accounted for about eighty ships and several submarines. It is too weak to break out of the sea during the war but is still hard to fight. Currently, in September 2023, Ukraine’s Armed Forces have been actively attacking the fleet to stop Russians from actively using those during this war against Ukraine.