The reason the US won’t guarantee Ukraine joining Nato

Kyiv is frustrated by the West’s lack of guarantees on accession to the alliance, as nations weigh up some difficult decisions


11 July 2023 • 9:02pm

Ukraine’s future is in Nato and it will not have to complete the alliance’s Membership Action Plan(MAP) when it joins.

The promise to skip the MAP is significant, and the mere inclusion of the word “invitation” was far from guaranteed.

But those victories are marred by the accompanying caveats.

It will join the alliance only “when allies agree”and “conditions are met” – in other words, it could be today, tomorrow, or 100 years down the line.

To put it politely, Nato’s Vilnius communique is that unhappiest of documents: a show of strength written by committee.

Volodymyr Zelensky, the Ukrainian president, was less generous. “It is unprecedented and absurd,” he said in a decidedly undiplomatic Twitter rant.

“We value our allies. We value our shared security. And we always appreciate an open conversation. Ukraine will be represented at the NATO summit in Vilnius. Because it is about respect. But Ukraine also deserves respect. Now, on the way to Vilnius, we received signals that certain wording is being discussed without Ukraine. And I would like to emphasize that this wording is about the invitation to become NATO member, not about Ukraine’s membership. It’s unprecedented and absurd when time frame is not set neither for the invitation nor for Ukraine’s membership. While at the same time vague wording about “conditions” is added even for inviting Ukraine. It seems there is no readiness neither to invite Ukraine to NATO nor to make it a member of the Alliance. This means that a window of opportunity is being left to bargain Ukraine’s membership in NATO in negotiations with Russia. And for Russia, this means motivation to continue its terror. Uncertainty is weakness. And I will openly discuss this at the summit.”

Any Nato leaders or diplomats offended by his language should be reminded that they were warned.

Ukraine was first promised future Nato membership in 2008, but because of anxieties about upsetting Russia was never offered a timetable or pathway to getting it.

For many in Kyiv, it is obvious that ambiguity led directly to Russian invasion in 2014 and again in 2022.

Mr Zelensky and his diplomats have spent months trying to explain to Nato leaders that failing to fix it will only make another war more likely – and that they would not be polite about more “false promises”.

“We are not going to buy it,” Dmytro Kuleba, the Ukrainian foreign minister, said bluntly last month. 

“We will not play but the game offered to us – we will demand a change in policy, real substantial change in policy.”

He gave a particularly withering assessment of the diplomatic niceties some members thought could paper over a lack of progress.

The “Nato-Ukraine Council”, announced by Jens Stoltenberg, the alliance’s secretary-general, on Tuesday is a case in point.

It merely replaces an existing “commission”, which in diplomatese implies slightly less respect than a “council” but makes zero practical difference.

Ukraine and Nato: three possible outcomes

  1. Nato membership: Ukraine’s stated goal is backed by the UK, Poland and France, but opposed by the United States and Germany. It would commit Nato members to come to Ukraine’s defence if it is attacked again. Kyiv said this was the only way to deter Russia from starting another war once the current conflict ends. But critics fear this could plunge Nato into a potential third World War.
  2. “Israel-style” security guarantees: no specific model here, but it implies a cast-iron US and Western commitment to underwrite Ukrainian security outside the Nato alliance. The US has neither gone to war on Israel’s behalf nor has any binding commitment to do so. However, it has reliably extended billions of dollars worth of military aid, intelligence and diplomatic support for decades.
  3. Bucharest 2008: The worst of all possible worlds in the view of Ukrainian officials and many of their Western allies. At Nato’s 2008 summit in the Romanian capital, George W Bush prevailed on European allies to extend Ukraine and Georgia a promise of membership. But others, conscious of Russian concerns, blocked a timetable or membership action plan. The compromise had the result of antagonising the Kremlin without offering Ukraine any tangible security. Ukrainian officials are clear that anything that smacks of a repeat will only lengthen the war.

Is Nato really planning to use Ukraine’s membership bid as a bargaining chip with Russia?

Mr Zelensky could be forgiven for thinking so.

When Emmanuel Macron, France’s president, unexpectedly changed French policy to back the British and Polish calls for swift Ukrainian accession, it was hailed as a major shift.

But Le Monde reported the thinking in the Elysee Palace as “tactical” and “a means of influencing the conflict and bringing Moscow and Kyiv to the negotiating table”.

Make of that what you will.

Another frustration for the Ukrainians are claims that it would be madness for Nato to admit a member who is in the middle of a shooting war.

They have asked for no such thing.

What they are asking for is a concrete path to membership and swift accession once the war is over.

There is immense sympathy for that point of view, particularly in Britain, Poland, and the Baltic States – and, since June, France.

But the sceptics in Germany and the United States should not be dismissed out of hand. They have got some serious points.

Olaf Scholz, the German chancellor, is right – the priority right now is winning the war. And until it is clear what the peace will look like, current Nato members will not be sure what they are committing to.

What if the war ends with Russia still holding some occupied territory, or in a Korean-style peace in which a temporary armistice is never followed by a formal end to hostilities?

That is why Joe Biden, the US president, and Mr Scholz prefer analogies to the West’s relationship with Israel – a Western ally outside Nato that is nonetheless the beneficiary of cast-iron but not really codified security guarantees.

But Israel also possesses an (unacknowledged) nuclear deterrent, something none of its adversaries have.

Ukraine is fighting the planet’s largest nuclear power and gave up its own nuclear weapons in 1994 – in exchange for security guarantees that proved useless.


  1. Selected comments from DT readers:

    Ivan Kuzyk :
    “It is a cynical act of cowardice to let Sweden and Finland join NATO while denying Ukraine its place in Europe. The Ukrainian people have proven with their blood that the Putin regime is not a genuine world power. They demonstrated that in the Orange Revolution, on the Maidan and since the annexation of Crimea that Putin could not simply deign to control Eastern Europe without great cost. Shame on Biden, Scholz and Macron.”

    Miles Hart:
    “It’s all well and good mentioning 2008 and what was missed then. However, let’s think back to 2014, the red line Obama and a certain Vice President Biden said that if Syria or Russia used Chemical weapons on the Syrians people then they would take action. Then, when that line was crossed in exactly that way, they did,,,,,NOTHING!! Hence why Russia has done all of this to Ukraine starting with Crimea in 2014!! When the hell are they going to learn, if you don’t stand up to bullies you will always have a day of reckoning. The longer you leave it, the worse it gets. If they leave it much longer who knows what’s next. We haven’t yet seen Putin fall over, despite one attempt nearly three weeks ago. He may do yet another despicable act, remember the damn he blew up, it’s seems to have been forgotten far more than it’s should have been.”

    Stanislaw Bielecki
    “Not providing Ukraine with an ascension timeline provides the west and noticeably US and Germany with two levers to end the war. Firstly, they can say to Ukraine, give up some territory and we will give you a timetable to join NATO (US approach), or they can say to Russia, if you withdraw from certain territories we will not allow Ukraine to join NATO ( but don’t tell them we said so) (German approach). None of this is about war, it is all about politics.”

    AJ Arn:
    “Either the author hasn’t done his homework on the topic, or he prefers vague evasions about who was responsible for vetoing Membership Action Plans for Georgia and Ukraine at Bucharest in 2008.
    He has only to read today’s le Figaro to clear up his doubts, if any, because the then President of Georgia writes from the prison cell in which Georgia’s current pro-Russian Government has immured him, to reveal (reportedly) precisely who personally organised the vetoing of Georgia’s (and presumably Ukraine’s) MAP, and telephoned to tell him so, as he was about to enter the Oval Office.
    “Never mind what President Bush tells you, Georgia is not going to be given its Membership Action Plan” grated (reportedly) Angela Merkel.
    Scholz seems to have reprised the same trick, and got Sleepy Joe to collude in it.
    So, despite appearances, has MicroN, it seems.”

    Lots of fucking trolls on this thread. Here is one:
    Ben Parish
    “NATO and EU membership was simply a disingenuous carrot in exchange for the destruction if Ukraine in order for the UK, EU and USA to conduct their proxy war against Russia. Once they have finished, they will walk away and Ukraine will be left in ruins and populated by fatherless families. The country will be strewn with US supplied cluster munitions thereafter causing civilian deaths and amputations and British supplied depleted uranium dust causing birth defects and cancer.”

    Reply from Anthony Peel to Ben Parish :
    “Rubbish. Can you remember who invaded whom? Or won’t your handler tell you?”

    Reply to Ben Parish from Simon Smith:
    “Russia, the nazi like aggressor needs a slapping down! And don’t forget nazi Russia has been Using cluster munitions since feb 2022.”

    CR C:
    “Grant Ukraine membership asap say by 31/12/23. When it can exercise article 5 and we will see how fast Putin withdraws from Ukraine. The only thing that is non negotiable in this war or anything else for Putin is his staying alive.”

    Hugo McEwen:
    “….in exchange for security guarantees that proved useless.”
    As useless as the Minsk Accords?
    As useless as the promise to Gorbachev that NATO wouldn’t extend 1 kilometre closer to Russia?
    The sooner we understand that there’s two sides to this border dispute, the sooner we can stop the needless slaughter of Ukrainians and Russians.”

    Reply to troll McEwen from Lily Blue:
    “No such promise was made to Gorbachev. He is on record as saying so and also saying he would not have sought such a promise.
    I guess he was imagining a freer more liberal state for Russia but Vlad stole that future away.”

    CR C also replied to troll McEwan:
    “I don’t get the point you are making. Are you saying we should like Corbyn has said, stop sending arms to Ukraine, so that they can lose and the war can end.”

  2. It might sound tiring, but Ukraine should withdraw its application for NATO membership. It’s 100% certain that it won’t get it during this war, and ?% certain it will after the war and ?% certain that a date will be set for it. It is also very questionable what good NATO is once mafia land disintegrates. This last point should be brought forth to NATO as one reason for Ukraine withdrawing its application.
    An official withdrawal by Ukraine would shake NATO down to its wobbly foundations.

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