Elisabeth BrawResident Fellow for Foreign and Defense Policy at the American Enterprise Institute

If you’re Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, these days the case seems obvious: yes, it should. The real question is whether doing so makes sense for NATO. By admitting Ukraine, the alliance would clearly gain an enthusiastic member. It would also gain a conflict that’s mostly frozen but regularly flares up. Given that only states that are not involved in territorial conflicts with their neighbors are allowed to join NATO, Russia can de facto prevent Ukraine’s accession by keeping the country in this conflict.

That raises the question of whether NATO should take a compassionate turn and admit Ukraine anyway. It would be a nice gesture, but it would also be less beneficial than it seems. Sure, Ukraine would be inside the alliance, but this would give Russia an excuse to act even more aggressively. NATO, in turn, would find its attention nearly completely devoted to this conflict. That would not serve the alliance well.

Strategic ambiguity is a much better course of action. Russia can’t know how NATO may respond to aggression toward Ukraine, so Moscow has to assume a muscular response. Remember: in deterrence, fear and surprise are the decisive factors.

Heather ConleySenior Vice President for Europe, Eurasia, and the Arctic and Director of the Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies

As article 10 of NATO’s founding Washington Treaty notes, “the Parties may, by unanimous agreement, invite any other European State in a position to further the principles of this Treaty and to contribute to the security of the North Atlantic area to accede to this Treaty.” NATO can admit Ukraine, and that opportunity should always remain available, but there isn’t unanimous agreement within the alliance.

Notwithstanding this, NATO’s current approach to security and defense cooperation with Ukraine is the correct one: deepening Kyiv’s security partnership with the alliance while substantially increasing its political engagement, just as in the April 13 meeting of the NATO-Ukraine Commission.

A deep and comprehensive relationship with NATO, supplemented by bilateral security and defense cooperation with individual allies, will continue to prepare Ukraine for eventual membership as Kyiv works on its long-delayed internal reforms.

The movement of Russian military forces near Ukraine’s border in early April should be a clarion reminder to all members of NATO’s founding and unifying purpose: to safeguard freedom and preserve peace and security. That mission is now more relevant than ever as NATO’s closest partners, like Ukraine and Georgia, understand the catastrophic loss of their freedom and territorial integrity. The international community and NATO must support them now to safeguard their own freedom.

Alexander GraefResearcher in the Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy at the University of Hamburg

Ukraine should have the perspective to join NATO at some point in the future. However, adopting a Membership Action Plan (MAP)—the first step toward accession—is the wrong strategy at the wrong time. Membership should not be misused to demonstrate political solidarity with Ukraine. Its primary task is to strengthen defense and security.

NATO enlargement to Central and Eastern Europe was successful in stabilizing the region, but the domestic and geopolitical situation in relation to Ukraine today is different. A MAP for Ukraine would not help end the war in the country’s eastern Donbas region but would encourage Russia to escalate the conflict and create a fait accompli.

Even if NATO agreed to a MAP, the collective defense guarantees enshrined in article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty would be extended to Ukraine only after it officially became a NATO member. In the past, it took candidates several years to move from a MAP to membership. In the case of Ukraine, the obstacles to accession are even greater, not least because a part of the country’s territory remains occupied by Russia.

For these reasons, a MAP would not deter Moscow from taking military action or help forge a compromise. NATO should instead continue to cooperate with Ukraine as an enhanced opportunities partner.

Kate Hansen BundtSecretary General of the Norwegian Atlantic Committee

Russia’s current saber-rattling and increased military activity in and around Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region do not make it easy to give a conclusive answer to this question.

Ukraine, as a sovereign state, has the right to join whatever alliance it wants. That Kyiv’s goal is NATO membership was repeated by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy on April 6, when he urged the organization to speed up his country’s accession.

This will not happen. First, the ongoing conflict with Russia as well as Ukraine’s political, economic, and military shortcomings make membership unacceptable according to NATO’s criteria. That’s exactly why the Kremlin keeps this conflict going.

Second, NATO membership is also a question of the alliance’s ability to guarantee its members’ security. NATO’s capability and will to defend Ukraine—or even invoke the article 5 mutual defense guarantee—is not realistic today.

The final question is whether such a membership would improve the overall security in the alliance or, quite the contrary, increase tensions with Russia and ultimately lead to war. In the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, Russia, Britain, and the United States guaranteed Ukraine’s territorial integrity in exchange for Kyiv’s nuclear arsenal. The United States assured Ukraine it would respond if the agreement were violated. Washington should continue to demand that Moscow end its aggression against Ukraine but not make promises it cannot yet keep.

François HeisbourgSenior Adviser for Europe at the International Institute for Strategic Studies

In the current circumstances, NATO shouldn’t admit Ukraine because it can’t. There is no consensus among the alliance’s thirty member states to do so, and no prospect of unanimous ratification by their parliaments.

Strategically and politically, few things can be as damaging as loose talk about Ukraine joining NATO. Promising membership can only provide political grist to Russia’s propaganda mill, raise unattainable expectations in Ukraine followed by bitter disappointment, and, eventually, discredit NATO as a whole. The 2008 fostering of illusions about alliance membership for Georgia is not an experience worth repeating on a much larger scale.

What the most determined Western countries can do is provide intelligence and military support to Ukraine, including weaponry and capability building. Putting Western military assistance personnel in harm’s way can also serve a deterrent purpose.

NATO’s members as a whole—or the EU with the United States and Canada—can presumably signal their intention to implement a bigger and harsher version of the 2014 sanctions on Moscow, and support Germany’s cancellation of the proposed Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, if Russia were to break out into mainland Ukraine. Such a statement of intent should be preemptively conveyed to the Kremlin.

Anna KorbutUkrainian Analyst and Academy Robert Bosch Fellow at Chatham House

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has stressed the prospect of NATO membership for Ukraine in the context of Russia’s buildup of forces along Ukraine’s border and Moscow’s aggressive rhetoric.

But this has been—and remains—Kyiv’s strategic goal in terms of integration with the European and Euro-Atlantic political and security communities. The context in which Ukraine speaks is defensive and reform driven, not offensive.

This goal should not be a distraction from things that are higher priorities at the moment. These include considering current and potential help for Ukraine in case of different scenarios of escalation by Russia. That includes factoring in sanctions.

While NATO and EU member states have reiterated their support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty, talking about more specific practical support for Kyiv—on which they could reach consensus in the near future—is equally important now.

Ukrainian military experts have listed several areas that require support and cooperation. They include intelligence, supplies of military hardware, air defenses, and maritime security. A discussion, a consensus, or decisions on more specific sanctions policies against Russia could also be effective.

John C. KornblumSenior Counselor at Noerr LLP

“Admit” is an inexact term. Ukraine and Georgia were formally invited to join NATO at the alliance’s 2008 summit in Bucharest. But, motivated by the fears Russian President Vladimir Putin is stoking, some allies, led by Germany, have blocked the commencement of a Membership Action Plan (MAP), which is the necessary next step toward admission.

Putin apparently seeks to use border tensions to undermine the sovereignty of Georgia and Ukraine and shore up a worsening situation at home. Even without military action, he can hope that his threats contribute to a steady weakening of Western commitments to both countries, in turn undermining the democratic institutions that worry him.

After nearly thirteen years of embarrassing delay, finally announcing real steps toward NATO membership would be not only justified but also the most effective way to finally stop Russian aggression and ensure the democratic future of Europe’s East.

Most important is to understand the options. A MAP is not an automatic grant of membership. Numerous political decision points arise between a MAP offer and eventual membership. Quite a number of reviews and meetings are mandatory. Implementation of a decision made at NATO’s 2021 spring ministerial meeting need not begin before the fall. The speed of that process could be adjusted according to the two candidates’ performance and Russia’s behavior.

John LoughAssociate Fellow in the Russia and Eurasia Program at Chatham House

This is the wrong question. If NATO were to fast-track Ukraine’s entry into the alliance, it could only defend the country by extending the nuclear umbrella, with the risk that Russia would call NATO’s bluff and show the alliance to be a broken paper tiger. A consensus among thirty NATO countries to go down this route is inconceivable.

Instead of debating this scenario, we should be asking what can realistically be done now to bolster Ukraine’s defenses and deter increased Russian interference in the country’s affairs.

The White House took an important step on April 12 by announcing its intention to hold a U.S.-Russia summit. Moscow’s latest military mobilization in Ukraine has been designed, above all, to signal to the United States that Russia is the key military power on the European continent and that Washington must deal with it. To this extent, Moscow has achieved its immediate goal, and a renewed military confrontation with Ukraine in its eastern Donbas region with direct Russian military involvement, as in 2014–2015, seems much less likely.

For now, it is important for the European members of NATO to underline their commitment to supporting Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity while impressing on Kyiv the need to accelerate the reforms that will further strengthen Ukraine’s cohesion.

Gwendolyn SasseDirector of the Centre for East European and International Studies (ZOiS) and Nonresident Senior Fellow at Carnegie Europe

NATO signaled in its 2008 Bucharest summit declaration that Ukraine and Georgia “will become members of NATO” without, however, formalizing this prospect through a Membership Action Plan, the next step toward membership. Just as in 2008, it is all too clear now—including to the Kremlin—that there is no agreement within NATO on admitting Ukraine and Georgia.

Therefore, neither NATO nor Ukraine would currently benefit from a lengthy debate the outcome of which is predetermined. On the contrary, Ukraine and the alliance would look weaker at the end of such a public display of disunity within NATO, which would ultimately play into the Kremlin’s strategy.

Amid an extensive buildup of Russian troops along the Russian-Ukrainian border and in Crimea, Ukraine’s heightened security concerns and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s explicit calls for NATO action are understandable. Russia is once again testing Ukraine, the EU (in particular, Germany), and the United States.

The new U.S. administration has gone farthest by quickly offering Zelenskiy continued support, including military aid. Germany and the EU have yet to spell out their own redlines. On the table should be a stop to the proposed Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline because of Russia’s renewed military aggression against Ukraine and a significant widening of asset freezes for elite members of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s inner circle. This, rather than NATO membership, which is a long-term prospect, would be an effective response to Russian actions right now.

James SherrSenior Fellow in the Estonian Foreign Policy Institute at the International Center for Defense and Security, Tallinn

The debate about NATO membership for Ukraine has acquired a significance it does not deserve. The time for Ukraine to join the alliance is when membership will strengthen the country’s security and that of NATO. In the fullness of time, such circumstances might arise. Today, it is inconceivable that thirty NATO allies that cannot even agree on the wisdom of providing Ukraine with defensive weaponry will agree to its accession.

NATO is not a club. It is a military alliance. Allies are defended not by the article 5 mutual security guarantee, which is only a form of words, but by collective capacity and will. When Poland was dismembered by Germany and the Soviet Union in 1939, it had a defense guarantee from Britain and a treaty of alliance with France. All of this said, there is nothing in NATO’s founding Washington Treaty that prevents the United States and like-minded allies from putting boots on the ground, counterposing U.S. peacekeepers to Russian peacekeepers, and defending Ukraine—just as the treaty did not prevent the defense of Kuwait in 1990.

NATO should do what it does best with the consensus it has: intensify its training and advisory work, deepen civilian-military ties, and strengthen the networks that might produce a stronger consensus tomorrow.

Nathalie TocciDirector of the Institute of International Affairs

Taken at face value, the question has been answered. At its 2008 summit in Bucharest, NATO agreed that Georgia and Ukraine “will become members.” The real question is whether this should happen now. Amid the growing escalation in eastern Ukraine, providing a black-and-white answer now is dangerous.

Were NATO to decide and declare that Ukraine should not become a member, this would be correctly read in Moscow as clear-cut backtracking on an existing decision and commitment by the alliance. It would inevitably be seen as an incontrovertible signal that escalation pays off.

In much the same way, if NATO were to conclude that Ukraine should become a member now, it would probably trigger an equally risky dynamic ahead of the Russian parliamentary election in in the fall. The direction of travel is clear and was set in 2008, but the destination is not within reach yet.

If anything, the question for now is whether NATO should signal more clearly where along the journey Ukraine is. More concretely, the alliance should ask whether to proceed with a Membership Action Plan—the next step toward membership—for Ukraine in the near future.

Alexander VershbowDistinguished Fellow at the Atlantic Council and Former NATO Deputy Secretary General

It’s been thirteen years since NATO leaders pledged that Ukraine “will become” a member of NATO one day, and seven years since Russia invaded Ukraine to prevent that from becoming a reality. Although NATO repeats the pledge at every summit and insists that Russia has no veto, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has broken the code: without NATO membership, Ukraine will remain vulnerable to Russian aggression and political subjugation and a permanent source of friction and instability in the heart of Europe. 

Right now, NATO allies are unwilling to extend an article 5 security guarantee to Ukraine. That would mean stationing significant combat forces in Ukraine and being ready to go to war for Kyiv. Allies sidestep the issue by arguing that Ukraine’s reforms are insufficient even for the first procedural step of launching a Membership Action Plan (MAP) for Ukraine. Even if the United States came out in favor of a MAP, a debate on Ukrainian membership would be highly divisive when allies need to unite to deter new aggression by Russia.

But NATO cannot avoid the question indefinitely. Ukraine is defending not only its own freedom but also democratic Europe’s Eastern flank. As NATO thinks about its future under NATO 2030, relations with Ukraine must be part of the review. The alliance needs a strategy for integrating Ukraine while mitigating the Russian reaction.

If allies conclude that fulfilling their pledge to Ukraine is no longer prudent, they should be honest with the Ukrainians and work with Kyiv on additional measures short of membership to bolster the country’s defense.