NATO should immediately begin consultations in the NATO-Ukraine Council about Ukraine joining the alliance as soon as possible, including a detailed Article 5 plan.
NATO’s policy on Ukraine is inadvertently encouraging Putin to continue the war. It is time for a change.
The alliance’s position thus far has affirmed that Ukraine will become a member in the long run, but not while Russia continues its war on Ukraine. NATO is concerned that Ukraine’s admission would trigger a direct and immediate NATO war with Kremlin forces, and that this might escalate to nuclear weapons use.
This view is a fallacy, and it sends a signal to Vladimir Putin that he should continue fighting. As long as he keeps going, NATO will not admit Ukraine as a member, and thus Putin believes that he still has a chance of winning.
NATO must send the opposite message: that no matter what he does, Putin will never succeed in defeating Ukraine. Continuing the war would therefore be pointless and devastating for Russia. Moving forward with Ukrainian membership in NATO will send this message.
This message is also crucial for Ukraine’s economic recovery. There is a symbiosis between military and economic support for Ukraine. For example, there is no greater economic benefit to Ukraine than opening its ports to normal shipping. Yet that can only be achieved through military security operations, such as demining, and freedom of navigation in the Black Sea. Moreover, investors will not place big bets on Ukraine unless they are sure it will be a secure country in the future.
If security measures can help Ukraine achieve GDP growth of $25bn, this would be enough to produce a $5bn windfall for the state budget, thus alleviating the need for Western budgetary support.
What are the fallacies in the current NATO approach? Firstly, NATO’s Article 5 does not establish any specific requirement that Western ground troops must fight on the front lines against Russian forces.
Paragraph 1 of Article 5 of the NATO Treaty reads as follows:
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 consequently, they agree that, if such an armed attack occurs, each of them, in the exercise of the right of individual or collective self-defense recognized 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.
In other words, there will be a collective response to any aggression against a NATO member, but the treaty does not specify what that collective response will be. It does not state that NATO members must send troops to the front line, although that is certainly a possibility.
One should recall that NATO members have been involved in many conflicts over the past 70 years, from Algeria to Korea, Vietnam, Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq and Libya, and yet Article 5 was not invoked, and NATO as an alliance did not join the fight.
The only time Article 5 has been invoked in NATO’s entire history was in response to the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States. And yet, in this case, NATO’s Article 5 response was not to send troops to fight terrorists.
Instead, NATO countries sent aircraft to assist the United States by conducting air policing missions in US airspace. When the United States ousted the Taliban from Afghanistan, it did so together with UK, Australian and Polish forces as a coalition of the willing. There was no NATO role. Indeed, it was several months after a UN-authorized peacekeeping mission had been established in Afghanistan (ISAF) that NATO took on any role there – and that role was not an Article 5 commitment.
In other words, Article 5 is not an automatic tripwire for the use of ground forces. It might be — for example, if the Baltic states, with their small territories and population, were attacked by Russia. In that case, NATO countries would indeed have to intervene directly under Article 5, including with ground troops, to counter Russia (something already apparent from the NATO battlegroups present in all three.) There are no other options. But that is a matter for the North Atlantic Council to decide at the time, based on the circumstances.
In Ukraine, a vast country with a large population, there are multiple options beyond the immediate use of NATO ground forces.
The second fallacy is to assume that Vladimir Putin could escalate the war in Ukraine if he wanted, but he is refraining from doing so because NATO has not offered membership to Ukraine. This is far from the truth.
If Putin had an option to escalate conventionally in Ukraine, he would already have done so. The reality is that he has lost half of Russia’s conventional forces fighting Ukraine, and cannot now reconstitute them. He relies on Iran and North Korea for drones and outdated artillery shells and sends untrained troops to the front as cannon fodder, simply to keep the war going.
As for horizontal escalation — i.e., attacking a current NATO member — this is the last thing Putin would do, as he knows it would draw an immediate alliance response directly against Russian forces.
As for nuclear escalation, Putin knows – and even more importantly, the Russian military knows – that any nuclear use would not achieve any military objective in Ukraine, while it would certainly draw a direct response against Russian forces. It would also spark universal condemnation of Russia, including from China and other non-Western states.
The idea that NATO membership is the trigger for Putin’s aggression is a third fallacy: Ukraine had little chance of NATO membership when Putin attacked in 2014 and 2022. Moreover, Russia has existing borders with alliance territory in Norway, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, and the United States, and has not attacked. When Finland became a NATO member this year (soon to be joined by Sweden), Russia barely took notice. The issue for Putin is not NATO membership, but the existence of Ukraine as a nation-state.
So what would Article 5 mean in practice for Ukraine?
There are a number of ways in which the alliance can act collectively to defend Ukraine, many of which the allies are already doing. They are providing massive amounts of equipment to Ukraine, as well as providing training, finance, logistics, intelligence, operational planning, and more. This is already significant.
Some NATO nations, including the United States, have decided to help Ukraine acquire and use F-16 aircraft. This is a significant, long-term commitment to the future of Ukraine. Given the substantial logistics, maintenance, training and infrastructure requirements of a successful F-16 program, this is just the kind of signal Putin needs to see in order to come to grips with the fact that he will not defeat Ukraine.
The European Union’s decision to open accession talks with Ukraine also sends a significant signal to Putin that there is no scenario ahead in which he wins. Ukraine is a part of the European family and will survive and prosper as a sovereign, independent European democracy.
Yet NATO could still do more under Article 5 than it is currently doing. Four things come immediately to mind:
Maritime Demining: Western NATO nations could deploy or transfer mine-hunting vessels (especially unmanned vessels) to NATO members with a Black Sea coastline, as well as to Ukraine. The aim would be to create a demining regime in the Black Sea in the territorial waters of Ukraine (subordinate, of course, to Ukrainian defensive needs) as well as the territorial waters of NATO allies, and the vast international waters of the Black Sea where such floating mines are a danger to international shipping.
Freedom of Navigation: NATO allies — both Black Sea littoral states and other members with significant naval capabilities — should establish a mission to support freedom of navigation in the Black Sea. Any physical threat to the safety of third-party vessels operating in international waters in the Black Sea is unacceptable — just as it is unacceptable in the South China Sea or the Mediterranean. There is no implied threat to Russia or any other country that also operates in the Black Sea — only a promise to defend the right of any international vessels to use international waters in the Black Sea freely.
No Limits on Particular Systems: Despite the massive US and allied support for Ukraine over the past 18 months, there has been a sliding set of restrictions on Western military aid. Initially, it was Stinger missiles. Then it was armor, artillery, aircraft, tanks, longer-range artillery, and so forth. And there remain significant restrictions on the types of systems the United States and NATO allies will provide. Of particular importance would be the longest range (300km) of US artillery systems, naval vessels, long-range missiles, and other types of aircraft, such as the A-10 ground attack plane. None of these systems should be off-limits.
Participation in Air Defense for Humanitarian Purposes: NATO allies are already doing a significant amount to assist Ukrainian air defense, including providing a vast arsenal of layered air defense systems that are serving to protect civilians and infrastructure. Russian forces, however, continue to attack civilians and infrastructure with drones and missiles, launched from Russian territory, and occupied Ukrainian territory. Many of these attacks are close enough to threaten existing NATO Allies such as Romania.
It is significant that Russian forces are unable to make ground advances. Russia’s only reliable military tactic is to target Ukrainian cities and civilian infrastructure. NATO nations could agree to participate directly in Ukraine’s air defense to protect Ukrainian civilians and infrastructure. This might involve a combination of air defense systems stationed on NATO territory and the deployment of alliance air defense capabilities in western Ukraine and in NATO territory near Ukraine to protect Ukrainian civilians — as well as potential impacts on NATO territory — from Russian bombardment. At a minimum, it should be possible to keep Ukraine west of the Dnipro River (including Kyiv, Odesa, and Lviv) safe from Russian attacks.
These four steps – and perhaps others – could therefore become NATO’s Article 5 commitment to Ukraine – discussed and agreed within the NATO-Ukraine Council. It must not rule out the provision of ground troops at a later date if needed — but there is no need to commit such troops today. Putin must know that escalation is on our side, even if we choose not to escalate.
Note that such a formula does not set territorial limits on the application of Article 5. To do so would relegate Russian-occupied territory to a long-term occupied status. Rather, it defines specifically the type of response NATO will provide under Article 5, without accepting any limits on NATO’s support for Ukraine recovering its 1991 borders.
In this context, we should recall that NATO admitted West Germany as a member when East Germany was still under Soviet occupation and that the EU accepted Cyprus as a member, even though northern Cyprus was under Turkish control..
Now let us suppose NATO were to take these four concrete steps to defend Ukraine as soon as possible – even without Ukrainian membership. It would make a significant difference in Ukraine’s success in the war effort, and in its future as a European democracy.
But even more important, if NATO took these steps today — without any formal declaration about Ukrainian NATO membership — it would not evoke any Russian response beyond what Russia is already doing. Indeed, it would expose Russia’s bluff that such steps, or indeed NATO membership itself, are some kind of red line.
Once these measures were implemented, however, the alliance would have then solved the potentially contentious issue of what Article 5 would mean in practice. Since there would be no mystery about what Article 5 would mean (we would already be doing it), and also no mystery about Russia’s response would be (we would have already seen it), we should be able to move ahead with alacrity to invite Ukraine into NATO.
The path would be clear for a membership invitation at NATO’s Washington Summit in July 2024. Ratification should also be on a fast track — in the case of the United States, before the January 2025 Presidential Inauguration.
Indeed, America’s 2024 Presidential election adds a yet greater sense of urgency to the discussion. With the outcome completely unknown, it may be too difficult to advance Ukraine’s NATO membership after the election. Yet America’s and Europe’s security depends on a secure Ukraine that defeats Russia. This provides all the more reason to act swiftly to bring Ukraine into our great alliance.
Ambassador Kurt Volker is a Distinguished Fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis. A leading expert in US foreign and national security policy, he served as US Special Representative for Ukraine Negotiations from 2017-2019, and as US Ambassador to NATO from 2008-2009.