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NATO sees itself as a defensive alliance, so its members are expected to benefit from banding together and deterring attacks.

No doubt Ukraine would greatly benefit from membership in its recurring disputes with Russia.

However, besides principles like we stand up for freedom and democracy, have any Western leaders articulated what the existing NATO members gain?

Part of this process was somewhat started in 2008, as a result of a compromise between the US and European countries where it was penciled in at a deliberately indeterminate future.

NATO, can, and should, assist Ukraine in maintaining its territorial sovereignty. Deliberately taking on the responsibility of automatically being drawn into a shooting war should it happen, however is another thing.

For reference, this is what the UK Defense Secretary had to say recently, implying that NATO troops would have had to be committed if Ukraine was part of NATO.

In an interview with the Spectator, Mr Wallace said Ukraine was "not a member of Nato, so it is highly unlikely that anyone is going to send troops into Ukraine to challenge Russia".

Have any Western or NATO officials explained the rationale for an eventual accession?

NATO's secretary general has said:

Asked in Riga about Putin’s statements and Ukraine’s potential future membership, Stoltenberg said Ukraine’s membership in NATO will be decided by its 30 members, provided that this country meets the relevant criteria, including reform of institutions and the fight against corruption.

“Russia has no veto. Russia has no say. And Russia has no right to establish a sphere of influence, trying to control their neighbours,”

Stating that it is not Russia's right to veto someone else's decision is indeed correct. But that is not the same thing as showing a compelling reason for NATO to take on this responsibility.

Russia, for all its often fraught relations with its neighbors, does have valid security concerns about NATO showing up on its doorstep (the Baltics are so small that they have limited strategic depth as a NATO base). Even if its current demands are maximalist and given in a context where few NATO countries trust Russia.

And if you want to look at how well-intentioned defensive alliances can end up triggering wars, you need look no further than the start of WW1 where basically everyone was committed to one of two alliance blocs and things quickly escalated from a minor incident.

To look at things from the Russian perspective, how would say the US feel if Mexico got into a defense pact with China? Too speculative you say? Well, then look at the US's concerns about Cuba during the Cold War.

So, where's the beef? Have any senior leaders or officials communicated what NATO ( the US, Canada and its European constituents) gain from taking on Ukraine? As opposed to say merely assisting Ukraine in acquiring defensive weapons and drawing a line in the sand with regards to economic sanctions. Which is... where we are at right now.

It seems like that level of foreign policy commitment would need extensive justification of the pros and cons to the electorate of the countries taking on that role. Not just platitudes about democracy. Has this taken place?

To be clear: I am not looking for military reasons that could motivate admitting Ukraine, I am looking for leaders and senior officials, speaking in an official capacity, making statements about those reasons on the record.

(FWIW it seems to me that admission is unlikely in the future, the same way Turkey's request to join the EU was held in permanent limbo, before Erdogan made it unpalatable to everyone else. But like with Turkey, no one's quite willing to call a cat a cat)

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    Ukraine has a large military, so that might be it. I'll need to do some more research before answering though. Dec 21, 2021 at 19:27
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    If Ukraine has no Russian military positioned on its territory, then Ukraine serves as a large buffer against a possibly anti-NATO Russian regime. Plus, what Ekadh said above. Dec 21, 2021 at 19:33
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    @TimurShtatland Even a neutral country provides a buffer between antagonists. Ukraine does not need to be in NATO to fulfill that role and its troops would be available too if Russian troops came in. Plus Ukraine's army is probably very limited in projecting force out of theatre - i.e. they are "useful" to NATO in Ukraine, but unlikely to be a worthwhile aid elsewhere. Dec 21, 2021 at 19:36
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    The point of NATO is that an enemy (OK, Russia) cannot pick off the European nations one by one, because each is obligated to defend the others. Including Ukraine in this would be telling Russia that an attack on Ukraine would be met with a massive military response in its defence. The hope is that this would deter Russia from attacking Ukraine. This would also gain for NATO a substantial ally against Russia, and since Ukraine would have to commit to certain reforms in order to join NATO, move Ukraine further into the Western camp. Dec 21, 2021 at 22:02
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    I think it's pretty clear that NATO is an anti-Russian alliance, for which it's obviously beneficial to have an ally that borders the enemy country. I doubt any NATO official will actually say that in public, though.
    – Allure
    Dec 22, 2021 at 2:52

3 Answers 3

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As a partial answer, not specific to the Ukraine -- here is a 1999 CRS report from on the subject of NATO expansion to former Eastern-bloc countries. It includes a summary of the Clinton Administration's position. This covers the time period in the mid 1990s when the arrangements were made to get the first cohort of former Soviet-bloc countries into NATO.

NATO: Congress Addresses Expansion of the Alliance [Congressional Research Service, 1999]

Benefits cited for NATO expansion included

  • fostering economic integration into the western business world
  • preventing ethno-national tensions
  • preventing nuclear proliferation
  • enhancing stability in Europe

On the question of NATO vs Russia, a mixture of positions is taken. On the one hand, the report states

In 1991, NATO declared that the (then) Soviet Union was no longer an “enemy” of NATO. In NATO’s 1991 “Strategic Concept”, the alliance signaled its intention to move towards lighter, more mobile forces for power projection in central Europe to develop an improved capability for crisis management and such missions as peacekeeping and peace enforcement.

On the other hand, the report quickly follows this by citing a concern about long-term re-emergence of Russia as a power

NATO’s mission of collective defense remains important to member states because of a concern that Russia, still armed with nuclear weapons, might one day become more unstable and aggressive, and a direct threat to its neighbors. Representatives of several central European states interviewed recently expressed concern over an eventual Russian threat, and stated that the Article V commitment is the principal reason for their desire to join the alliance.

According to the report, opinions by existing NATO member states varied (and support depended on the country being considered).

The European allies evince a spectrum of views on the issue of enlargement. At the Madrid summit, a consensus settled on naming Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary as candidate states. In the summit communiqué, the allies agreed that enlargement would enhance stability

...

Elements of doubt about enlargement and its effect on strategic issues remain evident. These sentiments will affect possible future rounds of enlargement. Some officials in NATO countries believe that different security interests [in NATO] are being regionalized, with the implication that the addition of more states would lead to further dilution of consensus in the alliance

...

Allied governments were reluctant to share in the costs of enlargement as initially estimated by the Clinton Administration ...


Additional Background for Research:

One figure who seems central within the Clinton Administration's push to realize the 1990s NATO expansion was Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott, who shortly after became president of Brookings (think tank, and a cornerstone of the US foreign policy world).

On the subject at hand, Talbott published a NY Review of Books piece promoting the NATO expansion: Why NATO Should Grow (paywalled). Several rebuttals were published in response by US policy figures, such as Should NATO Grow? A Dissent, which make for interesting reading today.

Published memos between Talbott and Clinton, regarding Clinton's interactions with the Russian government of the time might also be of interest. Talbott did wish to bring Ukraine into NATO as well, in the same mid-late 1990s period.

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  • +1 This is the kind of thing I am looking for, but it dates from a long time ago and doesn't concern Ukraine, but rather Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia. Do we have anything recent, covering Ukraine. Which frankly is very different in nature, geography and proximity to Russia, from central European countries which were never in the Russian sphere of influence to start with (or should not have been). Well, except in as far as Talbott wanted Ukraine too. Dec 22, 2021 at 8:05
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    @ItalianPhilosophers4Monica the four bullet points listed in this answer are also 100% valid for the current case of Ukraine. Economic integration? Without russian troops in Ukraine and Ukraine in NATO, the stability of western economic activities in Ukraine is much higher. Ethno-national tensions? Without russian meddling Ukraine integrates much more with Europe and as a result there is less tensions. Nuclear proliferation? There is a real risk that without NATO support, Ukraine might some day pursue nuclear weapons. Stability? You say there would be less, because of possible flashpoints...
    – ciamej
    Dec 22, 2021 at 10:37
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    ...but actually there could be more stability. Russia would be less willing to risk it all and would have to simply accept that its sphere of influence has completely eroded and there is nothing to gain.
    – ciamej
    Dec 22, 2021 at 10:39
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    Accepting. Not at all convinced by the arguments being made, but my question was not about that, merely asking who had made what arguments. But I can't help but notice that our policy towards Ukraine acceptance is being driven by a set of 20 year old arguments made by a long-past Deputy Sec of State, with little modern reassessment. Just a remark, not a criticism of your answer. Dec 27, 2021 at 21:19
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    @ciamej For ethno-national tensions NATO membership would not be so good, as the bigest minority in Ukraine are russian.
    – convert
    Jan 31 at 19:17
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The US (which effectively covers all other NATO countries under its nuclear umbrella): 1) wants influence in European affairs and 2) wants to show that they and NATO have credibility, and 3) wants to deter Russian aggression.

As with unipolarity and power maximization, there is something to the logic of credibility, prestige, and leadership as drivers of the enlargement consensus. It is certainly true that US policymakers in the early 1990s viewed enlargement as a way of counteracting perceived drift in US grand strategy (Chollett and Goldgeier 2008). Bush and his team, for instance, regularly emphasized to domestic and foreign audiences that the United States was wedded to post-Cold War engagement via NATO (Engel 2017, 280, 305, 350–355; Schake 1998, 379–407). Similarly, work by James Goldgeier, Ronald Asmus, and others highlights that many enlargement proponents on Clinton’s team treated expansion as a way of underscoring the United States’ resolve in structuring post-Cold War European security afairs. Furthermore, both the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations highlighted that NATO represented what Bush termed the United States’ commitment to ‘a close and permanent partnership with the nations of Europe,’ within which the United States supported ‘the enlargement of NATO’ because it equally embraced ‘a more united Europe’ (New York Times 2002; White House 2016).

The argument also garners circumstantial support from the deliberations over expansion to include Georgia and Ukraine. When broached in the late 2000s, including Georgia and Ukraine in NATO was opposed by many of the United States’ European allies, fearful that doing so would antagonize Russia (Myers 2008). Despite this, the United States persistently pushed for a pledge that these states would eventually become NATO members (Rice 2011, 670–675). Concerns with NATO’s credibility and influence were at least a partial driver of this effort. As Bush recalled in his memoirs, ‘The threat from Russia strengthened the case for extending [membership plans] to Georgia and Ukraine. Russia would be less likely to engage in aggression if these countries were on a path into NATO’ (Bush 2010, 431). Nor was Bush alone in this; since 2008, a bevy of think tank and policy analysts have emphasized the desirability of keeping Georgian and Ukrainian membership a possibility lest NATO and US credibility suffer (Japaridze 2014; Daalder and Goldgeier 2008; Tobey 2014; Wilson and Kramer 2018).

Source: NATO enlargement and US foreign policy: the origins, durability, and impact of an idea. Shifrinson, Joshua R. International Politics; Basingstoke Vol. 57, Iss. 3, (Jun 2020): 342-370. DOI:10.1057/s41311-020-00224-w

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The exact answer to your question may be hard to find. But as a proxy one could look at the recent material from the experts on Russia, Ukraine, or general military. Also note that since NATO is a military organization, most of the considerations related to your question would have military associations, by default. For example, here are a few ways in which NATO would benefit from admitting Ukraine.

  • As a NATO member vs. a neutral country, the territory of Ukraine will become a buffer for the other NATO member countries against a possible Russian aggression, of the type that Russia threatens NATO members now (as of the time of this writing). As far as other NATO countries are concerned, a war on other country's territory may be more preferable that the war on the home ground.

  • As a NATO country, Ukraine will provide additional closely allied and tightly linked military, with considerable manpower and equipment. The more people and weapons, the stronger is the alliance, this seems obvious. As they say, together we stand, divided we fall.

  • Ukraine offers to NATO 7 years of experience in fighting the Russian regular army as well as the Russian-backed separatist units, all having the latest Russian military equipment. It is valuable to have a battle-tested army. Even better is to have an army tested in battles with a strong, aggressive adversary. Still better is to have an army tested under cold weather conditions (this is something NATO has very little experience with), for the future possible conflicts under the similarly cold or even colder conditions, for instance the Arctic (Peterson, 2021).

Western leaders and officials may be reluctant to speak openly of the above issues because these pragmatic considerations may appear to be less acceptable to the public than the (more emotional, but still valid) reasons that are mentioned more frequently. To the public, it may look better to cite the (also valid but more palatable) reasons for accepting Ukraine into NATO, such as to make NATO safer and more secure, promote the Western democratic ideals in Ukraine and Russia, support the ally in their hour of need, etc.

REFERENCES:

The Arctic is rapidly becoming a strategic priority for the world’s trifecta of competing great powers — the United States, China, and Russia. This winter, the US Air Force sent B-1B supersonic bombers to Norway for war games, marking the first time that US bombers had ever deployed to the country (which shares a border with Russia). Likewise, US Marines have increased the frequency of their extreme cold weather training in Norway, and US Global Strike Command now routinely operates strategic bomber task force missions through Arctic airspace. Alaska, America’s northernmost territory, is today home to more advanced fighter jets than any other state.

With that renewed Arctic focus in mind, the frigid winter battlefields in eastern Ukraine present the Pentagon with a case study in modern, extreme cold weather warfare.

“During the seven years of war with Russia, we gained a lot of experience,” Alexander Pochynok, 41, a Ukrainian army sniper who fought at the Donetsk airport, told Coffee or Die Magazine.

Nolan Peterson, March 13, 2021. Coffee or Die Magazine. Lessons in Winter Warfare From the Ukrainian War Zone — A Case Study for America’s Arctic: https://coffeeordie.com/lessons-winter-warfare/

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    Turkey is in NATO. Portugal co-founded NATO when it was still a military dictatorship. So clearly, NATO has nothing to do with democracy or human rights; it was founded as an anti-communist military alliance and somehow redefined itself when that threat vanished. See also politics.stackexchange.com/q/11773/130.
    – gerrit
    Jan 24 at 9:40

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