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One of the core demands that Russia is making on Ukraine is that Ukraine enshrine neutrality, thereby permanently refraining from joining NATO. In other words, one of the reasons Russia went to war is to stop Ukraine from joining NATO.

Given that all member states in NATO must agree to a new state joining, why can't Russia prevent Ukraine from joining the alliance by getting Turkey or Hungary (or any other willing state that's already in NATO) to agree to veto any attempt by Ukraine to join the alliance? This sounds like a considerably simpler method to achieve the goal than going to war. I remember reading that Western leaders refuse to rule out admitting Ukraine in the future because they believe in Ukraine's right to self-determination, but this arrangement also sidesteps that objection, since Ukraine would still be free to apply, they just won't be able to join.

If this is possible: has it been suggested? If this is not possible (or not acceptable to Russia): why not?

Related: What, if any, reasons prevented Ukraine from joining NATO? which indicates that Hungary has already been blocking Ukraine from joining NATO, so if Hungary can be persuaded (or compelled via treaty) to keep blocking Ukraine from joining NATO, then there is no need for Russia to go to war.

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5 Answers 5

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From the linked question, Hungary had serious objections to Ukraine joining NATO already, and they took concrete steps like blocking talks etc.

Enshrining that in a treaty, e.g. between Hungary and Russia, would put the country doing this at an even more serious diplomatic standoff with the rest of NATO. To the point where they might be de-facto ejected. While NATO, unlike the EU, has no provision to suspend a country's membership, the treaty is also fairly flexible in what member countries must do.

According to some analysts, the real power of NATO is the integrated command and control and the presence of tripwire forces. The treaty is more like a paper appendage to these. There's nothing preventing the rest of the countries, sufficiently pissed off, from creating NATO 2.0, minus the country that has openly declared would sabotage the alliance in some fundamental way. Something like that more or less happened at the WTO, where the objecting country was the much more powerful US.

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There is some disunity in the West, but also mutual dependence. Many of those who are wavering a bit regarding Russia (you mentioned Hungary) are also dependent on net transfers from the EU, and they were recently put on notice by the EU that there are values to respect. If they were to violate NATO unity openly, there would be consequences:

Article 8
Each Party declares that none of the international engagements now in force between it and any other of the Parties or any third State is in conflict with the provisions of this Treaty, and undertakes not to enter into any international engagement in conflict with this Treaty.

As Joe W mentioned in the comments, it would have to be a more informal promise. They got halfway to such a promise e.g. from Germany in the form of "not never, but not now, either." Chancellor Scholz offered before the war that Ukraine would not enter NATO during his tenure. For President Putin, that wasn't long enough.

But it would be a mistake to think that this is only about explicit NATO membership. The Russian leadership is afraid of Western-inspired color revolutions (they would say 'Western-organized' and not just 'Western-inspired') and a prosperous and democratic Ukraine is a mortal threat to the current Russian regime. Even if they don't sign up to NATO yet.

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  • How does article 8 prevent a country like Hungary from signing a treaty that they will forever veto Ukrainian membership? It says "... undertakes not to enter into any international engagement in conflict with this treaty". Does a treaty that forever vetoes Ukrainian membership in NATO conflict with the NATO treaty?
    – Allure
    Mar 8 at 6:57
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    @Allure, that would be for the NATO members to decide. Unlike the EU treaty, NATO hasn't created a mechanism to sue the other members.
    – o.m.
    Mar 8 at 8:25
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    @Allure: What's Hungary going to do if the other members declare an article-8 violation and kick out Hungary? They can hardly sue the other members. And of course, after Hungary is ejected an Ukraine is admitted, the chances of Hungary being re-admitted are pretty theoretical. Ukraine would then have a veto.
    – MSalters
    Mar 8 at 10:44
  • @MSalters still, even if that happens (will it? It seems like a major diplomatic move, basically driving Hungary closer into Russia's orbit), Russia can start worrying about Ukrainian membership in NATO then.
    – Allure
    Mar 8 at 10:53
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    @OliverMason, he joked that he didn't expect it during either his or Putin's tenure, and then qualified that it wouldn't happen during his tenure, he didn't know how long Putin planed to rule ...
    – o.m.
    Mar 8 at 14:20
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I believe Russia did try to conclude such agreements, and keeps trying as we speak. It's the time of presidential elections here in France, and some candidates like Roussel, Zemmour and Le Pen actually claim that if they are elected, France will vote against Ukraine joining NATO.

Taking into account that Le Pen's campaign of 2018 was financed by Russia, it is more than likely that such a position w.r.t. NATO expansion is part of the deal.

There might be yet another aspect in the conflict, namely, Putin's desire to punish Ukraine for dropping out of the Russia's sphere of influence. It could be a display of power for countries like Belarus or Kazakhstan, which is meant to show them what might happen to them if they ever decide to defy Russia.

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  • This is different. A politician (even elected in the office) is not the same as the country. And, it is highly likely that the admission process for Ukraine will take more than one French president term. Someone like Le Pen getting a single term is unlikely, getting a second - and the Ukraine will not be the worst NATO problem.
    – fraxinus
    Mar 8 at 15:04
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    @fraxinus, Might be easier though to influence a person in high office instead of the whole political system. Also said politician could be on your side in other things too. Of course you can do it in multiple countries at the same time or different times, it's not like you need that one specific country anyway. I would try that first. :)
    – ilkkachu
    Mar 8 at 15:52
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    That last paragraph is probably more on the point than what we'd like to wish for.
    – ilkkachu
    Mar 8 at 15:53
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Let's run with this. Orban, in Hungary, makes a deal, whether an actual treaty or gentleman's agreement to shoot down NATO membership.

Next election, Orban loses. What's keeping this type of deal from collapsing?

And keep in mind that, in practice, out of the 30 members of NATO at least one would have vetoed Ukrainian accession in the near future, deal or no deal.

Though, had it been a reliable way to avoid the war, formalizing non-accession should have probably been pursued. Trouble is what guarantees of Putin's good faith would have been acceptable? Even 3 weeks ago that looked questionable to take his word with regards to Ukraine.

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    What's keeping this type of deal from collapsing? Such a treaty would have to be at country level, and therefore persist through government changes. If Hungary withdraws from the treaty, then presumably Russia can worry about the problem then (in the same way that if NATO had agreed Russian demands with a legally binding treaty to prohibit Ukrainian membership, they can still renounce the treaty).
    – Allure
    Mar 8 at 7:22
  • Treaties usually have withdrawal clauses. I mean, it's not a bad idea, I just don't see it as workable. And I am not sure non-membership, on its own, would have satisfied Putin. Mar 8 at 7:24
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    @Allure Even international treaties signed at a country level can be cancelled from any signing country. For example, the US government under Trump pulled the US out of various international treaties that previous US governments had signed in the name of the US.
    – quarague
    Mar 8 at 7:38
  • @quarague yes - but that would also make a NATO-Russia treaty prohibiting Ukrainian membership unreliable, and Russia was willing to accept that, so presumably they were willing to worry about Ukrainian membership in NATO if/when NATO decides to break the treaty. Presumably they were also willing to worry about Hungary not vetoing Ukrainian membership if/when Hungary decides to break the treaty.
    – Allure
    Mar 8 at 7:41
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    What guarantees from the USA would have been acceptable? Obama signed a treaty with Iran and the ink was still fresh when the republican congresists were asking to repel it, and Trump unilaterally breack it - all while claiming that it was Iran who was not respecting the deal he had backed away from. Both the USA and the former Soviet Union were powers "too big too fail", and they were used to think that there's a law for themselves and a different one for the rest. And Putin is claiming that behaviour back for Russia.
    – Rekesoft
    Mar 8 at 7:52
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NATO has been preaching since the 90's the mantra that "every country must be free to decide if they want to join NATO" as a convenient alibi to recall former soviet countries into the western (euphemism, the USA) sphere of influence. Putin is angry to see how NATO countries encircle its own, and has drawn a red line over Ukraine. If a NATO country signed a treaty like the one you propose it would be an open betrayal of the principles NATO has been promoting for the last 30 years.

The USA - let's not pretend that NATO has anything to do with all this situation - and Putin's Russia are playing a very dangerous game of "chicken game". The first one to blink was going to lose face and look like a coward chicken. Signing a treaty that makes Ukraine unable to join NATO would have been accepting Putin's conditions, so no NATO country could do that without losing face. Maybe a powerful country like Germany or France could have risked that, but the USA would have been really angry by the humiliation. Probably it would have ended with that country out of NATO, or maybe even a total collapse of the alliance. Just like Putin couldn't just retreat its troops in the border with Ukraine back to their winter's quarters without looking like if he had cowed against NATO's stance, NATO countries could not make any treaty which would be equivalent to surrender to Putin's red lines over Ukraine.

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  • Probably it would have ended with that country out of NATO It doesn't look like NATO includes a clause on removing a member from the alliance, though. politics.stackexchange.com/questions/28337/…
    – Allure
    Mar 8 at 8:06
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    @Allure True, but just like Fizz comments in their answer, NATO is quite flexible. There's no official mecanisms to expel a country from the SWIFT system, but it has been done. Twice.
    – Rekesoft
    Mar 8 at 8:09
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    This is missing sources, especially for the rather far-fetched claim that it's only the USA at work. Note that the Eastern European countries also joined the EU, and Putin is also not accepting EU membership of Ukraine. The USA very obviously is not an EU member.
    – MSalters
    Mar 8 at 10:52
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    Encircle? Russia is really big. Eastern Europe abuts only a small fraction of its borders.
    – RedSonja
    Mar 8 at 12:38
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    And if you read a WSJ editorial from 98, there was much skepticism in the US hoover.org/research/nato-expansion-its-just-welfare-europe I think the big wave of admission from 2004 was due to Bush's difficult position with Iraq. Hard to declare you invade a country to bring democracy but won't protect another that is already democratic and wants to join your alliance. And the fact that a bunch of the older NATO countries had refused to help him with Iraq probably weighed in on that too. The new members were much more US friendly. knowyourmeme.com/memes/you-forgot-poland
    – Fizz
    Mar 31 at 18:58

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