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I'm puzzled by the recent statement of president Zelensky about giving up hopes of being a NATO member. Isn't the case for NATO membership stronger than ever? Why would he give up already? Wouldn't it show that it pays of to bully other countries by Russia or another undemocratic power?

Source: BBC News

Volodymyr Zelensky has appeared to suggest the country should accept it won't be able to join the Nato military alliance.

Speaking at a video conference with military officials earlier today, the Ukrainian president said, "Ukraine is not a member of Nato. We understand that. We are adequate people."

He continued: "We have heard for years that the doors were open, but we also heard that we could not join. It's a truth and it must be recognised.

"I am glad that our people are beginning to understand this and rely on themselves and our partners who help us."

Before the invasion, Vladimir Putin had demanded that Ukraine was banned from ever joining Nato, as one of the "security guarantees" Moscow was seeking.

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    Related: politics.stackexchange.com/questions/71039/… As for your actual question, I don't think it can be answered, because you're essentially asking us to guess what's going on Zelensky's head. I mean he's explained his reasoning in the quote you gave. You're asking why he made that statement now. Obvious guess is that he did it to explain to his people why they have to fight under the conditions that they are fighting under.
    – Fizz
    Mar 15 at 19:03
  • Ok I guess it can be closed then? Sorry I'm still learning what is acceptable to ask Mar 15 at 19:06
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    @Fizz "As for your actual question, I don't think it can be answered" and yet you have also posted an answer along with five other answers!
    – uhoh
    Mar 15 at 19:24
  • I haven't DV you, by the way. @uhoh: well, the question-post contains multiple questions. Some more answerable than others. And my answer is part frame-challenge to the interpretation that was given in the question-post to what Zelensky said. And I said "essentially" because the Q title emphasizes the timing aspect.
    – Fizz
    Mar 15 at 19:25
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    Oh, come on, it's common for a POTUS to say X and Y and questions to come up about why they said it. Those questions don't get closed near as quick, especially not if there are reasonable hypothesis for their position. This one is a pretty significant policy position by Zelensky and got extensive press coverage. Mar 15 at 23:24

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We can't know for sure what President Zelenskyy is thinking, but we do know that he's currently engaged in negotiations with Russia about ending the invasion of his country. Sooner or later, this war will end with a negotiated settlement between the 2 nations, and if President Zelenskyy wants Russia to concede on the presence of an independent and free Ukraine, then he will have to concede on other points, if only to allow Putin to withdraw without total humiliation.

Giving up on NATO membership is a great place to start for a few reasons:

  1. Preventing NATO encroachment is one of Russia's main stated arguments for the invasion. Taking that off the table looks like a victory for them.
  2. It's less important for Ukraine than EU membership. Being part of NATO gives a defensive guarantee, but EU membership does that too with the added benefit of economic and cultural integration with the West. Trading NATO for the EU is a great deal from Ukraine's perspective.
  3. It's unlikely to ever happen in the first place. While Western countries are loath to let Russia bully them into saying they'd never admit Ukraine to NATO, there are no real prospects of that happening any time soon. For one, Hungary has been blocking their admission for some time. More significantly, though, NATO knows that admitting Ukraine would almost certainly pull them into direct conflict with Russia. With the situation in Crimea unresolved, that would become a near certainty.

So, why mention this publicly (yes, the statement was at a NATO meeting, but it was distributed and reported widely to the public)? By telegraphing this (possible) future concession, he shows the world that Ukraine is willing to make concessions towards Russia's sense of security, while preparing his people, and the world at large, for it so it doesn't seem like a defeat.

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    That last sentence holds more weight than I believe you imagine. Ukraine has not conceded Crimea to Russia; Crimea is occupied territory as far as the rest of the NATO nations are concerned. There is no "almost" in there. Prior to 2014 there was reluctance to admit Ukraine into NATO as Russia would see it as a major provocation. With the Crimea invasion in 2014, any possibility of Ukraine joining NATO was off the table, unless Ukraine officially ceded the Crimea first. Anything else would have been tantamount to a declaration of war by NATO on Russia.
    – DevSolar
    Mar 15 at 20:03
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    @Fizz Not directly, but it's all connected. If Zelenskyy is going to concede on joining NATO, he going to want to telegraph that to his people and the world both to shape the international consensus as to what a "fair deal" would look like and so it doesn't look like a defeat if that is included in the deal. While the statement was made at a NATO meeting, it was released publicly and clearly was intended for a broader audience than just the people at that meeting
    – divibisan
    Mar 15 at 20:13
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    @divibisan Since Sweden and Finland are now considering - quite understandably so IMHO - to give up neutrality and join NATO given that their neighbor has shown that unprovoked invasion seems a legit option, Putin might have shot himself in the foot there as far as "NATO members close to Moscow and Russia's naval bases" is concerned...
    – DevSolar
    Mar 15 at 21:47
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    I do not think that EU membership gives a similar defensive guarantee (compared to NATO) against aggression from a nuclear-weapon state. Would not NATO members still refuse to enter the conflict? As I understand it NATO obligations have a higher priority than the mutual defense clause (Article 42(7) of the Treaty on European Union). Mar 16 at 8:58
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    @pabouk-Ukrainestaystrong Both EU and NATO obligate members to mutual support. The EU clause phrases it as "aid and assistance by all the means in their power", which leaves it up to interpretation if that includes direct military support. The NATO clause phrases it as "such action as [deemed] necessary, including the use of armed force, to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area".
    – DevSolar
    Mar 16 at 11:52
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TLDR:

Whatever agreements and concessions end up being made by either side, signaling the willingness to give up (an unlikely immediately helpful) NATO accession is a strong sign by Zelensky that he's ready to talk business in actual negotiations.

Giving up the major pretext for the "special military operation" is also a pretty clever opening towards Russian public opinion, which is going to make it harder for Putin to claim Russia victimhood.

This early in the war also bears thinking about as well. Right now, Ukraine has an unexpectedly strong hand, so would be negotiating from a, relative, position of strength. Military analysts are - which would have been unthinkable a month ago - speculating that maybe, just maybe, the Russian invasion will grind to a halt.

But that's very much a maybe: it could also swing the other way. However, in case of slipping fortunes, Putin's and Zelensky's positions are not symmetrical in negotiations: as a dictator, Putin can, at least in the short term, ride out military reverses much more easily than a democratically elected President facing massive civilian deaths at home.


The book length version:

NATO accession has been widely seen as problematic and too adversarial towards Russia. It may have been a partial cause to the current invasion - I say may despite Russia's public statements because, with Putin, there is no telling when he's telling the truth or not.

A democratic, unitary and economically successful Ukraine may be too much for Putin to stomach next door, mostly as an indictment of his domestic failures. The fact that the 2014 crisis was about Ukrainian EU - not NATO - membership shows the limit of NATO membership being the only cause.

Here's what an invited guest writer, John Mearcheimer, for the Economist - hardly a pro-Putin mouthpiece - had to say. It's way too pat in blaming it all on NATO in my opinion, but there are some good hard truths in it nevertheless (note that the Economist distanced itself somewhat by making the guest editorial aspect quite prominent):

The trouble over Ukraine actually started at NATO’s Bucharest summit in April 2008, when George W. Bush’s administration pushed the alliance to announce that Ukraine and Georgia “will become members”. Russian leaders responded immediately with outrage, characterizing this decision as an existential threat to Russia and vowing to thwart it. According to a respected Russian journalist, Mr Putin “flew into a rage” and warned that “if Ukraine joins NATO, it will do so without Crimea and the eastern regions. It will simply fall apart.” America ignored Moscow’s red line, however, and pushed forward to make Ukraine a Western bulwark on Russia’s border. That strategy included two other elements: bringing Ukraine closer to the EU and making it a pro-American democracy.

These efforts eventually sparked hostilities in February 2014, after an uprising (which was supported by America) caused Ukraine’s pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovych, to flee the country. In response, Russia took Crimea from Ukraine and helped fuel a civil war that broke out in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine.

The next major confrontation came in December 2021 and led directly to the current war. The main cause was that Ukraine was becoming a de facto member of NATO. The process started in December 2017, when the Trump administration decided to sell Kyiv “defensive weapons”. What counts as “defensive” is hardly clear-cut, however, and these weapons certainly looked offensive to Moscow and its allies in the Donbas region. Other NATO countries got in on the act, shipping weapons to Ukraine, training its armed forces and allowing it to participate in joint air and naval exercises. In July 2021, Ukraine and America co-hosted a major naval exercise in the Black Sea region involving navies from 32 countries. Operation Sea Breeze almost provoked Russia to fire at a British naval destroyer that deliberately entered what Russia considers its territorial waters.

To be clear, while I am including the third paragraph above, the West has been reacting to Russian aggression since 2014, not causing it (unlike what this claims).

Ultimately, Ukraine is getting aggressed, this is Putin's war, and the blood from the methods being used to wage it are on Putin's hands. But few disputes are entirely one sided and it is hard to see how the US's constant whining about Cuba during, and even after, the Cold War can be reconciled with its expectations that Russia should just roll over with regards to large NATO border neighbors.

Point is, there may be a middle ground where Ukraine is free to carry out its foreign policy as it sees fit, but is not member of what's for all intent and purposes, and especially right now, an anti-Russia alliance.

The, remote, possibility of NATO accession has not solved the present problem so it might be good to change course. NATO has in any case been very supportive of Ukraine, within the constraints of nuclear escalation risks, so Ukraine hasn't been left out.

p.s. if it's the same Mearsheimer that authored a book about Israel-American relations that I read, be aware he's controversial (to say the least) at times.

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I don't think this question is answerable unless you are Zelensky. Still, here's an attempt to read Zelensky's mind.

Consider the ongoing war from the Ukrainian point of view. Start by assuming that there will eventually be peace. I think this is obvious, because no war lasts forever. Now consider how peace might be achieved:

  1. Russia wins the war.
  2. Ukraine wins the war.
  3. Putin has a change of heart and stops the war.
  4. Putin is deposed or dies. The new Russian leader pulls back all their troops and negotiates an end to the war.
  5. Putin is deposed or dies. The new Russian leader imposes a ceasefire, but does not pull back their troops.
  6. Putin is deposed or dies. The new Russian leader continues the war, possibly committing more resources.
  7. NATO enters the war and defeats the Russians.
  8. There is a negotiated peace of some kind.

These look like the obvious ones to me. Can you think of more paths to peace? If so then feel free to add them to the list.

Then it's up to you to assign probabilities to each of the outcomes. Semi-arbitrarily, from my armchair, I'd say #2 and #7 are very unlikely, #2 because Ukraine is outgunned, and #7 because NATO has said they won't risk WW3. #3 also seems very unlikely, since it would involve Putin admitting he has been defeated and/or that Western sanctions have worked. #4 to #6 all involve Putin being deposed or dying, which is possible, but still pretty unlikely unless Putin has some health condition that we don't know about. If Putin is deposed or dies, then #4 and #5 is an extension of #8, while #6 is more likely to lead to #1.

Hence the most probable outcomes of the war are #1 and #8. #1 is obviously unacceptable, so Ukraine's best outcome is #8. You might say "but this means it pays off for Russia to bully other countries", and you might be right, but remember that if you remove #8 from the list of possible outcomes, then the only remaining probable outcome is #1. In other words, Ukraine might very well be on a timer, and must find an acceptable peace before they lose the war.

If Ukraine must negotiate, then they need to provide something that Putin can spin as a victory, even if Putin doesn't get everything he wants. Russia has demanded four things to end the war: demilitarization, independence of Donetsk/Luhansk, recognition of Crimea as part of Russia, and neutrality. The last demand, neutrality, seems like the easiest condition to meet. After all, it's not like Ukraine can join NATO any time soon even if there were no invasion. Furthermore, even if Putin is deposed or dies, ordinary Russians also consider NATO expansion as naked aggression. A new Russian leader is still not going to be likely to allow Ukraine to join NATO, and they've already indicated they are willing to go to war to stop that from happening.

So it makes sense for Zelensky to give up on NATO membership. It was not something that's happening anyway and it's something Putin can spin as a victory. Giving Putin this concession could mean Putin is willing to compromise on Donetsk/Luhansk too (I doubt Putin will compromise on Crimea, because Crimeans are strongly pro-Russia). The result won't be ideal for Ukraine, but it's still better than #1.

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As of right now if Ukraine was to join NATO that would immediately trigger article 5 and draw the rest of NATO into the conflict. As Ukraine is currently under attack from a foreign power this isn't something that can be avoided. Unless NATO is ready to join the conflict they will not want to admit Ukraine as of the defense requirements that happen as soon as they join.

Until such time as Ukraine is free of foreign invaders and no longer has those invaders occupying parts of its land it will not be able to join NATO.

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  • Ok I'm aware of that, but this seems to rule out even future Nato membership Mar 15 at 18:44
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    @PiotrGolacki Ukraine has been blocked on getting membership for years and now is getting blocked because of it being invaded. Unless you see a path to Russia leaving all the occupied territory I don't see a path to membership for Ukraine.
    – Joe W
    Mar 15 at 18:54
  • Ok, but why publicly giving up? I'm more interested why the president Zelensky would publicly give up? Why now? Is it hint to Russia? Mar 15 at 18:56
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    @PiotrGolacki What is he "giving up"? It seems he is simply stating facts - Ukraine is not in NATO, Ukraine has heard mixed messages about future NATO membership (presumably from both NATO and non-NATO members), Ukraine must currently defend itself without being part of NATO, because Ukraine is not in NATO. Mar 15 at 19:05
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1. NATO-membership is a moot issue now anyway.

The point of NATO-membership for Ukraine would be to deter Russia from attacking them, or failing that, have the other NATO members join them in defending against Russia. So the bad thing NATO-membership was meant to avoid already happened. Moreover, the current NATO member have demonstrated that they are not wiling to fight for Ukraine, because otherwise they'd be doing it right now.

2. Zelensky has many different audiences to address right now

If it were just Zelensky talking with Putin, making any kind of concessions without something in response might be mistake in negotiations. However, Zelensky is speaking to many different audiences. He neesd to show to the Ukranians that he is offering strong leadership, but at the same time is not throwing their lives away for unrealistic dreams. He needs to keep the support of the western public, to keep arms shipments flowing to Ukraine. Ideally, he wants to appear reasonable to the Chinese leadership to prevent arms shipments from flowing to Russia.

3. Russia also seems to have moved their goalposts, and this is the best concession in response.

It is not straight-forward to interpret Russian statements about their wargoals. However, their initial statements were widely taken to be aimed at installing a puppet regime in Ukraine and annexing significant parts of Ukranian territory. More recent statements could mean that 1. "Ukraine stays out of military alliances", 2. Crimea stays with Russia and 3. Donbass becomes independent might be enough for them now. To take Goal 1 to refer to NATO only (and not the EU) makes it a reasonable concession. Softening up Ukranian hardliners now might make it more palatable.

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The existing answers all fail to mention that Zelensky himself has already explained this, in an interview with ABC News:

Regarding NATO, I have cooled down regarding this question long ago after we understood that NATO is not prepared to accept Ukraine. The alliance is afraid of controversial things and confrontation with Russia.

Essentially, he's dissatisfied with NATO's response to the Russian invasion (he has complained about their refusal to implement a no-fly zone on several occasions), and believes the organisation doesn't actually want Ukraine to join. So it's less to do with wanting to make concessions to Russia, and more to do with Zelensky himself deciding that the goal is no longer as attainable or desirable as he once believed.

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  • This is true, but I for one will also not take that exactly at face value, despite knowing that he said that. Zelensky is emerging as somewhat of a virtuoso in pitching Ukraine's position to a worldwide audience, so whatever he says is calculated, make no mistake. For example, I saw a, now very dated interview of Laura Ingraham with Trump on Fox. She mocked Zelensky for addressing Russia directly, in Russian, to say that Ukraine was peaceful. She called it meek and pathetic. The whole idea, that he'd pitch his message directly to Russians, just flew over her little head. Mar 17 at 19:57
  • Trump of course gobbled it up. youtube.com/watch?v=ieVPob3TIG0 about 1:20 in. March 1st. Mar 17 at 19:58
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Isn't the case for NATO membership stronger than ever?

Well, from Ukraine perspective, yes. From NATO's (countries) perspective, no. They've said they don't want the war to expand to their territories, essentially WW3.

Why would he give up already?

As for why he made the statement now, it was made in the context of a meeting with political NATO/JEF leaders. So, it wasn't so much for a domestic audience, but for an external one, and a rather limited one. And appearing grounded in reality is probably not a bad idea if you want a sensible discussion of strategy/support etc.

Also, you might be reading a bit much into his statement. He's not saying that he's giving in to Russian demands to remove NATO as an objective from Ukraine's constitution, nor that he's agreeing to putting neutrality there instead (as e.g. as Moldova has.) So it doesn't read to me like he's making much of a concession.


I concede however that others have given Zelensky's statements a different interpretation, e.g. John Simpson, the BBC's World Affairs editor:

So what will make President Putin come out of this disastrous war looking good in the eyes of Russia's majority? Firstly, an assurance, perhaps even to be written into Ukraine's constitution, that it has no intention of joining Nato in the foreseeable future. President Zelensky has already prepared the way for this, by asking Nato for something it couldn't agree to (establishing a no-fly-zone over Ukraine), then criticising the alliance for letting him down on this, and finally musing out loud that he wasn't sure that if Nato behaved like this, it was actually worth joining. As clever and wise political positioning goes, it doesn't get much better than this. Nato gets the blame, which it can easily cope with, and Ukraine gets the freedom to act as it wants.

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Depends on the exact terms of the proposal. You might look at 'the West' as a Venn diagram of intersecting sets. Here a slightly outdated but visually nice one. Countries which are NATO-but-not-EU, countries which are EU-but-not-NATO, countries which are both, countries which are EEA-but-not-EU, etc.

Ukraine still talks about relying on 'partners.' Getting somewhere closer to the center of that diagram might be the best they can hope for right now. Austria is no NATO member, either.

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President Zelensky did not say Ukraine will not join NATO if offered to do so. He did not give up on the idea that one day, perhaps after Ukrainian victory and the end of war, Ukraine will join NATO.

The meaning of Zelensky’s words is simply this. Ukraine recognizes that NATO does not want to enter the war, as it means direct confrontation of nuclear powers and possibly WWIII. NATO will not provide a no-fly zone. Ukraine must rely for its defense not on NATO, but on individual alliances with separate states. These states include many NATO and non-NATO members.

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Imagine someone standing next to a bear, and, for the last 31 years, the bear has been saying, "If you join NATO, or any other alliance I consider hostile, I will kill you." When they applied to the alliance over a decade ago, to no avail, the bear hit them. When they declared a plan to get in anyway, the bear maimed them.

While the alliance could collectively overpower the bear, a lot of its members would get maimed in the process. They threw a lot rocks at the bear (sanctions) instead of the usual food (investment). It considerably hurt, but didn't kill the bear.

Normally, one would just go somewhere the bear isn't, but a country can't move.

This is not a unique situation. The Republic of China can't join the UN because of the PRC. Russia can't join the EU, because it doesn't conform to its standards. And lots of countries can't join anything at all, because they lack full recognition.

And, while Russia claims NATO is the only reason, there are other reasons and motivations as well. Self-preservation is easy to sympathize with. If one clearly declares they won't try to join a hostile alliance, further aggression gets much harder to justify.

The more demands Zelenskyy declares to be acceptable, the easier it is to come to a peace treaty in the conflict. NATO membership is something Ukraine wasn't going to get anytime soon, so it's a small sacrifice. It also doesn't close the door forever and ever. Should the president after the next or the one after that decide otherwise, reversing the neutrality decision will simply take more time.

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    @JoeW Ukraine applied to begin a NATO Membership Action Plan in 2008. Indeed, it's not recent, but over 10 years old by now. There was a 2019 constitutional amendment stating intent though. Edited to reflect that.
    – HK-51
    Mar 15 at 19:31
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    I feel there is much too much to be read into your metaphor. Who let that bear out of its cage anyway? What are those stones you claim NATO (ups, the frat members) have been "throwing at the bear"? Who are those kids you are talking about? Sorry, but that's a bit too "meta" for my tastes.
    – DevSolar
    Mar 15 at 20:13
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    @JoeW In 2019, Ukraine amended its very constitution to explicitly mention NATO. In 2020, Ukraine was recognized as an Enhanced Opportunities Partner for NATO. In 2021, Biden supported Ukraine's direction towards NATO, saying it's in Ukraine's hands.
    – HK-51
    Mar 15 at 20:16
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    And Russia didn't invade Ukraine until 2022 over 3 years later which suggests that it wasn't a pressing issue for Russia if they delayed their response over 3 years.
    – Joe W
    Mar 15 at 20:57
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    Not to mention that those moves toward NATO membership came after Russia invaded and annexed Crimea. I'd be looking for allies as well when my neighbor already has violated my borders. So... "response by Russia"? I don't think so.
    – DevSolar
    Mar 15 at 22:22

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