This past weekend at the Halifax International Security Forum, Ukraine’s former president, Petro Poroshenko, delivered an impassioned plea to the international community to support his embattled nation. Poroshenko stated that even though he is now the leader of the opposition, he stands united with President Volodymyr Zelensky and shares his determination to continue fighting until Ukraine reconquers its lost territory.
It is no small matter that, in contrast to Russia’s Vladimir Putin, who has not hesitated to order the murder of his leading political opponents, Poroshenko has observed democratic norms, accepted his defeat by Zelensky in the 2019 presidential elections, and accordingly, has assumed the role of leader of the opposition.
Poroshenko also rightly argued in his remarks at the Halifax Forum that had Ukraine not agreed in 1992 to remove former Soviet weapons stationed on its territory, signed the Lisbon Protocol that year, and then joined the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1994, Moscow would not have dared to attack Crimea in 2014, much less invade the rest of the country beginning on Feb. 24 of this year.
It is noteworthy that in the same year that Ukraine signed the NPT, the United States, Britain and Russia signed the Budapest Memorandum that prohibited those three countries from threatening or using military force or economic pressure against Ukraine “except in self-defense.” Among the officials who witnessed the signing of the agreements was Donald Blinken, the American ambassador to Hungary and the late father of Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
In light of Ukraine’s voluntary relinquishing of the nuclear weapons on its soil, and America’s commitment to Kyiv in 1994, Washington clearly has a moral obligation to continue to support the country. It is arguable, however, that the Biden administration should go even further than it has done until now; it should support Ukraine’s entry into NATO.
With the notable exception of the Yanukovich government that, from 2010 to 2014, was in thrall to Putin, Ukraine has for some time manifested an unambiguous desire to join NATO. Several Ukrainian speakers at the Halifax Forum argued that the rapidity with which NATO formally accepted the Swedish and Finnish applications for membership — with most legislatures having already ratified that acceptance — could equally well be applied to Ukraine. Doing so would provide Kyiv with the nuclear umbrella that the country lost in 1994.
Moreover, given America’s role in supporting and signing one of the three Budapest Memorandums, Washington has a fundamentally different obligation to Ukraine — as indeed, does Britain — than do other NATO members. Open American support for Ukrainian membership in NATO would further bolster the country’s morale. Doing so could not be more timely given Putin’s determination to sap that morale by destroying the country’s infrastructure at the onset of winter.
Ukrainian membership in NATO would pose no more of a threat to Russia than do NATO’s Baltic members or Balkan states such as tiny Montenegro. On the other hand, a Ukraine that is inside NATO would be far more secure from any future Russian attempts to swallow the country whole.
As a practical matter, it is unlikely that NATO would address a Ukrainian application with anything like the speed with which it has received those of the two previously non-aligned Scandinavian states. Enthusiasm for Ukrainian membership is far from uniform throughout the alliance. Apart from Poland, the Baltic states, and perhaps Britain, it is not at all clear that other members would be in a rush to accept Ukraine. Indeed, even the Finnish and Swedish applications have encountered roadblocks, primarily from Turkey, but perhaps from Hungary as well.
Poroshenko observed in his remarks at Halifax that Ukraine is fighting not only to preserve its own democratic system, but also on behalf of all democracies — especially those such as Taiwan that likewise confront a more powerful neighbor. Indeed, Kyiv’s refusal to bow to Russian military and economic pressure, and its rollback of Russian forces, sends an important signal to Beijing that the price of aggression would be exceedingly costly. It is a signal that Washington, in particular, should reinforce.
In an impassioned address to the Halifax Forum, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin underscored American and allied support for Ukraine’s valiant fight to counter Russian aggression. The White House, however, should go well beyond its ongoing military and economic assistance to Kyiv. It should both publicly endorse Ukrainian membership in NATO and urge in the most forceful terms that Ukraine accede to the alliance at the earliest possible time.
Dov S. Zakheim is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and vice chairman of the board for the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He was under secretary of Defense (comptroller) and chief financial officer for the Department of Defense from 2001 to 2004 and a deputy under secretary of Defense from 1985 to 1987.