Discover more from Trying to Understand the World
Ukraine In NATO Would Be A Disaster ...
But not necessarily for the reasons you think.
There was a lot of punditing going on before the recent NATO Summit about inviting Ukraine to become a NATO member, and a lot of disappointment and even anger among the PMC-adjacent media that it didn’t happen. As far as I can work out, this media and those whose views it reflects seem to have viewed Ukraine’s membership as something between a noble act of charity and a cunning plan to destroy Mr Putin. But if you read the long, turgid communiqué that came out of that Summit, you’ll realise that in practice it’s never going to happen, and indeed that it never was going to happen. But the “why” of that is interesting, and ultimately has little to do with all the fuss about “security guarantees.” Rather, I have a feeling that some, at least, in NATO, have begun to appreciate just what the membership of Ukraine would actually mean in practical terms. Here’s the (reasonably) full, grisly picture.
First, though, a bit of background. Over recent months, there has been an incredible amount of chatter, mostly ill-informed, about something called “security guarantees,” generally citing Article 5 of the Washington Treaty. I’ll start by explaining why this is irrelevant, and move on to the two real reasons why I think letting Ukraine join would probably destroy NATO anyway.
Most people who talk about the Washington Treaty haven’t read it, and most people assume that it created NATO, which it didn’t, really. So before we go any further, let’s look at the famous words of Article 5 which are supposed to be a “security guarantee,” and let’s briefly go into why the Article says what it says. I’m going to cite the whole thing, which is seldom done. Quote:
“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 exercise of the right of individual or collective self-defence recognised 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.
Any such armed attack and all measures taken as a result thereof shall immediately be reported to the Security Council. Such measures shall be terminated when the Security Council has taken the measures necessary to restore and maintain international peace and security.”
Note the qualifications in bold, by the way. This is not a “security guarantee.” To the surprise of many pundits, there is no word about declarations of war or automatically providing military aid. A country could theoretically discharge its obligation by sending a strong note of protest, even if in practice member states were expected to coordinate, and all do much the same thing. But why was the Article drafted like this anyway? Let’s recall very briefly what its history was.
In the late 1940s, Europe was in ruins, and effectively disarmed. The political leaderships that had emerged from the War were traumatised and exhausted, and terrified of another conflict, which they judged, probably rightly, would destroy the continent once and for all. And there was no shortage of crises. Germany had been defeated, but would one day rise again. The Soviet Union had taken control of Hungary and Czechoslovakia. There was a civil war under way in Greece, in both France and Italy there were strong Communist Parties which had emerged covered in glory from the Resistance, and among whose leadership were many who thought the struggle was not yet over. Millions of people were being interned, and moved, often against their will, from one set of new frontiers to another. Scatted fighting continued, with perhaps a hundred thousand deaths, for some time after the formal end of hostilities in 1945. Above all, western elites, looking at the destruction around them, swore that never, ever again would they allow a military threat to develop, as had happened in the 1930s. This time they would be ready.
The greatest fear of a disarmed Europe was the massive deployment of Soviet troops to the East. It’s true these troops were not seen as much of a threat militarily (and we know now that Stalin was equally anxious to avoid a war, and equally worried about western intentions) but, especially after the 1948 Berlin Crisis, something like panic began to seize western chancelleries, with the thought of Stalin using this massive presence to reduce western Europe to the same subject status as Europe further East. This was the background to the famous 1948 Memorandum issued in the name of Ernest Bevin, the British Foreign Secretary which led to the Washington Treaty the next year. When the Treaty was eventually signed, it did not contain any promises of automatic US military support in the case of a war. This had been eagerly sought by the French, among others, but was adamantly opposed by the US, fearful that Congress would never ratify such a deal, given the isolationist mood of the time. What remained was a political commitment which reflected Bevin’s hope that the Treaty would “inspire respect and caution” on the Soviet side. Simply put, it was a warning that, in any crisis between the Soviet Union and Europe, the US would automatically be involved also, and this, it was hoped, would give the Soviets pause. Quite quickly, the outbreak of the Korean War induced panic in western capitals, and the rapid militarisation of the infant alliance. But the underlying logic remained: whilst US forces remained in Europe in quite large numbers, they were never “protecting” Europe (which supplied most of the forces anyway) but rather requiring the Soviet Union to consider US opinions and possible actions in any crisis.
This is not, therefore, a “security guarantee” in any real sense, because it guaranteed nothing, and never has. In any event, a guarantee of any kind is worthless unless you have the means to implement it, and NATO does not have these means now, and will not have them for a long time, if ever. (The Russians are perfectly aware of this, of course.) To that extent, whether Ukraine is a NATO member is irrelevant, since any country can give a real security guarantee (“we will come to your assistance militarily if you are attacked”) any time it wants to. Indeed a guarantee is nothing more than a promise made in advance: nothing stops any western country deciding to deploy forces to fight on the side of Ukraine now, if it decides to do so. However, to be fair, there are also ways of taking advantage of NATO membership which don’t rely on formal security guarantees. In an alliance of any kind, solidarity is a basic principle, and states often wind up supporting actions by allies about which they have severe private doubts: a point I return to below.
Against this background, it’s fair to say that the Nemesis which has been slowly approaching NATO over the last thirty years has now arrived. There was no real “decision” taken to continue NATO after 1989; rather, there were treaties in force that made its continued existence necessary, and lots of nations saw all kinds of pragmatic reasons for the alliance to continue, and few advantages in scrapping it. For several years, though, too much was going on to think of expanding its membership, and the assurances on that subject given to the Russians at the time represented what western capitals generally thought, even if there were a few extremists in Washington who fantasised about expansion.
But the new situation rapidly began to seem very odd. Why were there German troops under NATO command on the Polish frontier? What were they defending against? A little further south in the Balkans, the mismatch between ethnicities and frontiers had caused a war which was claiming tens of thousands of lives. The situation in Eastern Europe was much more complex and potentially much more dangerous. Did we really want Yugoslavia 2.0? When the three (now four) so-called Visegrad countries (Hungary, Poland and Czechoslovakia) began to talk about membership, there was no organised opposition: it didn’t seem to be a very big issue, and it gave NATO something to do, as well as, with luck, preventing a security vacuum in the region. Quite quickly, the enlargement process began to acquire a momentum of its own.
But the more suspicious among us had doubts. After all, the original twelve members of NATO were all Western European or North American states, and the phrase “North Atlantic” had some meaning. There was a reasonable degree of cultural and political commonality between them. Germany and Spain, joining later, and even Greece, could be said to share this heritage, even if Turkey remained something of an anomaly. By contrast, and although it was considered bad manners to say so, the wholesale importation of post-communist states into NATO was bound to provoke problems. Most were politically unstable, many had no democratic traditions at all, and many also were highly corrupt and run by organised crime, their brighter citizens fleeing to the West. Never mind, we were told, NATO membership (and later EU membership) will resolve those problems. The (relative) success of the V4 was continually cited. Like many people, I was unconvinced and still am.
It was also becoming clear also that collecting nations like postage stamps was rapidly leading NATO into a position where the alliance was taking on commitments that it was not prepared for, and could not meet. The “security” guarantee idea was becoming more and more stretched and fantastical as NATO ran down its conventional forces, and turned its attention first to the Balkans and then to Afghanistan. Russia became a niche subject, not attracting a lot of time or attention, as NATO’s energies increasingly turned to Afghanistan, to other parts of the world, and to enlargement effectively as an end in itself. But then Russia was no longer a major power and its protests about enlargement (or anything else) could safely be ignored.
Yet the fundamental problem did not go away. It was well summed up to me by a diplomatic colleague not long after the Cold War. “If we ever expand NATO we either have to ultimately include Russia, in which case we’ll have a border with China, or not include Russia, in which case we’ll ultimately have a border with them.” Those of us in different countries who made such arguments were never very numerous nor very highly-placed, and the reply was always the same: we’ll worry about that later. Well, now it’s later.
At some point in the 1990s, the concept of a “security guarantee,” never very robust in the first place, began to break down completely, but without anybody really noticing. This helps to account, I think, for the vengeful and hysterical attitude of so many western leaders over the Ukraine crisis: their anger is directed in part against their own predecessors, who left them a delayed action bomb, which they now no longer have the capability to defuse, and alleged “security guarantees” which now turn out to be worthless.
If we leave out for a moment the relatively few Russia hawks (mostly in Washington) and the few who were firmly opposed to expansion, and if we recognise that Russia/Ukraine was not a major issue for most NATO governments until very recently, we can identify broadly two sets of expectations within the main body of the alliance:
The majority view was something like:
NATO helps build a successful, prosperous, western-aligned Ukraine too heavily armed to be intimidated by Russia.
Russia falls apart.
And the minority view was something like:
NATO helps etc. but Russia attacks anyway and suffers rapid military humiliation.
Russia falls apart.
I don’t suppose there was a single national leader who expected to find themselves in the position they are now in. There were no doubt plenty of figures in all countries who rubbed their hands in glee at the start, believing that Russia had blundered into a trap. There were many others who appear to have slept since the end of the Cold War, and had not realised that NATO’s conventional land warfare capability and armaments industries had been reduced almost to nothing, and so the fabled “security guarantee” was meaningless in practical terms. No wonder they are furious.
But in any event, the real problems with Ukrainian membership of NATO lie elsewhere, and to understand what they are, we need to go into the organisation of NATO a bit; something which, as far as I can see, has been completely neglected in this debate.
It was obvious from the first days of the militarisation of NATO in the early 1950s, that some permanent structures would be needed if the organisation was to be effective. Even after the end of the Cold War, the military and civilian structures of NATO are enormous and complex, but we’ll concentrate on a few significant ones. Like every international organisation of any size, NATO has permanent national delegations. In this case, every country has a Permanent Representative, with the rank of Ambassador, and that person has diplomatic status, and is supported by a staff of diplomats, civil servants and military officers. Whilst more restricted informal groups do exist for some purposes, every national delegation has in principle access to all NATO information up to SECRET automatically, and to communications from capitals that are shared around.
So the first thing that would happen if Ukraine joined NATO is that an Ambassador would arrive, with staff, and begin playing a full role in NATO decision-making. The President, the Foreign Minister and the Defence Minister of Ukraine would attend political-level meetings, and the Ukrainian military would participate in all the military discussions. It’s important to understand what this means. In spite of the popular image of NATO nations as a series of puppets manipulated by the CIA through mind control techniques, NATO, like any other international organisation, is riven with internal conflicts and disagreements on all sorts of issues. It’s an organisation where consensus is necessary, and where states can and do threaten that consensus to extract concessions. Any intelligent Ukrainian government would do this. It would block agreement on measures that had wide support if its concerns about Russia were not met. This would mean midnight meetings about drafting communiqués or policy documents, with Ukraine holding out for aggressive language about Russia, and hard-line decisions on policy towards that country. Ukraine would play the victim for as much as it could extract from it, and demand, in effect, the final say on any text, whether internal or public, that mentioned Russia. In the event of a real crisis within NATO, it would mobilise international sympathy in favour of the hard-line position it intended to take. Fundamentally, Ukraine could effectively threaten to bring NATO business to a halt if it didn’t get what it wanted.
NATO has a plethora of official committees —it’s largely about committees actually—and Ukraine would be a member of them all. The most important is probably the Military Committee, made up of the Military Representatives, and, twice a year meeting at Chief of Defence level. The Chair of the Military Committee is by convention a senior European military officer (currently a Dutch Admiral.) So, why not a Ukrainian General next time: it would be logical and politically attractive, wouldn’t it? Then there’s the Defence Policy and Planning Committee, traditionally chaired by a British official, which among other things would have discussed early drafts of the recent NATO Summit communiqué. Any intelligent Ukrainian delegation would find ample room for trouble-making there. And there are many others, including the Nuclear Planning Group, where Ukrainian membership might send the discussion off in interesting directions.
In practical terms, Ukraine would probably emerge very quickly as the leader of a hard-line group of anti-Russian nations, calling always for a more confrontational policy and more hawkish positions and statements about Russia. Many other nations, especially those a long way away, would be reluctant to expend political capital opposing them, and, in the interests of making progress, NATO committees would wind up quietly letting the Ukrainians dictate policy on many issues to do with Russia. If you think this is exaggerated, well, we’ve long had a small foretaste in the mutually destructive playground antics of Greece and Turkey. A trivial example: after the break-up of Yugoslavia, the Republic then called Macedonia became independent. The Greeks, for historical reasons, refused to recognise the country under that name. The Turks, just to annoy the Greeks, argued that NATO should do so. Until 2018, when the problem was resolved with the name of the country changed to North Macedonia, the country was called the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. But the Turks didn’t like that, and every NATO document, down to the most routine signal, had to include a footnote saying that “Turkey recognises the Republic of Macedonia under its constitutional name,” or the Turks would make a protest. That’s a tiny example. Think what a big one would be like.
So by being a “good ally” on most issues, and concentrating on Russia, Ukraine could easily get most of what it wanted. Likewise, it might decide to generate entirely pointless and artificial controversies in a completely different areas, in order to get concessions on Russia. Nations do this kind of thing all the time, and, after a while, fighting it becomes too much trouble. We can assume also that any competent Ukrainian government would be lobbying key NATO capitals—especially Washington—all the time.
But there’s more. NATO has an Allied Command Operations, with its HQ at Mons in Belgium. It has traditionally been headed by a US General, but it has a large international staff, and the Ukrainians would be entitled to a share of the posts. ACO has three subordinate Operational Level Commands, two of which are in Europe, at Brunssum in the Netherlands, and in Naples. (There are also a number of Tactical Commands). Well, say the Ukrainians, it’s obvious that NATO needs an Operational Command looking toward the East as well, so let’s create one. We’ll host it, and supply all the infrastructure and the commander, and all you need to do is send staff officers. So the Ukrainians would acquire massive influence over NATO operations along the Russian border.
Finally (or at least that’s enough for now) like all international organisations, NATO has seconded staff, and lots of them. There are two main organisations. The International Staff is a civilian organisation around a thousand strong, that supports the North Atlantic Council, and is headed by a Secretary General, conventionally a former European Minister. Now there’s an idea … It’s made up of seconded staff from NATO nations, and Ukraine would be entitled to a substantial number of posts, being one of the larger NATO members. It would be logical, wouldn’t it, for Ukrainians to be given key posts to do with Russia? After all, they speak the language and are familiar with the area. How about the Joint Intelligence and Security Division, for example? Or Political Affairs and Security? Or Operations? And there is a parallel International Military Staff, some five hundred strong, where again the Ukrainian could expect some influential jobs.
It’s this kind of thing, I think, rather than “security guarantees” that the more thoughtful Ukrainian players are interested in. Most NATO nations are on auto-pilot: they have no particular objectives in NATO, but are members by habit, and see no good reason to leave. Nobody especially wants re-nationalisation of defence in Europe given that continent’s history, and NATO is as good a way of preventing that as any. Even those NATO countries genuinely hostile to Russia, rather than just along for the ride, have a lot of other priorities as well, so a Ukraine in NATO, laser-focused on Russia, could easily wind up being the tail that wags the dog.
Now then, all of the above depends on one gigantic assumption, which is that a post-war Ukraine is an independent unitary state, and more importantly will remain so. Imagine if you will that an invitation is extended to Ukraine to join NATO when the war is over. Assume further that the war concludes with the Ukrainian forces shattered, and Russian forces in occupation of the Donbas, and Odessa. At that point peace negotiations, or at least some kind of dialogue, are in progress. Let’s really push the envelope by suggesting that Ukraine is hustled into NATO quickly, against Russian protests but without further violence. Problem solved?
Well, that depends. Literally nobody knows what the future political configuration of Ukraine will be, but we can set out some possibilities. One, obviously, is a strongly pro-NATO government along current lines, which would enthusiastically embrace NATO membership along the model suggested above. But even if pro-NATO forces remain in political control of the country, they will have to deal with the fact that their much larger and more powerful neighbour doesn’t want them to be a NATO member and has ways of showing its displeasure. At a minimum, we might see a return to the pre-2014 situation, where a greatly weakened Ukraine tries to manoeuvre between Russia and the West. It is doubtful whether the West will continue propping up the Ukrainian economy forever, and so at some point, Kiev will have to start doing things that Russia wants, which may not be things that the West wants. So the first intervention by the new Ukrainian Ambassador to NATO might be to tell the rest of NATO to back off a bit, and perhaps withdraw their forces from his country.
Another possibility is a coup by elements of the military and the intelligence services and the extreme nationalists to put a hyper-nationalist regime in power. This would have some awkward presentational aspects for NATO: if the invitation had already been issued and accepted, it could hardly be withdrawn. In effect, by issuing an invitation at all, NATO would tie itself to supporting any regime that emerged in Ukraine, effectively forever. There are precedents of a sort: Portugal was a military dictatorship when it joined NATO, and both Greece and Turkey went through periods of military rule. But that was during the Cold War, when much effort went into justifying their continued membership with mental acrobatics that would not be repeatable now. Nationalist governments after lost wars are seldom pretty, but NATO would be obliged to support pretty much anything that such a government did, at least publicly. And with such governments foreign pressure is often ineffective anyway: think of the Reagan administrations contortions over El Salvador in the 1980s. A government of that type would immediately demand military aid and training from NATO, which its members might be reluctant to give, as well, and probably the stationing of nuclear weapons.
Another possibility is simply a hard-headed government that decides that the priority is good relations with Russia, since ultimately the West cannot be relied upon, and so is ready to make whatever concessions Russia requires. If such a government results from a democratic election (which it might well) it would be hard for NATO to oppose its policies, though the alliance would doubtless try. Such a government might suggest reactivating the NATO-Russia Council, or even inviting Russia to be an observer at some NATO meetings: after all, since last week there are precedents. The Ukrainian delegation would have instructions to oppose any confrontational wording in NATO communiqués or any NATO action that could be seen as hostile. The President would go to Moscow to consult the Russian leadership before NATO meetings, and would no doubt take the opportunity to brief Mr Putin or his successor about the views and plans of other NATO nations. By itself, this would probably result in a crisis that would destroy NATO.
The final possibility is a government that was installed by Moscow and simply follows orders. I don’t think this is likely, (though who really knows?) but it could come about, for example, as a result of a civil war following a nationalist coup. Such a government would happily invite itself to NATO meetings, send its nationals to work in NATO and seek important positions in intelligence and command structures. The consequences for NATO are unthinkable.
All this seems so obvious that it disturbs me to have heard nothing about these issues in any discussion about “Ukraine in NATO.” Pundits and governments are obsessed with “security guarantees” which are, as I have shown, an irrelevant diversion. That said, perhaps one or two western governments have finally begun to realise, and perhaps discussed privately, that even extending an invitation would ultimately turn NATO into a creature of Ukraine. The West is never wrong, and it follows that any invitation to join NATO must have been the right decision. If the next government in Ukraine is a neo-Nazi one, or a pro-Russian one, that doesn’t mean the invitation was wrong (since that is impossible) it means, well, mumble mumble, blah blah, we’ll get back to you. The fact is that it’s something between almost impossible and actually impossible to withdraw an invitation for membership because you don’t like the results of elections, and it’s completely impossible to expel a member once they’ve joined. The likely result will be to carry on as normal to “encourage pro-western moderates” in Ukraine, assuming there are any, and hope that the situation will sort itself out somehow, at some point.
As I say, it may be that the more realistic NATO members, or at least groups within them, are starting to think along these lines. Even the most bloodthirsty anti-Russian hawk must realise that an open-ended commitment to whatever regime emerges in an unstable, ruined and defeated country cannot be a good idea. If there is one thing worse for NATO than the present crisis, it would be some kind of civil war in Ukraine where the alliance was forced to take sides, and that must be a real possibility. Who, after all, would bet on a peaceful, prosperous, united Ukraine in five or ten years’ time, if their real money was involved?
The second point is somewhat more speculative and sensitive, but I’ll go through it briefly. All international organisations are promising targets for intelligence agencies. They contain people far from home, working in an unfamiliar environment and subject to all kinds of social and professional pressures. Many of them are earning salaries that far exceed what they would earn at home, and have a standard of living, and a consequent social life, that they would like to become accustomed to. So intelligence agencies are drawn to them as predators are drawn to prey.
It’s always been assumed that NATO leaks like a sieve anyway. Back in the Cold War, there was a joke (appreciated by everyone but the Germans) that you might as well pass secrets directly to the Soviet Union, rather than going through Bonn, so heavily were the West Germans infiltrated by the Stasi. I’m not sure anyone really knows what the situation is today, but given the historical competence of the Russian intelligence services at human intelligence gathering, we can assume that they have not been idle in recruiting sources in Brussels.
But the problem would be exponentially worse if Ukraine were in NATO. It has been suggested that, after the fall of the Soviet Union, there was a tacit agreement among spy chiefs of the successor states (many of whom knew each other) not to mount operations against each other. I don’t know if that was actually true in the past, but I doubt if it is now. Even under ideal circumstances, therefore, it would be impossible to know whether one or other member of the Ukrainian delegation was actually working for the Russians. And if he or she was suspected, what do you do? Countries can expel diplomats, but international organisations can’t. And NATO security is OK at mundane things, but I doubt if it has that level of expertise at counter-intelligence. And how many delegations would let a foreign intelligence service in to examine their computers and waste-paper baskets?
Of course a neutral or even hostile Ukraine would be an order of magnitude more of a problem. What happens if the US or Germany reasonably suspect that a member of the delegation is actually working for the SVR? What is the Secretary General supposed to do? Show me the evidence. Sorry, can’t do that. It’s not necessarily military secrets that are the biggest problem: imagine someone sitting in a NATO committee to discuss a negotiating position for arms control talks, for example, able to pass a detailed summary to the Russians. Who could you trust? How could you even potentially deal with such a situation?
Which is to say that, however clever it may have seemed as a political manoeuvre in the past, the idea of Ukraine in NATO has always been dumb. It was a natural consequence of thoughtless expansion, of compromising the original justification of the organisation and then finding, far too late, that it couldn’t perform those functions any more. But promises are easy, and we’ll worry about the consequences later.
Later has arrived.
I’m flattered by the number of people who have written directly to me, usually after subscribing. Life has been busy, and I haven’t been able to reply to everyone, so if you haven’t had a reply yet don’t think you are being ignored.
These essays are free and I intend to keep them so, although later in the year I’ll introduce a system where people can make small payments if they wish to. But there are other ways of showing your appreciation as well. Likes are flattering to have, but also help me judge which subjects people are most interested in. Shares are very useful in bringing in new readers, and it’s particularly helpful if you would flag posts that you think deserve it on other sites that you visit or contribute to, as this can also bring new readers. And thanks for all the very interesting comments: keep them coming!