President Joe Biden’s promise last week to admit Ukraine after the conclusion of the war will make it harder to negotiate an end to the war. It also could force America to send troops to fight Russia in Ukraine if fighting resumes after a ceasefire or peace agreement.
NATO members agreed at the Vilnius Summit to expedite membership for Ukraine but declined to provide a timeline. According to NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, NATO will issue Ukraine an invitation to join the alliance “when allies agree and conditions are met.”
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky initially condemned this position as “unprecedented and absurd” because he wanted a concrete timeline for NATO membership with clear requirements for his country to meet. Zelensky later moderated his position, however, probably because he recognized NATO’s membership offer and promises of security commitments were still significant wins for his country.
Biden said Ukraine is not ready for NATO membership and that admitting the country while it was at war with Russia could start a third world war. But the president also stated that Ukrainian membership in NATO is inevitable after the war ends, saying during his visit to Finland, “It’s about when they can join, and they will join NATO.”
So how can NATO membership for Ukraine be off the table while the war is still raging, but not later, when the war could easily resume after a ceasefire or peace agreement is violated?
This decision ignores Putin’s adamant opposition to Ukraine joining NATO for supposed security reasons and because he believes it is in Russia’s sphere of influence. Putin also probably opposes Ukraine joining NATO because he fears the effect that a free and thriving democratic Ukraine would have on Russia as he strips fundamental freedoms from the Russian people and transforms the country into an autocracy.
Given these factors, the pathway for NATO membership offered by Biden and NATO members could have two dangerous consequences for European and American security.
First, the assurance that Ukraine will join NATO after the war may extend this conflict and make peace negotiations much more difficult. As hard as it will be to get Putin to agree to a ceasefire or peace talks, the prospect of guaranteed NATO membership for Ukraine after the fighting ceases could make a settlement impossible and convince Putin to continue the war indefinitely. I see zero chance that Putin will agree to any settlement as long as it has been predetermined that Ukraine will join the alliance after the war.
Second, and even more serious, is the real possibility that, if a ceasefire could somehow be arranged and NATO membership for Ukraine followed, Putin would invade Ukraine again despite its membership in the alliance. Putin’s strong sensitivity about Ukraine joining NATO may mean he would not be deterred from attacking the country again if it became a member. Ukraine’s membership could even embolden him to attack.
If this happened, the United States would be required under Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty to treat a Russian attack against a fellow NATO member as an attack against the United States and provide whatever military assistance is necessary to defend Ukraine, including the possibility of deploying U.S. troops and sea and air power in the region. This could be the start of the third world war that Biden says he wants to avoid.
Moreover, this goes against what most Americans want in U.S. foreign policy: an America First approach that keeps our brave servicemembers out of unnecessary and unending wars. It makes no sense for the United States to consent to a possible future situation when it would be forced to send American troops to fight in a country like Ukraine, where it has no strategic interests.
There is a better way to avoid such calamitous outcomes and bring the war in Ukraine to a close, possibly permanently. As I discussed in a June 2023 Federalist article, foreign policy experts increasingly believe Ukraine must agree to a ceasefire because it is running out of troops and because the most likely outcome of the conflict is not a complete Ukrainian victory but a bloody stalemate. The limited success of Ukraine’s counteroffensive due to well-defended Russian troops appears to be a sign of this.
Peace talks, or at least an agreement for a ceasefire, must begin as soon as possible. The Biden administration should drop its opposition to a negotiated solution and convince Ukrainian officials to end their opposition to peace talks. Biden should propose a plan to stop the killing and address territorial issues through negotiations later.
Because NATO membership for Ukraine is so provocative for Putin, this idea should be put on hold for an extended period, maybe 25 years. Such a decision by the United States and NATO members might open the door to peace talks.
Instead of offering NATO membership, alliance members should step up their efforts to arm and fortify Ukraine after a ceasefire or peace settlement to discourage Russia from invading again. This would be a security pact to ensure, unlike today, that Ukraine is fully armed to defend itself against a future Russian attack.
This is the time for principled and realistic leadership in the Ukraine conflict to find a way to end the fighting. This means America and its NATO allies must make permanently ending the war their priority and abandon the offer to admit Ukraine as a NATO member after the war ends or in the near future. Congress must convince Biden to drop his approach to this conflict, which could extend the war or engage U.S. troops in a conflict with Russia that could result in World War III.