Building the bridge: How to inject credibility into NATO’s promise of membership for Ukraine

At a press conference in Prague on May 31, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken promised that the upcoming NATO Summit in Washington will provide Ukraine with a “bridge to NATO membership.” It has already been a long road to get to this point. The Alliance first asserted back in 2008 that Ukraine will become a NATO member state. Sixteen years later, failure to fulfill that pledge has been disillusioning to Ukraine and has contributed to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s confidence that he can resubordinate the country. Another empty promise of membership or a bridge to nowhere would be counterproductive. To be credible, a bridge to NATO membership must be built in a way that institutionalizes Ukraine’s integration into the Alliance’s structures starting now.

It is an unfortunate reality that NATO lacks the consensus necessary to grant Ukraine membership today. At the 2023 NATO Summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, that consensus was narrowly missed when the United States and Germany blocked efforts led by a wide coalition of allies to issue a membership invitation to Kyiv. Nonetheless, the summit was notable for the unprecedented support across NATO allies for Ukraine’s aspirations for membership. Moreover, in the Vilnius Summit Communiqué, the Alliance’s members reaffirmed “the commitment we made at the 2008 Summit in Bucharest that Ukraine will become a member of NATO.”

There is already speculation among NATO watchers about what might be included in Blinken’s proposed bridge to NATO for Ukraine. One possibility is a more robust focus on accession in the NATO-Ukraine Council. Another is the Alliance taking responsibility for generating and coordinating security assistance to Ukraine. A third might even be an expanded NATO role in training Ukrainian soldiers.

While each of these elements would be constructive—especially those that focus on helping Ukraine defeat Russia’s invasion—none inspires great confidence in the Alliance’s pledge to one day grant Kyiv NATO membership. This is because all of those potential elements are engagements in which Ukraine and NATO member states remain on separate sides of the table. While they would help Ukraine, they do not mitigate the perception that Ukraine, after more than a decade and half, remains outside the NATO community.

A bridge to membership will only be credible if it includes elements that tangibly and institutionally further Ukraine’s integration into the Alliance’s structures. Reiterated or reworded promises are no longer sufficient. Institutional integration, not just additional engagement, is the key to making the bridge credible.  

At the upcoming Washington summit, NATO can make three decisions that will make Blinken’s bridge to membership tangible and convincing:

First, the Alliance should formally recognize that Ukraine meets the requirements of NATO membership. Article 10 of the North Atlantic Treaty clearly and simply spells out the requirements of membership: “The Parties may, by unanimous agreement, invite any other European State in a position to further the principles of this Treaty and to contribute to the security of the North Atlantic area to accede to this Treaty.” Ukraine, of course, is situated in Europe. It is an established democracy with a vibrant civil society that has repeatedly conducted free and fair elections. Its democratic resilience was underscored when some of those elections had to withstand active Russian interference. No country is contributing more today—and sacrificing more blood—to defend the security of the North Atlantic area than Ukraine.

When NATO allies deny these realities and assert that Ukraine is not ready for membership, it is immensely disillusioning to Ukraine and undercuts the credibility of the Alliance’s promises of membership. It can only appear to Russia as weakness in the Alliance’s commitment to supporting Ukraine. 

Some may argue that recognizing Ukraine’s readiness will reveal the real reason for the West’s failure to grant Ukraine membership—fear of being dragged directly into the war. But that hesitancy is hardly camouflaged by NATO’s refusal to recognize Ukraine’s qualifications. Rightly or wrongly, keeping out of the fight has been an openly stated objective for NATO leaders. Refusing to recognize and applaud Ukraine’s qualifications just foments distrust and frustration in Ukraine to Putin’s benefit.

Second, the Alliance should invite Ukraine to assign military and civilian personnel to take up positions in NATO’s headquarters, agencies, and military command structure. This would enable Ukraine to gain experience in NATO’s institutional culture and procedures and deepen its relationship with NATO and its member states. Ukrainian officials would bring to NATO invaluable—indeed, unmatched—experience, expertise, and insight into how to most effectively fight against Russia’s military forces. As for the security risk of bringing nonmember states into secret NATO deliberations and information, Ukraine is not an issue. No country is more determined than Ukraine when it comes to preventing intelligence from flowing to its adversaries. In fact, Ukraine is probably more reliable in this regard than a number of allies.

NATO defense ministers meet in Brussels, Belgium, October 12-13, 2022, with Finland and Sweden, then NATO invitees, represented by their ministers of defense. Source: NATO.

Third, NATO should grant Ukraine what was granted to other candidate countries invited to cross the bridge to NATO membership—an observer’s seat at the North Atlantic Council (NAC), the Alliance’s decision-making body. In this capacity, Ukraine would not have a vote or veto at the table but would be able to observe and contribute to NAC deliberations. Clearly, Ukrainian officials have perspectives and experiences that would be invaluable to these top-level NATO discussions on how to deter and defend against Russian aggression.

In the decades following the Cold War, Poland, the Baltic states, Romania, and most recently Finland and Sweden sat as observers on the NAC after they were invited to join NATO. A Ukrainian seat at the NAC would be a hugely symbolic demonstration of the Alliance’s determination to grant Ukraine membership. It would resonate powerfully across Ukraine and would chip away at Putin’s confidence in his ability to block Ukraine’s accession to the Alliance.

Since 2008, the mantra that “it is not a matter of if but when Ukraine joins NATO” has grown increasingly hollow, if not counterproductive. If an invitation to join NATO is not possible at the Washington summit, then the Alliance does have options to add needed credibility to its promise of membership to Ukraine. It should exercise them.

Ian Brzezinski is a resident senior fellow with the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security and is a member of the Atlantic Council’s Strategic Advisors Group. He is also a former US deputy assistant secretary of defense for Europe and NATO policy.

NATO’s seventy-fifth anniversary is a milestone in a remarkable story of reinvention, adaptation, and unity. However, as the Alliance seeks to secure its future for the next seventy-five years, it faces the revanchism of old rivals, escalating strategic competition, and uncertainties over the future of the rules-based international order.

With partners and allies turning attention from celebrations to challenges, the Atlantic Council’s Transatlantic Security Initiative invited contributors to engage with the most pressing concerns ahead of the historic Washington summit and chart a path for the Alliance’s future. This series will feature seven essays focused on concrete issues that NATO must address at the Washington summit and five essays that examine longer-term challenges the Alliance must confront to ensure transatlantic security.

Further reading