Charles Lipson

Why Nato shouldn’t let Ukraine in just yet

Deciding whether Ukraine should eventually join Nato is hotly debated. There are good reasons to favour its inclusion, but not now, while the war is ongoing. It would transform the war into a conflict between nuclear-tipped Great Powers and vastly increase the danger.

Ukraine’s leader, Volodymyr Zelensky, is not happy with the uncertainty over his country’s membership. Actually, that’s an understatement. He is furious, according to reports. But that’s the decision taken by the allies meeting in Vilnius, Lithuania, and Joe Biden led the side urging delay. 

In a tweet Tuesday morning, Zelensky said, ‘It’s unprecedented and absurd when [a] time frame is not set neither for the invitation nor for Ukraine’s membership.’ Zelensky’s anger is understandable, given his responsibility to defend Ukraine. But Biden and Nato are prudent to not accept Ukraine as a member yet, and not just because Finland and Sweden are, or soon will be, new members.  

The main reason for delay is that including Ukraine now, while it is fighting Russia, would immediately transform that war from one where Nato members are supporting Ukraine into one in which Nato members are fighting Russia directly. That’s a huge difference, and it carries enormous risks — unacceptable ones. 

After all, Russia is bristling with nuclear arms and has zero chance of defeating Nato’s combined military might with only conventional arms. With that avenue blocked, Russia’s only path to any compromise solution that would allow it to save face and preserve Putin’s regime would be to threaten a nuclear strike, or perhaps carry out a first one and threaten more. Even if that were a limited strike on rural Ukraine, it would involve Nato powers in a nuclear war. The immediate damage would be coupled with the risks of catastrophic escalation. 

Adding Ukraine to Nato now would also incorporate a new member with unsettled borders — militarily contested ones.

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