Wesley Wark is a senior fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation and a fellow at the Balsillie School of International Affairs at the University of Waterloo.
The time has come for a decision on admitting Ukraine to NATO. On Sept. 30, the besieged country applied for fast-track membership to the alliance, following the example set by Finland and Sweden earlier this year.
President Volodymyr Zelensky’s surprise announcement of his country’s bid for NATO membership was clearly designed as a dramatic response to Russia’s illegal annexation of four partially occupied regions of Ukraine. It was also in line with long-standing aspirations held by Ukraine to join NATO, which date from the 1990s and the signing of a Charter on Distinctive Partnership. These intentions were reaffirmed in September, 2020, as part of Ukraine’s national-security strategy. NATO itself, at its summit in Bucharest in April, 2008, set out an “open-door” policy and welcomed the aspirations of both Ukraine and Georgia to eventually join the organization.
Ukraine’s time has arrived. Its future is at stake.
Immediately after Mr. Zelensky’s announcement, nine European NATO members, many of them front-line states (including Poland and the Baltic countries) in the war Russia is waging against Ukraine, signed a joint statement supporting Ukraine’s bid to join NATO. While this is impressive support, it represents only nine of 30 NATO countries. All would need to agree.
Canada’s silence on the NATO application has been deafening – especially for a country that prides itself on its status as a NATO founding member and as a strong supporter and close ally of Ukraine. But the silence is not a complete surprise.
Canada will always have one ear cocked in Washington’s direction, waiting to see how the United States, the lead military power by far in the NATO alliance, will react. An early sign is the cold water poured on the Ukraine bid by U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, who said he thought Ukraine’s application should be taken up “at a different time.”
The Canadian government continues to nervously watch the tides of war in Ukraine, fearing further escalation by Russia, greater unpredictability by Vladimir Putin (who is under increasing pressure from Russian nationalists to shore up support for the war), and the dreaded prospect of Russia resorting to the use of nuclear weapons.
These concerns are likely underpinning an ultracautious approach to Ukraine’s NATO application, for fear of worsening the conflict and even giving support to Mr. Putin’s long-standing claims that NATO and the West threaten the very existence of Russia, and are pulling the strings of the Zelensky regime.
But ultracaution and fear should not rule the Canadian response to Ukraine’s NATO membership application. We jostled to be first in line to welcome Sweden and Finland, and we should do the same for Ukraine.
The reality is that the brutal war in Ukraine will be waged by Mr. Putin’s regime so long as he has munitions and cannon fodder to feed into the conflict, and insofar as he maintains his iron grip on the flow of information to the Russian public. Admitting Ukraine to NATO would not make a whit of difference to the Russian claim that this is a “special military operation.” Mr. Putin will go on spinning his tales of NATO encirclement and aggression to any willing audience. Russian nuclear sabre-rattling will continue no matter what happens to Ukraine’s bid.
Admitting Ukraine to NATO would extend the alliance’s collective security doctrine, as laid out in NATO’s Article 5. But these obligations are easily misunderstood. Article 5 does not mean that NATO would have to be involved directly in combat in Ukraine – responses to aggression are left to each individual NATO member, to take “such action as it deems necessary.”
The reality is that NATO, with Canada included, has in practice already invoked a collective-security-style response to the Russian attack on Ukraine. The alliance and its members are already deeply committed to the defence of Ukraine through a supply of arms, humanitarian aid, diplomatic support, financial assistance and economic sanctions against Russia, a stance reiterated in the strongest terms by NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg after Russia stepped up its aerial bombardment of Ukraine’s civil infrastructure this week. U.S. President Joe Biden has urged all countries to stand with the people of Ukraine “for as long as it takes.”
The real benefit of support for Ukraine’s NATO bid would be in the prospect it offers for an enhanced deterrence against any Russian temptation to use nuclear weapons. NATO itself does not possess nuclear weapons, but three NATO member countries do: the United States, Britain and France. So far, efforts at nuclear deterrence have been conveyed by warnings about “severe consequences” through official channels between key NATO countries and the Kremlin, and in public statements by Western leaders. NATO’s annual nuclear-deterrence military exercise, codenamed Steadfast Noon, began this week and will run until Oct. 30. Mr. Biden has openly mused about the world being at its closest point to nuclear “Armageddon” since the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962.
The world, Canada included, could take one step back from that Armageddon by giving Ukraine the long-term security guarantee of NATO membership. That would be a light at the end of the tunnel for an embattled but determined Ukrainian population, and would also be a strong response to Mr. Putin’s neo-imperial ambitions. A senior Russian official has threatened that Ukraine’s NATO membership would lead to “World War III.” Such irresponsible and horrific threats must not be the foundation of NATO’s decision-making process.