Could a Ukraine under siege join NATO?

A former NATO chief recommends letting Kyiv join the alliance while some areas are still occupied by Russia. But the proposal doesn't have — and is unlikely to get — official backing from members

NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg says it will be up to Ukraine to decide when to hold talks with Russia. (photo: DW)
NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg says it will be up to Ukraine to decide when to hold talks with Russia. (photo: DW)


NATO has promised since 2008 that Ukraine would someday become a member of the alliance. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has pleaded repeatedly but unsuccesfully for an updated, upgraded pledge that Kyiv would be able to join once the war ends.

But now former NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, who has been a paid advisor to Ukrainian politicians for nearly a decade, has gone public with a proposal that has many observers shaking their heads.

With no end to the war in sight, Rasmussen says the alliance should nevertheless offer Ukraine membership without regaining Crimea, Donbas and the other territories Russian President Vladimir Putin has illegally annexed. Rasmussen argues that covering Ukraine with NATO's collective security guarantee, Article 5, would deter Putin from trying to take additional land.

But even some leaders who have strongly advocated Ukraine's rapid accession to NATO find the Rasmussen formula unacceptable. Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis doesn't even want a cease-fire option raised with Putin, calling the idea "shameful."

"Any sort of negotiation is a lead-up to a victory day in Moscow," he said at a European Union foreign ministers' meeting on Monday. "Notions of giving away territory go against international law. Territorial integrity is something that has to be sacrosanct."

"Giving away 'something for something'," Landsbergis added, shaking his head, "it should not work like this."

Few fans of the plan in Kyiv

Speaking to DW from Kyiv, Ukrainian parliamentarian Andrii Osadchuk concurred that this is a non-starter for Ukraine. "Any ceasefire, any freezing of the conflict, any compromise with evil will just give time for Russia to reload," he said, questioning whether NATO would even consider a country not in full control of its territory.

But Osadchuk also believes Russia would reject such a suggestion, keeping its sights set on greater gains. "They still believe that they can swallow all of Ukraine slowly, like a big snake," he said. "Only the lack of readiness of the West to fight — not for Ukraine, but to fight for the West — is giving all these 'experts' grounds for such 'amazing' ideas, which have nothing to do with reality at all."

Trial balloon burst?

But it's not the first time the idea has come up. In August, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg's chief of staff Stian Jenssen suggested during a conference in Norway that one possible outcome could involve Ukraine giving up some of its territory in exchange for NATO membership.

When these comments, originally in Norwegian, made it to the international press, there was an immediate uproar in Kyiv and among some of its supporters. Within 24 hours Stoltenberg had to reconfirm that NATO supports Ukraine regaining its territorial integrity; Stian Jenssen had to say he had misspoken.

What happens to 'Crimea is Ukraine'?

Analyst Edward Hunter Christie, a former defense economist at NATO, says this is just one example of real mistakes being made with regard to Ukraine — not just in words, but in deeds.

"There is a gap between official positions which express the ideal outcome of Ukraine recovering its entire territory and the actual level of aid — of military aid in particular — that allies are prepared to give," Hunter Christie told DW. "It is quite extraordinary, and frankly bizarre, that while on the one hand diplomatically, our position is that Crimea is Ukraine and Ukraine has a right to recover its entire territory, but at the same time, we've steadily refused to give them longer-range weapons. They need the full range of tools so that they have a real chance of changing facts on the ground and then we can see where diplomacy leads."

Analysts: Tanks before talks

Bruno Lete of the German Marshall Fund is similarly puzzled as to how Rasmussen believes security guarantees would work for Ukraine. "How will you deter Russia from attacking Ukraine once Ukraine is inside the alliance?" he wonders. "Does it mean NATO will be sending boots on the ground? Does it mean that we need to think about a multinational brigade for Ukraine similar to what is now in place in the Baltics?"

Lete agrees with Hunter Christie that the road to peace leads through military superiority for Kyiv. "Only then Ukraine will be able to negotiate a deal where it doesn't get totally disadvantaged," he said.

Lete believes that despite the fact this proposal comes from someone now outside of NATO, "there's no denying that this option is part of the package of ideas that the alliance is discussing. I think NATO's also increasingly under stress to make good on its 2008 promise to Ukraine that [it] would one day become a member of NATO," he said, but added that the Rasmussen recipe is "not a victory for Kyiv and not a victory for the West."

But Hunter Christie underscores that NATO has pledged to help restore the full territory of Ukraine. "And strategically and militarily and legally and for the international reputation and prestige of the alliance, we need to go all the way with this," he emphasized.

But with more and more signs that support for Ukraine's fight is fading, as unpalatable as it sounds today, it may not be inevitable that President Zelenskyy will have to consider giving up pieces of his country and calling it a "peace" deal.

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