Why Does Russia Not Want Ukraine To Join NATO?
Over the last 25 years, Ukraine’s partnership with NATO has grown dramatically.
Kyiv’s interest in joining NATO has grown significantly since Russia’s invasion of Crimea and incitement of violence in the eastern Ukrainian territory of Donbas in 2014.
Many elites consider Alliance membership to be important for Ukraine’s security, as evidenced by public opinion polls. However, further NATO enlargement to the east is seen as a grave threat by Russia.
Russia has been vocal about its opposition to any additional NATO expansion for more than a decade.
Although under international law, this issue remains a subject that only NATO and the aspiring country can decide, the Kremlin will actively oppose any desire by a post-Soviet state to join.
Russia will make its position known, no matter how adamant NATO is that Russia has no veto.
Senior Russian officials are clearly unhappy with how Europe’s security architecture has grown over the last three decades, particularly with NATO and the EU’s expansion. They consider these changes as harmful to Russian interests and are working to reverse them.
The Kremlin increasingly depicts NATO enlargement as a military danger, notwithstanding the massive reduction in US and allied military deployments since the end of the Cold War, as well as the actions taken by the Alliance specifically to allay Russian worries.
NATO announced in 1997 that it had “no intention, no plan, and no cause” to put nuclear weapons on new member territory. It also claimed that it will carry out its collective defense duties without “the permanent stationing of large combat forces” on new member territory.
NATO began deploying multinational battalions in each of the Baltic nations and Poland only in 2014, after Russia launched its confrontation with Ukraine (the US also began persistent deployment of elements of an armored brigade combat team in Poland).
These deployments are notable in that they are not permanent and do not meet the definition of “substantial.” Of course, from Moscow’s point of view, including Ukraine’s military in NATO’s integrated military organization would further alter the NATO-Russia balance to Russia’s detriment.
Russia’s apprehensions about NATO expansion are also political. The Kremlin believes Russia should have a sphere of influence—or a “sphere of privileged interests,” as President Dmitry Medvedev called it in 2008—in the post-Soviet space as part of its self-image as a great power.
Even if one accepts the obsolete 19th century notion of spheres of influence, 23 Russian acts during the last six years make it nearly impossible for Kyiv to turn away from Europe and accept a place in Moscow’s orbit.
Russia’s goal now appears to be to prevent Ukraine from becoming a stable, Western-oriented democracy. The Kremlin is concerned that Ukraine’s triumph may inspire a public movement for greater democracy in Russia, putting Putin’s authoritarian system in jeopardy.
The Donbas conflict is being used to put pressure on, destabilize, and distract Kyiv in order to make it more difficult for the Ukrainian government to move through with domestic reforms and other activities aimed at bringing the country closer to Europe.
The battle is also about where Ukraine will fit into Europe’s security system, which Moscow is attempting to upend.
For the time being, Ukraine’s route to NATO membership appears to be blocked.
Ukraine, as a sovereign state, should have the right to decide its own foreign policy course and alignments, including alliance treaties. This is the believe of Kyiv and NATO member states.
In the past, Moscow formally agreed to this, for example, in the Helsinki Final Act of 1975.
Today, however, Russia is using a variety of tactics, including military force, to obstruct Ukraine’s progress. That is the conundrum that senior policymakers in Kyiv and Ukraine’s NATO allies are facing.