The Platform

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Ukraine is on the frontier of Europe. Situated between the EU and Russia, it straddles the line between spheres of influence as it attempts to rescue its economy and democratize while feeling the overwhelming weight of the Kremlin’s influence. Poisoned by corruption for most of its modern history, it is making great strides towards becoming a better country to live in. However, its proximity and geopolitical significance to Russia is making this a very difficult task.

Eastern Europe is an open plain, with invading forces being able to drive right through the ample Russian heartland right to Moscow (should the winter not say otherwise). Having a buffer between the areas of Europe closely tied to the United States and its heartland is thus a significant goal for Moscow, as it gives them time and distance to mount an adequate defense in a region with sparse natural barriers. That is why securing Belarus as a glorified puppet state is such a significant issue in Russia, and the admission of the Baltic States into NATO in 2004 prompted heavy backlash from Russia.

Volodymyr Zelensky said it perfectly. “Why are we not in NATO yet?” In the past, debates over whether or not Ukraine should be able to join NATO have often raised concerns over whether or not it fits the criteria for NATO membership. However, these concerns have been addressed, and Ukraine now certainly fits the criteria for NATO membership. Ukraine has a functional democratic system of government. Ukraine has a market economy. Ukraine treats its minority populations fairly. Ukraine is ready and willing to make military contributions to NATO operations. Ukraine has a commitment to democratic civil-military relations and institutions.

The only possible discrepancy between NATO entry requirements and current Ukrainian policy is the ability and willingness to resolve conflict peacefully, but Ukraine’s effort to contain Russian-backed separatists shouldn’t violate this entry requirement despite some escalations this year. So, if Ukraine meets the requirements to join NATO, why haven’t they been able to? There obviously isn’t resistance from the government given President Zelensky’s statement, and there isn’t resistance from the citizens of Ukraine, given polls from the National Academy of Sciences in Ukraine showing support for Ukrainian entry into NATO at 57%. While not a vast majority of citizens, it’s certainly not a strong opposition to NATO membership in any form. The only reason that NATO might be hesitant to admit Ukraine into the alliance is that NATO could be wary of Russia’s response to a Ukrainian admission to NATO.

While concern over a Russian response to Ukrainian admission to NATO is understandable, it’s simply not justified. Yes, there would be a serious escalation of conflict between Ukraine and Russian separatists in Eastern Ukraine. And while it is possible Russia would support these separatists, a full-scale war between Ukraine, NATO, and Russia is extremely unlikely. While in this hypothetical war, Russia would be able to make significant progress in the Baltics and Ukraine, it would inevitably devolve into a NATO victory once American and Western European forces are able to fully mobilize. Without the utilization of nuclear weapons, which is in no one’s best interest, Russia cannot win this war on its own.

So, what does NATO stand to gain? For Ukraine, it’s obvious. They gain further Western security from a Russia which increasingly seeks to exert power over Ukraine. But for NATO, why risk the potential of sparking a major conflict in the interest of admitting Ukraine into NATO? The fact remains that the alliance stands so much to gain geopolitically should they admit Ukraine into the alliance. Having Ukraine as a member of the alliance gives NATO a pathway to drive right up to Moscow should a war break out. Not only that, but it forces Russia to take over much more territory just in order to push into current NATO territory other than the Baltics.

Only time will tell if Ukraine will ever be admitted into NATO. It certainly makes sense as a strategic move despite the inherent risks, and its admission wouldn’t seem to violate any of their admission requirements. Statements made by President Joe Biden cite corruption as a significant issue, and while corruption still remains as a persistent issue within the country, it is slowly getting better, leading to an inevitability that NATO leaders will have to face as Russia becomes more emboldened and willing to take further steps in the region: Ukraine needs to be a part of NATO. For Ukraine’s sake, and for NATO’s.

Justin Huff is currently a high school junior in Orange County, California. He is a writer with Foreign Policy Youth Collaborative. His work as of now mainly focuses on the role that the United States plays or should play and the ramifications of its actions or inactions.