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‘We don’t know what will happen after Zelensky’ Political scientist Kimberly Marten on NATO’s refusal to give Ukraine a membership timeline
July 12 is the final day of the 2023 NATO Summit in Vilnius, and by all appearances, Ukraine will not receive an official invitation to join the alliance, no matter how much Zelensky accuses it of displaying “weakness.” At the same time, it’s not clear what other options Russia has for escalation short of using nuclear weapons; it’s already killed thousands of civilians and destroyed massive amounts of infrastructure. So what is NATO afraid of? Meduza spoke to political scientist Kimberly Marten, an expert on the history of Russia-NATO relations and a professor at Barnard College and Columbia University’s Harriman Institute, to find out.
In the leadup to the 2023 NATO Summit in Vilnius and throughout the event, Volodymyr Zelensky has continued to insist that Ukraine needs and deserves to become a member of the organization. NATO, however, has opted not only not to invite it but also not to guarantee that it will join the alliance at some future point. According to political scientist Kimberly Marten, this is less because Western countries fear possible Russian escalation than because they are concerned about the uncertainty of Ukraine’s political future.
“Ukraine has been incredibly brave, accomplished so much, and done so much to show that it is a good partner with Western countries. Zelensky has been the face of this. But we don’t know what will happen when Zelensky is not president anymore,” she told Meduza.
If Ukraine ends up losing a significant amount of territory to Russia, for example, one potential outcome could be the growth of domestic political extremism, according to Marten.
“If the new [Ukrainian] leadership then had revanchist goals of saying Ukraine must get back all of its territory, it would be very uncomfortable for NATO to have this security guarantee made to Ukraine,” she said. “Once you are in NATO, NATO can’t kick you out.”
In this scenario, if Ukraine were a NATO member, the situation could incentivize the country’s leaders to behave recklessly because they know the alliance is bound to come to their rescue if Moscow responds with aggression.
“It will be important to make sure that whoever comes into [power] after Zelensky and after the war is over is not someone who can take advantage of NATO membership to take highly aggressive, highly risky actions that might end up drawing NATO into a direct war with Russia,” said Marten.
At the same time, the risk of Russia escalating its invasion in response to NATO promising membership to Ukraine is not negligible; according to Marten, some parties are worried that promising Ukraine NATO membership at this moment could “add insult to injury” after Yevgeny Prigozhin’s mutiny in June left Putin looking weak. “There is an argument that to counteract this weakness Putin might lash out, so giving him another excuse to lash out right now is not a good idea. Especially at a time when a lot of people are concerned about what is happening at the Zaporizhia nuclear plant and what he might do there,” she told Meduza.
Additionally, in the longer term, Marten said, promising now that Ukraine will be formally invited into NATO when the war ends would give Putin one more incentive to ensure the war never ends. And that’s not to mention the complexity of determining what constitutes the “end” of the war, which could plausibly refer to anything from a total victory to a ceasefire.
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“I think defining things in terms of after the war is actually a complex situation and complex definition,” she said. “It makes sense to wait and see how things happen, rather than come out now with a timetable that can be taken advantage of by the Russian side.”
Despite all that, Marten said she doesn’t believe concern about Russia’s reaction should be a major block towards moving ahead with Ukraine joining NATO. First of all, she argued, Putin made it clear in February 2022 that he already considered Ukraine a “de facto member of NATO,” and that was before NATO member states began sending weapons to Ukraine. “Since then, we have seen a much stronger relationship develop between Ukraine and a wide variety of Western countries, so I think Putin would definitely think of Ukraine as a de facto NATO member now [if he didn’t before],” said Marten.
In addition, she said, it would be difficult for Putin to escalate the war much further: he’s made it clear that he’s willing to target civilians and destroy key infrastructure like the Kakhovka dam, and he appears to have determined that crossing other red lines would run counter to Russia’s interests.
“I think the reason that he hasn’t done even more, either by taking the war to NATO territory or by choosing to use nuclear or chemical weapons, which he made a threat of doing last fall, is that he has decided it would not be in Russian interests to do those things, especially because China and India have made it clear that use of nuclear weapons would be unacceptable to them,” Marten said.
Nailing down future support
While it appears all but certain that an official NATO invitation is not on the table at the Vilnius summit, there are other important guarantees for Ukraine to seek in the meantime — not from the alliance itself but from its member states. While the U.S., for example, has been an enthusiastic (if less generous than Kyiv would like) provider of weapons and training to Ukraine so far, there’s currently no assurance that this support will continue, especially as an election year approaches.
“It would be very good for Democrats to have a discussion of the relationship [between the U.S. and Ukraine] with Republican party leaders in the U.S. House and Senate so that we can get bipartisan mainstream consensus about supporting Ukraine before the 2024 presidential election,” said Marten.
Donald Trump, the current frontrunner for the 2024 Republican nomination, has refused to commit to supporting Ukraine, and Marten said that if the former president wins again, “all bets are off” regarding Washington’s commitments to both NATO and Ukraine.
“So getting the relationship formalized before then, with bipartisan support, would be ideal,” she said.
Still, she added, a Trump victory wouldn’t necessarily spell doom for Kyiv’s war effort. Support for Ukraine enjoys bipartisan support in the U.S., not least because it allows legislators on both sides of the aisle to show that budgetary money is being spent effectively. “So far Ukraine has done a great job of demonstrating that, and it has been very careful to follow U.S. rules about demonstrating where the weapons are going,” she said.
Meanwhile, unforeseen domestic developments in Russia could cause the war to end (or to swing in Ukraine’s favor) sooner than many are anticipating, according to Marten.
On the one hand, she said, researchers like Andrea Kendall-Taylor and Erica Frantz have shown that when a leader has been in an authoritarian position for a long time, their wars tend to continue even if they are replaced. “It’s very unlikely that a new authoritarian leader who came into power in Russia would change Putin’s basic system,” she said.
But on the other hand, the morale of Russia’s troops is an open question, especially after Yevgeny Prigozhin publicly called into the question the very rationale of the war itself.
“If Russia remains this very firm authoritarian power with everything under Putin’s control, it would be very hard for Ukraine to gain everything it wants to gain just because Russia is stronger and wealthier and very determined in terms of Putin’s ideology,” said Marten. “But the Russian system is starting to have some cracks in it, and if we are talking about a space of months or a year, that might end up turning things in Ukraine’s favor.”
In any case, she said, it would be wise for Ukraine to formalize bilateral agreements with its Western partners as soon as possible.
English-language version by Sam Breazeale
Photo credit: Barnard College
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