Geoffrey Roberts – Putin’s Trump Card: Ukrainian Membership of NATO

In this novel analysis Geoff recommends that Russia allow Ukraine to join NATO in order to achieve peace

Geoffrey Roberts is Emeritus Professor of History at University College Cork and a member of the Royal Irish Academy


President Vladimir Putin started the Ukraine war and he could – and should – end it by negotiating a peace deal that includes Ukraine’s membership of NATO.

Such a scenario is not as implausible as it might seem. While a Russian military victory in Ukraine is all-but assured, Putin needs to win the peace as well. He went to war to safeguard Russia’s security and to protect pro-Russian Ukrainians. The last thing he needs is a permanent confrontation with a militarised West abetted by a defeated but still dangerous Ukraine. He needs a stable European and international order that will facilitate Russia’s recovery from the war, not least the rebuilding and re-population of its newly acquired territories in Ukraine.

For Putin to contemplate such a radical concession, Ukraine and its Western backers would have to give cast-iron commitments to Ukraine’s permanent demilitarisation, albeit within the framework of NATO membership. Establishing Pan-European security structures that contain conflicts rather than incubate them would also be a crucial part of any peace package.

Russia has been railing against Ukraine joining NATO since the country was first slated for membership in 2008. There is no chance it will rub-out this red line in advance of any peace talks but a private signal that Putin might be prepared to allow Ukraine to join NATO under certain conditions is not so improbable.

Putin did not invade Ukraine to prevent it becoming a member of NATO. By the time he launched the so-called Special Military Operation (SMO) in February 2022, Ukraine was de facto a NATO member and rapidly developing into a highly threatening Western military bridgehead on Russia’s border. In Putin’s eyes, Ukraine had become an anti-Russia – an ultra-nationalist state intent on using NATO as a shield to re-gain by force Crimea and rebel Donbass. The SMO was a preventative action to nip that danger in the bud and to force the West to negotiate a security treaty that would preclude further NATO deployments along Russia’s borders.

Putin’s gambit almost succeeded. In spring 2022 there were Russo-Ukrainian peace talks in Istanbul that resulted in a number of draft agreements under which Russia would withdraw its troops in exchange for Ukraine’s neutralisation and disarmament. But many details remained unresolved, above all the nature of an international security guarantee of Ukraine’s future territoriality, sovereignty and independence.

Kiev walked away from these talks and it may well have been the West’s refusal to underwrite the proposed security guarantee that prompted Zelensky to withdraw from the negotiations. Certainly, the West proved more than willing to continue its extensive military support of Ukraine as part of a proxy war to topple the Putin regime.

Two years into the Western proxy war on Russia, Ukraine’s integration into NATO is infinitely greater. Co-operation and co-ordination of Ukrainian and Western militaries could hardly be closer. Ukraine’s war effort is sustained by Western arms, money and intelligence, not to speak of special forces, mercenaries and sabotage groups. Cutting Kiev’s connections with NATO would require Ukraine’s complete capitulation, or its wholesale occupation by Russia.

Ukraine’s rapidly approaching military defeat means that ending the war as soon as possible is Kiev’s and the West’s most rational course of action. The longer the war goes on, the greater will be Ukraine’s defeat. The sooner it ends, the more salvageable will be Ukraine’s sovereignty and the more viable its independent statehood.

The problem is that Western and Ukrainian politicians don’t how to extricate themselves from the conflict without a catastrophic loss of political face.

John Mearsheimer has suggested the United States could cut the Gordian Knot by severing all its security connections with Ukraine. But, as he himself says, this is most unlikely, given Western leaders’ immense economic, ideological, political and psychological investment in defeating Russia in Ukraine

Signalling that Ukraine might be able to join NATO could help open the door to serious peace negotiations. Ukrainian membership of NATO would be spun as success for the West, but PR is far less important than the achievement of Putin’s prime goal – neutering the NATO-Ukraine threat to Russia’s security.

Ukraine’s military collapse in the coming weeks and months seems increasingly likely but that would not necessarily terminate the war. Kiev’s remaining forces may be able to retreat to the Western banks of the Dnieper and hold out in big cities like Kharkov and Odessa. Such respite might be temporary, but it could be enough to prolong the war into 2025 and beyond. In a worst-case scenario, the Kiev government could flee abroad and continue the fight from exile, much like many European governments did during World War II.

Russian hardliners are sanguine about such prospects. They believe neither Ukraine nor NATO can be trusted to honour any commitments they might make to Russia and that the only lasting victory is Russia’s occupation of the whole of Ukraine.

Western hardliners are equally keen to ‘fight to the last Ukrainian’ – seen as a way to weaken Putin’s regime and buy time to prepare for a direct war with Russia in the not too-distant future.

Western publics were never enthusiastic about NATO’s dangerous proxy war with Russia, and this scepticism has been reinforced by an avalanche of media reports detailing Russia’s military advances and Ukraine’s huge losses of men and materiel.

Support for continuing the war is also crumbling within Ukraine as more people embrace the detested but realistic outcome of trading territory for peace.

In Russia, public support for Putin’s war remains strong but a majority want to see the conflict resolved as soon as possible, even if that means a compromise peace.

A peace settlement that included Ukraine’s membership of NATO would be anathema to a substantial minority of Russians, but Putin’s overwhelming victory in the presidential election shows he has the power and popularity to face down such opposition.

In the West, the current chatter about a possible Ukraine peace deal centres on the idea of reviving the Istanbul peace talks – of updating the draft agreements of spring 2022, notably to take account of the formal incorporation of the provinces of Donetsk, Kherson, Lugansk and Zaporozhe into the Russian Federation in October 2022.

Recent comments by Putin have lent credence to the possibility of an Istanbul+ peace agreement. Everyone assumes Ukraine’s non-membership of NATO and its neutrality will remain key Russian demands. But the decisive tilt of the war in Russia’s favour has radically changed the strategic situation.

Russia demanded Ukraine’s neutrality to keep NATO at bay. That goal has now been achieved by other means – Russia’s military expansion into Ukraine. How far Putin intends to go remains unclear. Occupation of the whole of eastern and southern Ukraine is one possibility, but more likely is the establishment of a demilitarised zone as a security buffer between Russia and a rump Ukraine. In any event, Ukraine’s formal neutrality would be of little practical importance.

Crucially, there is the unresolved issue of a security guarantee for unoccupied Ukraine. Without some kind of guarantee there can be no negotiated peace settlement. By far the simplest solution is for NATO to provide this by virtue of Ukraine’s membership of the organisation. Arguably, NATO, with its diverse membership and its collective decision-making, would be a far more stable container of Ukrainian revanchism than any ad hoc security guarantee.

In the 1950s the Soviets feared re-armed West Germany’s entry into NATO would revive German militarism and aggression. Actually, membership of NATO (and the EU) helped pacify Germany.

Conceivably, Putin could agree to such a step, provided Ukraine remains disarmed and NATO’s commitment to its security purely defensive. While there is no guarantee NATO and Ukraine would stick to their commitments, the hard-line alternative of seeking total victory and a dictated peace has its own drawbacks, notably the cost in lost Russian and Ukrainian lives.

A grand gesture by Putin that conceded Ukraine’s membership of NATO as part of an overall peace settlement would be an act of true statesmanship, not least in the eyes of his many friends and allies in the Global South.

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  1. I’ve been thinking a lot about how a left devoid of program, tactics and strategy seems to regress into a childish form of wishful thinking.

    This piece is a great example of that: the description of the history of the war is more or less correct while the proposed solution is pure fantasy.

  2. I could not agree with Jorgen Hassler more – pure fantasy. Instead of passifying anyone, this kind of solution will only embolden the West’s politicians. They have not paid any price yet for the catastrophy they have caused to Ukraine, and Prof. Roberts wants to reward them by suggesting that their initial goals should be achieved??!! Sheer lunacy. The very least that should happen is that they suffer a catastrophic loss of face. The rest of the world will welcome it.

  3. Russia would agrue that if Ukraine can be in NATO, so could Russia. Would NATO accept this? Furthermore, the “de facto” membership of Ukraine in NATO is exactly why Putin finally decided he could not wait any longer and attacked, since the de facto membership kept creeping up. IMO the only solution is for the west to back down. If this means change of leadership so be it. Any objective analysis shows that the war was provoked by arrogant western policies based on ignorance of Russia and demaening to Russia. That Putin called the bluff is not something that Russia can change. As Boris Johnson clearly said in his TikTok video “we have no one to blame but ourselves”.

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