Ukraine’s NATO candidacy mirrors that of West Germany during the Cold War
Although peace seems a long way off, the United States and Europe are debating how to ensure Ukraine’s security once fighting with Russia stops, even without an outright victory on either side. West Germany can provide a model, a precedent for the admission of a divided country into NATO.
Despite its division and unfortunate role as a frontier between nuclear-armed rivals during the Cold War, West Germany became a member of NATO in 1955, enjoying the protection of the alliance, without ever giving up to its commitment to unification, finally carried out in 1989.
For Ukraine, much will depend on the shape of the battlefield after its upcoming counteroffensive, and whether the outcome will lead to some kind of prolonged ceasefire, relatively stable borders or even peace talks. .
As NATO’s annual summit approaches in July, its members are discussing what they can offer Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who wants more concrete assurances that his country will join the alliance.
The West German model is gaining ground in some European capitals as a means of ensuring real security for Ukraine, even if it does not immediately regain all of its territory.
Germany is an example where NATO accepts a country with “significant and unresolved territorial issues” and some form of enemy occupation, said Angela E. Stent, Russia and Germany scholar and author of “Putin’s world”.
“When West Germany joined NATO, there was what you might call a monumental frozen conflict,” she said. “And yet it was considered very important to anchor West Germany in the Western alliance, and that is how West Germany joined. The Russians complained about it and said it was very dangerous, but they were powerless to prevent it.
After World War II, various options were considered for what to do about occupied and divided Germany, just as there are now for Ukraine.
The Soviet leaders spoke of a united but neutral Germany, modeled on Austria. As tempted as they were, the Western powers resisted. And in fact, Ukraine itself initially proposed neutrality right after the February 2022 Russian invasion.
Konrad Adenauer, West Germany’s first Chancellor, chose security over territory, and the Germans supported him, re-electing him until his resignation in 1963.
“Adenauer decided it was more important to have a strong defense deal with the West and led West Germany into NATO,” said Francois Heisbourg, a French defense expert. “It was a brave move, because it meant unity was not going to come easily.”
Ukraine is of course a different case. When West Germany joined NATO it was not at war with East Germany and the two entities had been recognized as individual states in 1949, said ME Sarotte, author of a diplomatic history, “Not One Inch”, on NATO enlargement, German reunification. and Russian responses.
While the West German Constitution preserved the goal of unification, “the reality on the ground was that what were once the occupation zones emerging from World War II had hardened into divisions of ‘State,’ Ms Sarotte said. “While no one was happy about that, you had this hard clear boundary, and so it provided a clarity that doesn’t exist in Ukraine.”
Not yet anyway. But as Charles Kupchan and Richard Haass suggest in a recent essay in Foreign Affairs, few expect the coming Ukrainian counteroffensive to completely drive the Russians out of sovereign Ukraine, including Crimea. If the battle lines harden, they suggest, the United States should push for peace negotiations, even if neither Ukraine nor Russia seem impatient.
It won’t be easy. Ukraine fears that a ceasefire will confirm Russian control over a significant part of Ukraine; Russia seems to think it can survive Western support for Ukraine. Neither side is now open to negotiations, and Mr. Zelensky, in his own peace plan, insists that Russian troops first withdraw from all Ukrainian territory.
But as the Battle of Bakhmut, the city Russia claimed to have captured after almost a year of fighting, suggests, even modest changes on the front line come at a huge cost in lives and material.
Few in the West want endless war, already fearing declining popular support for unlimited funding and shortfalls in manufacturing the tanks, air defenses and munitions Ukraine needs.
There have been various proposals to make Ukraine an indigestible hedgehog for Russia, so stuffed with sophisticated Western weaponry that, even if it is not a NATO member, it might deter Moscow. This is the crux of an idea first proposed by a former NATO Secretary General, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, and a senior Zelensky adviser, Andriy Yermak.
Rasmussen’s idea, which many NATO members favor for now, suggests Israel as a model, where Washington’s commitment to its continued security is clear even without a specific mutual defense treaty. But the problems are clear: Israel has nuclear weapons, while Ukraine does not. And even NATO members’ bilateral defense commitments to Ukraine could end up dragging the entire alliance into a future Russian-Ukrainian war.
So many officials and analysts believe, as Kaja Kallas, the Prime Minister of Estonia, said in a recent interview, that the only real security for Ukraine is NATO membership, “when the conditions allow”.
At the alliance’s summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, in July, Ms. Kallas said, NATO must lay out a more concrete roadmap for Ukraine’s membership, reconfirming a pledge first made in 2008.
“The only guarantee of security for Ukraine is NATO membership,” she said, citing the protection that membership affords her own small country. “We don’t have a war here because we are members of NATO,” she said.
Another advantage, she said, is that having Ukraine in NATO would be “cheaper, much cheaper” than making it a militarized hedgehog for the next 50 years.
The counter-argument, widely held in Washington and Western Europe, is that NATO cannot accept a country at war over disputed territory, and that such a move could cause Russia to step up further, even with weapons. nuclear weapons, before Ukraine could join the alliance. But so far, Russian threats of escalation have proven futile.
For now, ahead of the summit, NATO countries are preparing a medium-term plan for pragmatic military assistance to Ukraine, including guaranteed arms deliveries and further integration into the NATO world. . But Mr Zelensky wants a political promise he can take home.
Yet if the war does not ultimately produce a full-scale Russian withdrawal and defeat, what might prove compelling to Mr. Zelensky and the Ukrainians – lending most weight to any peace talks – would be the NATO membership, behind hardened ceasefire lines, possibly patrolled, Mr. Heisbourg suggests, by a coalition of peacekeeping forces from NATO and other countries, such as the India or even China.
This would come with the promise, as in Germany, that the full reunification of Ukraine would remain a topical issue for the future. Joining NATO would consolidate peace and allow reconstruction, private investment and the return of many refugees.
If there is only a ceasefire, Ms. Stent said. “there is no real resolution to this war, you don’t know when it will start again.”
“But the whole point of bringing Ukraine into NATO would be to make sure that Russia wouldn’t attack Ukraine again,” she said, “because what we’ve seen in this war , is that NATO is the only form of deterrence that works so well.” far against Russia.