Ukraine Could Be the Next West Germany

Territorial conflict wasn’t a hurdle for NATO membership after World War II. Should it be today?

Vohra-Anchal-foreign-policy-columnist18
Vohra-Anchal-foreign-policy-columnist18
Anchal Vohra
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy.
The NATO membership ceremony for West Germany on May 9, 1955 at Louveciennes, near Paris.
The NATO membership ceremony for West Germany on May 9, 1955 at Louveciennes, near Paris.
The NATO membership ceremony for West Germany on May 9, 1955 at Louveciennes, near Paris.

NATO’s annual summit has especially high stakes this year. As officials from North America and Europe gather in the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius this week, the main question is what kind of reassurance they can offer Ukraine that it might eventually join the military alliance. It is a lively debate behind the scenes, with some diplomats arguing that it would be impossible to admit Ukraine while its war with Russia is ongoing. Admitting a member state with occupied territory, they say, would simply be too risky for the rest of NATO; the only responsible choice would be to defer the discussion until after the war ends.

NATO’s annual summit has especially high stakes this year. As officials from North America and Europe gather in the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius this week, the main question is what kind of reassurance they can offer Ukraine that it might eventually join the military alliance. It is a lively debate behind the scenes, with some diplomats arguing that it would be impossible to admit Ukraine while its war with Russia is ongoing. Admitting a member state with occupied territory, they say, would simply be too risky for the rest of NATO; the only responsible choice would be to defer the discussion until after the war ends.

But an answer to those worries has recently arrived in the form of a historical analogy: Postwar West Germany was admitted to NATO while the country was still divided and facing unresolved territorial issues, so why can’t Ukraine follow that precedent? The West German precedent is quietly being pushed by some European capitals and even accepted in some strategic circles in Ukraine as a possible way out of the country’s predicament. 

Olena Halushka, a board member for the Ukraine-based Anti-Corruption Action Center, reiterated the Ukrainian position that Ukraine must get an invitation to join NATO in Vilnius. She said Ukraine will have sufficient time between the invitation and when it becomes a full member to regain control over its full territory. But if that is not achieved, as many Western analysts suspect, West Germany serves as a “good precedent’’ of how countries with occupied territories can still join NATO, she said. 

In 1955, while East Germany was under Soviet occupation, the West entered the alliance, rebuilt, and flourished under NATO’s protective umbrella without giving up its right to reunification. In 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell, it was a peaceful reunion without a single shot fired, far short of the paralyzing fears of a nuclear confrontation. Some say the same fears now will prove to be just as exaggerated. 

The basic argument is that including Ukrainian territory under the control of the Ukrainian government in NATO would deter Russia from encroaching further, presenting it as a fait accompli to the Kremlin, yet reserve Ukraine’s right to reunify with occupied territories at a later time under suitable conditions. 

The proponents of the idea argue that this would not only protect Ukraine from future Russian aggression but also bring the current conflict to a close by encouraging Russia to come to the negotiating table. Furthermore, it would be cheaper than turning Ukraine into a fortress, installing expensive air defense systems and promising an incessant supply of arms and ammunition at the cost of depleted stocks at home. It would also work as a security guarantee for investors and allow for reconstruction and for Ukrainians to resume some semblance of normalcy.

But there is a strong counterargument, too. East and West Germany had demarcated borders agreed on by the victors of World War II, and there was no doubt over the physical territory under NATO’s protection. Nor were the two involved in an active war. Critics of the argument say the absence of definite borders and a peace settlement would just drag NATO members into the war. 

Stefan Meister, the head of the Center for Order and Governance in Eastern Europe, Russia, and Central Asia at the German Council on Foreign Relations, said to try to defend an undefined territory will draw the alliance into a direct conflict with Russia. (NATO’s Article 5 calls on every member state to defend any one of them under attack.) 

“Unclear borders, partly under enemy control, shifting front lines—how do you want to defend such a territory? It’s going to be a disaster for NATO,’’ Meister said. “We also have to think of our own security.’’ 

Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff, a scholar at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, doesn’t think the whole question of emulating West Germany’s accession model makes sense. 

It is raised by those who want Ukraine in NATO but see Germany as a skeptic, he said. “It is a convenient argument,’’ he told Foreign Policy from Berlin, “but in my view the comparison is not useful.”

“The argument assumes that when the nuclear umbrella of NATO comes down, even inside a divided country, peace will be upon us. But that only works when and as long as there are agreed-upon borders and no ongoing conflict. If that’s not the case, you have the potential of all kinds of problems emanating from the revisionism of both sides,’’ he added. “For example, it will be up to Vladimir Putin to define Article 5, whether some of his poking falls below or above that threshold.’’

A senior Ukrainian analyst who did not want to undermine Ukraine’s position days before the summit spoke to Foreign Policy on the condition of anonymity and said that while Ukrainians can never openly admit it, a frozen conflict was a distinct possibility. In that scenario, West Germany’s accession served as a worthy option. But Ukraine won’t exchange NATO membership for claims on its territory, the analyst added. That is key to the concerns of critics warning against inclusion of a divided Ukraine. They say it creates a danger of Kyiv carrying out an armed intervention to retake its territory and almost certainly being attacked by Russia in response, which would invoke Article 5 and involve all NATO nations. Ukrainians, on their part, worry that inclusion of a partitioned country might give Russia an excuse to strengthen its claim over occupied areas. 

A lot rests on how the battlefield evolves over the next few months and year. Experts say the West must beef up support to Ukraine now and provide it with everything it needs to inflict a high enough cost on Russia that compels the Kremlin to come to the negotiating table. But that must be done in parallel with offering Ukraine a political invitation that sends a clear message to Moscow. Ukrainians worry the reason the United States and Germany are holding out on an invitation is to possibly use membership itself in a future peace settlement with Russia. 

“Give Ukraine enough militarily—we have not done that yet—allow it to defend the territory it has and push Russia back so Putin has an interest in a cease-fire,’’ Meister said. “Create stable conditions first,’’ but then include Ukraine in NATO. There should be no delay in providing a road map, he added. 

Alyona Getmanchuk, the director of the Kyiv-based New Europe Center, said Western allies have not yet started training Ukrainian pilots on F-16s, despite promising to do so back in May, and are still refusing to strengthen the country’s air defenses. 

“Russians have 10 times more artillery, more people, more ammunition—that is why sometimes they prevail on the battlefield. We don’t have air parity,’’ she told Foreign Policy from Kyiv. Western allies “want us to succeed without providing us with the means to succeed. Maybe this is a way to indirectly push Ukraine to negotiate after the counteroffensive.’’

The summit in Vilnius may end with a promise to Ukraine of an Israeli-style defense partnership, with unimpeded access to advanced weapon systems and other weapons and ammunition, with the aim of creating a fortress Ukraine capable of defending itself. But unlike Israel, Ukraine does not have nuclear weapons—while Russia does. There is reason to fear that if Ukraine faces Russia alone in the longer term, without the safety cushion of the nukes in the arsenals of NATO members, it will seek to build its own.

There is, however, an alternative that few are so far discussing in public: coupling a NATO invitation with some Ukrainian-led compromise on Crimea. A political invitation to Ukraine to join NATO could help produce a cease-fire by discouraging Moscow from continuing the war. But that may only be feasible if Ukraine rethinks its expectations of victory. Kyiv has said it wants to reclaim all occupied territories, but if the counteroffensive doesn’t go as planned, some say Ukraine might be better off preparing for a compromise settlement. Kyiv has already signaled a readiness to compromise on Crimea if that clinches peace. 

This offers its own parallel to the West German precedent. West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer had likewise renounced reunification by force in exchange for entry into NATO. Ukraine too must “foreswear the use of force to recover Crimea, while being fast-tracked into NATO,’’ François Heisbourg, a senior advisor for Europe at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, wrote recently. “Russia would remain the de facto occupying power in Crimea and tolerate Ukrainian membership in NATO.’’ In other words, Ukraine, like West Germany, may have to wait for a fortuitous turn of historical events, rather than the use of force, before becoming fully reunited with all its territory. 

Twitter: @anchalvohra

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