Tragically for its people, Ukraine is on the path of Russia’s persistent westward push and thus it serves as the West’s rampart. Ukraine is the antemurale of Europe. With Ukraine under Moscow’s domination, Europe is directly threatened and likely to be torn by even deeper divisions among its nations, which are likely to pursue divergent approaches toward Russia. With Ukraine as an independent and strong state, the West has a buffer on its eastern frontier, protecting it from the assaults of Muscovite power. The key question, then, concerns the nature of the connection between Europe and Ukraine. Assuming that Ukraine survives as an independent state at the end of the current war, what should its relationship be with the West, in particular the institutions of NATO and the EU underpinning it?
Despite a pervasive rhetorical support for Ukraine’s EU and NATO membership, there is very little chance that Kiev will join these institutions in the near future. The EU is too unwieldy to accept such a large country, which is one of the largest agricultural producers in the world. Were Ukraine to join the EU it would create massive problems for the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), one of the oldest EU policies that gives money to its members according to the size of arable land. Ukraine’s arable land is as big as all of Italy, and thus Kiev would automatically become the main recipient of CAP funds, competing with farmers in the rest of Europe. Moreover, Ukrainian agricultural products would flood Europe, displacing local producers, something that has already happened briefly late last year when Ukraine redirected its grain exports to its Western neighbors as its usual markets became less accessible because of the war. Hence, while now there may be support for Ukraine’s EU membership among Western political leaders, the politics of accession would be extremely difficult and divisive. In brief, EU membership for Ukraine is highly unlikely.
NATO is equally hard to join. Even though Ukraine has now contributed more to the defense of Europe than the vast majority of current NATO members, to join NATO the applicants have to fulfill several requirements. A particularly difficult one for Ukraine will be to resolve its territorial disputes, even though they are not Kiev’s fault. As the 1995 “Study on NATO Enlargement” clarified, “States which have ethnic disputes or external territorial disputes, including irredentist claims, or internal jurisdictional disputes must settle those disputes by peaceful means in accordance with OSCE [Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe] principles. Resolution of such disputes would be a factor in determining whether to invite a state to join the Alliance.” One of the effects of Russia’s war against Ukraine since 2014 is that it has created hard-to-resolve territorial disputes. In order to end them, Ukraine would have either to reconquer the lost lands (including Crime) or give up its sovereignty over them, ceding them to Moscow. Either option is difficult to pursue for Kiev militarily or politically, likely resulting in a long-term territorial problem with Russia. Consequently, it is highly unlikely that NATO members would be willing to accept Ukraine into the alliance with this festering problem. It may be desirable to have Kiev in NATO, just as it is very beneficial to have Finland as its newest member, but it is also hard to conceive at the moment.
The more likely outcome is that Ukraine will remain a buffer state: neither anchored in Western institutions nor subjugated in the Russian sphere. There are reasons to believe that this is a feasible outcome because the great powers—Russia, Turkey, and the Western alliance—around Ukraine may be interested in such a status as preferable to a clear alignment one way or another. Turkey and the West do not want Ukraine to fall under Moscow’s domination for moral but also geostrategic reasons. At the same time, Russia has obviously demonstrated that it will use protracted brutal military force to seek Ukrainian subservience. And, as mentioned above, the West is unlikely to extend its economic and security mantel to the Wild Fields of the Dnieper basin. This “either-or” geopolitical dynamic––but with neither side willing or capable of fully controlling the area––points to a stalemate of sorts, resulting in Ukraine in neither camp. This may of course be disappointing to Ukrainians who have expressed a desire to join Western institutions and have clearly incurred heavy sacrifices not to be under Russian rule. But all Ukrainians can do is to carve for themselves a space of liberty between the competing great powers.
Russia will, of course, not give up its imperial aspiration to control Ukraine. It will remain an enduring power, seeking to rebuild its status and possessions on its western frontier, especially as the Asiatic region becomes less permissive with a growing China. Hence, for Ukraine the best solution is a “fortified neutrality,” remaining non-aligned but with sufficient arms, a defensible space, and a viable economy to deter and, if necessary, defeat further Russian offensives. The role of the West and of Turkey, therefore, is to arm Ukraine not just for the ongoing operations against Russian forces, but for the long term, creating a militarily robust, geopolitically independent, and economically confident state on Europe’s frontier.