12:00 02.08.2023

Former US Ambassador to NATO Daalder: Ukraine can become a NATO member even with temporarily occupied territories

14 min read
Former US Ambassador to NATO Daalder: Ukraine can become a NATO member even with temporarily occupied territories

Exclusive interview of former US Ambassador to NATO (2009-2013) Ivo Daalder, who currently CEO of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, to Interfax-Ukraine

Daalder is a European security specialist who served on the US National Security Council during the administration of President Bill Clinton and was one of President Barack Obama's foreign policy advisers during his 2008 presidential campaign.

Text: Iryna Somer


Mr. Ambassador, not so long ago you said that when we talk about Ukraine's membership in NATO, we are talking not about years, but about months. Why do you think so?

I think there's been a change. NATO summit in Vilnius of itself had a positive impact, particularly on the president of the United States Joe Biden, and more generally, on bringing the idea of Ukrainian membership in NATO from the theoretical into the practical, and a greater understanding that ultimately this conflict will not end until there is certainty of where Ukraine's future lies.

After all, this conflict is not only about not about territory, but it's really about Ukraine's future. It's about who gets to decide Ukraine's future - do its neighbours or do the people in Ukraine get to decide through their political processes? And on that, there is always been theoretical clarity in the sense that yes NATO and yes all the countries have supported Ukraine's right in theory to choose its own alliances, to decide where it belongs, but in practice hasn't been willing to pay the price that it might take for Ukraine to in fact act upon its desires.

The war changed this because of how Ukraine is standing up for its freedom, its independence, the support that it has been getting from other countries, and the growing realization that the war can only end with NATO membership for Ukraine. There's no alternative. The dilemma, and this is what I had been talking about, the dilemma is: if you link membership to the end of the war which many would like to do, and frankly, President Zelensky has said this, you are giving Russia that incentive to continue the war.

No one has an answer for that and that's still the case that we're still struggling with this. But there is now a greater understanding that the actuality of NATO membership may change the nature of the conflict moving it from a military to a political conflict. I have not talked to the president (Biden) but my assessment from what he has said and from people who have talked to him is that he's come to the realization that there is a hope that the counteroffensive will be strategically successful and at that point that there is a prospect for moving more rapidly to bringing Ukraine into NATO or at least an invitation.

That's kind of the latest thinking that I have, that I've also shared with others in the White House. They're not necessarily supporting this but they're aware, and this is very much an active conversation that's been going on. So that's why I think this way.

Actually, we are talking about frozen conflict…

…We are talking about a conflict that is not going to be resolved militarily

… so actually in this case we are talking about the model of Germany when in the year 1955 Federal Republic of Germany becomes a member of NATO while GDR was under the Soviet regime. Do I understand you correctly?

Yes. And that is the better analogy actually maybe Japan. So the US has a bilateral Article 5 agreement with Japan that does not extend to the northern territories which are occupied by Russia since the end of World War 2. The treaty explicitly limits Article 5 to the “territories administered by Japan”. Germany is another example. Think about the Baltic states being incorporated into the Soviet Union for 50 years. The assumption is that you actually are very unlikely to be able to achieve complete liberation of all Ukrainian territory back to the 1991 borders militarily without a direct military intervention by countries that are not willing to do so which is all of NATO.

Are you talking only about Crimea or…

… this is for the Ukrainian government to decide. But the point is that the ability to extend real security guarantees, and that is the willingness to go and to fight, to defend territory, depends on the unacceptance that the territory, freed of Russian forces, will be attacked again.

… can you please explain: in theory, when part of Ukraine is a member of NATO, can Ukrainians in this case trigger Article 5 to liberate the rest of the country?



Because Article 5 is a political commitment. The commitment to apply Article 5 would be only to those territories that are being administered by the Ukrainian government. But how it gets implemented is on a case-by-case basis. Also, Article 5 is not automatic, it requires an armed attack on the territory that is being defended and a consensus decision of all members of NATO to invoke. Like it was on September 12, 2001, the only time in the history of the alliance that Article 5 was invoked. That was a vote. It required everyone to agree or at least no one to disagree. There was a footnote to the decision that explicitly said that the United States would provide NATO allies within three weeks of proof that the attack of 9/11 originated outside the country. If it had indeed originated inside the country it would not have been an armed attack and therefore article five would have been not involved. So if Ukraine provokes a Russian counter-response because it is trying to liberate territory, then NATO countries have the right to say we are not going to invoke Article 5. And that's in fact, to be honest, one of the reasons why countries might be willing to provide NATO membership to Ukraine because the provocation has to come from Moscow, not from Kyiv.

So possible future membership will prevent further escalation of this war but not the other way around?

 Correct. It's just the basis however for a political basis for getting back all of Ukrainian territory. All in NATO, and everyone else supporting the sovereignty and independence of all Ukrainian territory. The question is how do you get it back.

..and you see only political way…

…let's be frank it was only political until the 24th of February of 2022. I mean there was no one was talking about the military liberation of Crimea. It was a political goal, not a military goal. Of course, the Russian full-scale invasion changed psychology and everything else. Of course, if NATO membership had been granted to Ukraine before the attack, the attack would have never happened. All of that's the case, but we are where we are, and we are middle of a war, and the question of how you extend security guarantees to a country in the middle of a war in the contested borders is the core problem that NATO has been trying to fix. I will be very blunt: none of the advocates who want to move forward with NATO invitation today have an answer for this question. I actually would argue that I'm closer to the answer than anyone else.

in your interview with BBC, you were talking about negotiations between the White House and Ukrainians on security guarantees in the upcoming months. Recently, Mr. Yermak (Head of the Office of the President of Ukraine Andriy Yermak) made the announcement that this week negotiations between US and Ukraine will start on bilateral agreements on security guarantees for Ukraine until NATO membership. Are they the same things we are talking about?

No. But you will have to ask Mr Yermak. My assumption is that the security guarantee that they are talking about is the MOU that the United States committed to signing with Ukraine as part of the G7 declaration. I think to be frank Mr Yermak and Mr Rasmussen (Anders Fog Rasmussen, former NATO Secretary General)  have not helped clarity by defining that as a security guarantee. Security guarantee in my view is a commitment to come to the aid of the defence of a country that is being attacked, actively in defence. That's not what the MOU is about.

In the case, that Ukraine will liberate its territories until the border which was on the 24th of 2022, and then it will be only Crimea under Russian occupation, will it be a situation where we can talk about membership for Ukraine?

All I know is what I read in the papers and I talked to people. My assessment is that it's harder going than people had expected for a whole bunch of reasons. Partly to do with Ukrainian capabilities and partly to do with Russian defensive preparations. I think there still is a prospect for Ukraine to achieve in this counteroffensive sufficient gains to hold at risk the land bridge to Crimea which ultimately is the strategic goal, plus to liberate the Zaporizhzhia power plant which I also think is possible. Those are the two fundamental strategic goals. That's not the same as going back to the borders of 2022, but it is the same in terms of its strategic impact. It means that Crimea can only be re-supplied through the Kerch bridge which in itself is vulnerable and will continue to be vulnerable. I still think that's a strategic goal that can only be achieved militarily, and if it isn't achieved in this counteroffensive the real question becomes is there another way at another time later on in which that goal would be achieved. But I don't think you're going to see the liberation of Mariupol which of course you had before. But you might get to the sea of Azov and you might be able to cut down the road and rail link. I think, at that point, depending on what happens in the north and in the east, makes sense to start a discussion with the Ukrainian government about its aims, and the next steps.

Ukraine has a choice. It can continue to fight and hope that it can liberate all territory while keeping the rest, the entire country on a war footing not being able to provide for its own people, or if the Russians can be persuaded which is really big, to localize the conflict, that large parts of the more productive of Ukraine could become be reconstructed and prepare for its integration into the West both militarily and security terms and political economically. Ultimately I think as long as it is clear that that integration is very much the desire of all parties of the Ukrainians, of the Europeans when it comes to the EU and NATO. I can't speak for Ukrainian people but I think it's an option that needs to be on the table, and for the Ukrainian people to decide. But if we in NATO are not willing to offer that then we can also not say "Well, you need to stop fighting". That doesn't work that way. Nor do I think you negotiate away NATO membership in order to end the war which is what some NATO countries would like to do. I want to use NATO membership to incentivize Ukraine to focus on its future and see if it can address the final elements of the return of its territory politically rather than militarily but as a full member of NATO and as a full member of the European Union.

My view had been and I've strongly pushed this that we, NATO put in place a process, group of experts, whatever to discuss the “when and how”, to recognize that there is a “when and how” problem, to focus on the language of invitation, to focus on the process of how you get to the invitation.

Are you talking about some kind of working body within, maybe a Council NATO-Ukraine to discuss exactly this issue or it can be also on a bilateral basis with the U.S.

You can certainly do this bilaterally, it doesn't have to be in NATO. But the nice thing about doing it in NATO is that you have a deadline, you say it needs to be done by the end of the year, and you report to the Secretary General rather than NATO, so it's no longer subject to consensus rules. I mean there are all kinds of ways of doing this if you want to do it. I think there is a scope for a very serious discussion on the “when and how” that is done informally which includes discussions with the Ukrainian government and I think whether that's directly in NATO or separately it's something that ought to be done and focused on. But NATO didn't decide to do that formally so now it has to be done informally.

Do you see an invitation for membership on Washington's NATO Summit?

I think if the circumstances are right, so there are two things. There's this question of "when and how" you figured that out, and what is happening on the ground militarily. I think there's a larger chance that between now and Washington, a year from now, the fighting will have evolved in a way that makes a decision more likely on an invitation. But there's a second issue, the word “condition” (the declaration of the NATO summit in Vilnius states that Ukraine will be invited to join NATO "when the allies agree and the conditions are met"). The word “conditions” is there for a reason, and the reason has to do with the government’s ability and willingness to fight corruption, which is widespread and a growing concern among Ukraine’s closest friends. The government is trying to deal with this, and this needs to be addressed.

and the reason has to do with the government's capacity and willingness to combat corruption which is extensive and there are growing worries among Ukraine's closest friends. The government is trying to handle these things but it needs to be addressed.

Some people continue to say that we have to let Putin save his face. what do you think about this?

I'm not interested in saving Putin's face. The war has been a strategic disaster for him and for Russia in every way possible and nothing that can come about is going to change that. There is no interest and there should be no interest in Russia saving face. It needs to pay for what it has done. I believe that Ukrainian membership in NATO and in the European Union is probably the biggest price he would pay. It would hopefully over time provide the incentive for people inside Russia and Belarus for that matter to decide that there may reconstitute and strengthen their countries to get rid of the leadership that has brought up the disaster that they face. So I don't think the issue is how do you help Russia save a face, I think the issue is how do you help Ukraine decide its future. I think the future lies in the West, I think that's what Ukraine wants and I think we need to use that prospect as a means to defeat Russia. It doesn't mean every inch of territory will be regained because unless somebody tells me how you do that militarily, and I haven't found anybody. It's not about providing more F-16 or ATACMS. The reality is it's really hard to get territory when you're a smaller military power. I know how to get back, which is for the United States to be part of the war but we're not going to be part, Poland will not be part of the war, and Lithuania will be not part of this war. So that's why I think we need to talk about it. That's the discussion that the Ukrainian people will have to have with themselves not to save face for Putin, but to ensure their future within the West.