Although no one knows how the war in Ukraine will end, the country's leaders maintain that they'll continue to face the threat of Russian aggression long after the fighting subsides. Ukraine's president Volodymyr Zelenskyy has said that the only way to ensure the country's security is for it to join NATO. He wants the alliance to commit to a timetable for Ukraine's membership during its July summit in Lithuania.
It's a good idea at a terrible time. NATO members are rightly wary of discussing such an escalation while the war is raging. Yet Ukraine's eventual membership should remain a strategic goal: It would safeguard the country's independence, bolster the stability of Europe as a whole, and deter Vladimir Putin from ever again attempting to seize control of his neighbor.
In 2008, NATO member states made a nonbinding pledge to eventually admit Ukraine and Georgia, both former Soviet republics vulnerable to Russian pressure. However, the alliance refrained from offering either country a so-called Membership Action Plan, a necessary step toward formal acceptance.
Officials have since downplayed Kyiv's prospects out of fear of provoking Putin, who insists that the mere possibility of Ukraine's membership poses an existential threat. In a last-ditch effort to forestall a Russian invasion last January, President Joe Biden went so far as to declare that the prospect was "not very likely" in the near future.
That Putin went ahead anyway demonstrates the folly of attempting to placate him. If anything, the war shows that NATO's doctrine of mutual defense--under which an attack against one member is considered an attack on all--is the strongest deterrent against Russian aggression. For all its brutality in Ukraine, Russia has avoided hostile actions against countries like Poland and the Baltic states, knowing they would trigger a NATO response.
Ukrainian membership would surely be unsettling to Moscow. But NATO should base its decisions on its own interests, not Russia's.
That said, the process shouldn't be rushed. Admitting Ukraine while it's still fighting to liberate territory would be both impractical and dangerous, potentially drawing NATO into direct military conflict with Russia. But failing to address the issue would be equally shortsighted.