But that argument misses an important distinction: NATO is designed to defend countries which are already democratic, but it’s wholly unequipped to promote democracy within those countries. So Ukraine’s membership in NATO, contrary to the conventional wisdom, wouldn’t bolster the cause of Ukrainian democracy.
Democracy succeeds when its principles are embraced and manifested in laws, political norms and institutions; and when it is defended by anti-corruption advocates, civil liberties and civil rights organizations, and media freedom groups. Unlike physical territory, democracy can’t be defended with defense pacts, with bombs or bullets, with missiles or minefields.
The NATO charter might require aspirants to support democracy, individual liberty and the rule of law. But it fails to prevent democratic backsliding once countries join the alliance. Member countries Hungary and Turkey are prime examples. Hungary’s Viktor Orbán and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan have presided over the persecution of independent media, the silencing of dissent and the erosion of rule of law. Both have entertained closer ties with Russia amid the war in Ukraine, with Erdoğan recently meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Sochi.
Despite their democratic backsliding, Hungary and Turkey remain members of the alliance in good standing and have even extracted concessions for stalling Sweden and Finland’s accessions to NATO. The United States might entice these increasingly illiberal allies with arms deals, but NATO is powerless to address the root cause of their obstinance. Hungary says its stonewalling of Sweden’s membership is a response to the European Union’s suspension of billions of dollars of its funds. What is the EU’s reason for the freeze? Hungary’s democratic decline.
Hungary and Turkey’s slides toward authoritarianism offers a cautionary tale for Ukraine’s membership aspirations.
A case can be made that NATO isn’t threatened by the presence of a few democratically deficient members. Contrary to the rhetoric of a grand, global struggle between democracies and autocracies, the U.S. often finds common cause with illiberal countries. The U.S. works closely with Saudi Arabia and Egypt, for instance, in fighting violent extremism in the Middle East, and the Philippines hosts American military bases to help the U.S. defend its interests in Asia.
That’s a fair counterpoint, but one that opens a can of worms about the strategic logic of the transatlantic alliance structure. After all, if NATO doesn’t exist to defend democracies, what is it for? If member countries signed up to defend only other democracies, will they be less likely to keep their commitment when less democratic countries are admitted? Will countries, such as Georgia, which aspire to membership — while withstanding Russian aggression and struggling to make democratic reforms — begin to think the membership criteria is squishy or hypocritically applied?
To be sure, Ukraine has made some progress in cleaning itself up, and President Zelenskyy has been more of a reformer than some of his predecessors. News of his personnel purges regularly interrupts battlefield updates. Last summer, Zelenskyy sent waves through Ukraine when he fired his prosecutor general and the head of his security service for “grave failure to perform their duties.” More than 650 cases of treason were then opened. In January, six deputy ministers and five regional administrators were fired for corruption, and recently, Zelensky overhauled all of Ukraine’s regional military recruitment offices after the discovery of embezzlement.
Zelenskyy takes a hard-line stance against corruption, calling it out as a national scourge. But such a crusade is only necessary in an ailing political system — a system which, to some extent, implicates Zelenskyy as well.
When Western financial institutions sought independent heads atop Ukraine’s oligarch-run firms, Zelenskyy fired his cabinet for taking the initiative too far. Zelenskyy dismissed his prime minister after he clashed with media tycoon and oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky over appointments at a state-owned electrical company. Kolomoisky’s TV network had helped make Zelenskyy a famous comedian and later gave his presidential campaign preferential coverage. Kolomoisky is under U.S. sanctions, and was charged earlier this month with fraud and money laundering. Zelenksyy’s anti-corruption initiatives, whether sincere or merely performative, are clouded by his closeness to Kolomoisky, and his deference to other oligarchs.
In July, a Swiss intelligence report observed “authoritarian traits” in Zelenskyy as he tried to push Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko out of contention for Ukraine’s presidential elections in 2024. Citing martial law, Zelenskyy has since canceled the 2024 presidential election.
Consolidating democracy takes time. Before being admitted in 2020, North Macedonia participated in the Membership Action Plan for more than 20 years. Montenegro spent eight years in the program before its admittance in 2017. Bosnia and Herzegovina and Georgia continue to grapple with fragile democracies, trying to make democratic reforms in pursuit of their membership aspirations.
Ukraine righteously battles for its territory and survival, and Zelenskyy has valiantly steered his country through devastating conflict. It’s natural that Ukraine would seek NATO membership, as it would enhance the defense of its borders.
But at what cost? Other analysts have well articulated the risks of a devastating escalation with Russia, or the threat to the American credibility when the U.S. makes security promises with thin public support. And giving Ukraine NATO membership in the short term removes a powerful incentive for it to strengthen its democracy in the longer term: namely, the promise of (eventual) NATO membership.
But there’s another risk. Since the end of the Cold War, NATO has insisted that it is not an alliance arrayed against Russia but one designed to defend democracy. Admitting Ukraine while it is plagued by democratic shortcomings would further erode NATO’s reputation as a defender of democratic norms. Ultimately, it could be yet another discouraging case study in how NATO can defend democracies from without, but not from within.