The Cold War Il: Considering Ukrainian NATO Membership Amidst Russian Referendums

By: Juan M. Ortega

October 7, 2022

As the war between Russia and Ukraine continues into its eighth month, Russian President Vladmir Putin has again crossed the boundaries of international law. The Kremlin organized referendums in four regions in Eastern Ukraine: Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhia. This territory comprises roughly 15% of Ukraine’s territory. Ukrainian government officials blasted the referendum as a sham election and claimed that Ukrainians were coerced into voting by armed Russian soldiers going to their homes and threatening them into voting. These referendums come mere weeks after the Ukrainian military carried out a successful counteroffensive, regaining roughly 6,000 square kilometers of territory in the eastern part of the country.

         Putin announced the annexation of these four territories on September 30th, the largest annexation of territory in Europe since World War II, using the referendum as justification for the controversial move. The results of the election claimed to show overwhelming support in these regions for joining Russia, with Russia claiming 87.05% of Ukrainians living in Kherson and a staggering 99.23% in Donetsk voted to repatriate with Russia. This latest move by the Kremlin has escalated tension in the war, as Putin pre-empted the referendums by saying, “If the territorial integrity of our country is threatened, we will without doubt use all available means to protect Russia and our people. This is not a bluff.” Many Western leaders understood Putin’s language to be a thinly veiled threat of potential use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine. This question now becomes, if Ukraine continues its military action in the east, will Putin consider that a violation of Russia’s “territorial integrity?”

         Ukraine’s government responded by saying it will not recognize the alleged results of the referendum. This was made clear by Ukraine’s reclaiming of Lyman, a strategic rail hub located in the Donetsk region Russia now claims, days after Putin’s annexation announcement. Russian troops have since been withdrawn from the city and relocated, displaying Russia has not truly secured control of the region. Additionally, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has stated he has fast-tracked Ukraine’s application to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). However, Ukrainian NATO membership also raises the stakes of nuclear war.

         Putin’s initial goal for invading Ukraine was to prevent the country from joining NATO and further aligning with the West. Yet Russia’s aggression in Ukraine pushed other Russian-border countries, such as Finland and Sweden, to join the alliance. Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty clearly states that an attack on one shall be considered an attack on all, resulting in the joining of all NATO member nations into an armed conflict if one is attacked. The ongoing war would mean if Ukraine were granted membership, all other member nations would then technically be officially at war with Russia.

         Russia’s initial invasion of Ukraine has been globally considered a violation of internal law, specifically Article 51 of the United Nations Charter, because Ukraine did not provoke the invasion through any actions it took. Now, the 15-member United Nations Security Council recently voted on a resolution seeking to declare the referendums as illegal and urging all countries not to recognize any of the annexed territory as Russian. The final vote was 10-1, with China, India, Brazil, and Gabon abstaining and Russia vetoing the resolution.

         Nine NATO members are now expressing their support for Ukrainian membership in lieu of the potential risk. The heads of Estonia, Latvia, Czechia, Poland, Romania, Lithuania, Montenegro, Slovakia, and North Macedonia released a statement on October 2nd calling for “all allies to substantially increase their military aid.” These nine nations expressed concern that Russia could potentially target them next.

         The risks of allowing Ukraine into NATO are clear, but the human and economic costs of the war call for NATO to welcome a new member. As of September, Ukraine’s reported casualties range around roughly 14,000. The Pentagon has estimated that between 70,000 and 80,000 Russian troops have either been killed or wounded as of August, a number likely to grow following Putin’s partial mobilization of 300,000 reservists late last month. Economically, sanctions against Russian energy have also been felt in the U.S. and Europe with record high gas prices. Also, the Nord Stream 1 pipeline that feeds Russian natural gas to countries throughout Europe was recently severely damaged. Western leaders are blaming Russia, saying the damage was a result of sabotage. The war in Ukraine has reached a point in which bold action may be the quickest solution.

         While the United States is the de facto leader of NATO as the largest military on the globe, President Biden has chosen to remain vague about what the consequences of Russia using nuclear weapons in Ukraine would look like. He has said, “America’s fully prepared with our NATO allies to defend every single inch of NATO territory. Every single inch.” Adding Ukraine to that territory would undoubtedly escalate the situation, but it may be the escalation needed to bring Putin to the negotiation table. 

Putin’s behavior as of late has been sporadic, contradicting the calculating image and persona he has cultivated over the decades. Russia’s closest allies, China and India, have even called for negotiations to end the war and have not fully or directly supported Putin in his campaign. Instead, Russia has continued, losing global prestige, as well as soldiers on the battlefield. The effects of the war are now being felt more intimately by Russians as men flee the country to avoid being drafted. None of this—not global condemnation nor disapproval at home—has stopped Putin. Ukrainian NATO membership may force him to, with NATO matching, if not surpassing, Russia’s nuclear capabilities. NATO’s nuclear deterrence policy includes a “mix of nuclear, conventional and missile defence capabilities, complemented by space and cyber capabilities.” The West seeks to benefit strategically, economically, and politically internationally by putting a quick, firm end to Putin’s chosen conflict. Ukraine’s membership to NATO would force the citizens and the Kremlin to recognize the true consequences of Putin’s war and the long lasting impacts it will leave on Russia.

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