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NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg speaks during a media conference after a meeting of the NATO-Ukraine Commission at NATO headquarters in Brussels, Tuesday, Feb. 22, 2022. World leaders are getting over the shock of Russian President Vladimir Putin ordering his forces into separatist regions of Ukraine and they are focusing on producing as forceful a reaction as possible. Germany made the first big move Tuesday and took steps to halt the process of certifying the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg speaks during a media conference after a meeting of the NATO-Ukraine Commission at NATO headquarters in Brussels, Tuesday, Feb. 22, 2022. World leaders are getting over the shock of Russian President Vladimir Putin ordering his forces into separatist regions of Ukraine and they are focusing on producing as forceful a reaction as possible. Germany made the first big move Tuesday and took steps to halt the process of certifying the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia. (Olivier Matthys)

In analyzing Russia’s incursion into Ukraine, some commentators have focused on factors specific to the actors in this case - Putin’s desire to show that post-Soviet Russia remains a global power, for example, his hatred of democracy or the Russian view that Ukraine is historically part of their state. But those factors pale beside the fact that one country (Ukraine) has been positioning itself to join an alliance (NATO) meant to counter the other (Russia).

This isn’t just the view of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has been demanding that NATO rule out ever admitting Ukraine. International affairs scholars know that, throughout history, few moments are more ripe for war than when the enemy of one country makes a bid to join forces with other adversaries. Such alliances can utterly transform the balance of power between two countries, and therefore, when a potential alliance is signaled, but not yet consummated, the nation that will be put at a disadvantage faces a huge incentive to strike.

Ukraine’s membership in NATO was hardly imminent, but Russia felt threatened enough by the possibility that it was willing to risk all-out war to prevent it. Recognizing the dynamic at play in this situation is the first step toward understanding the conflict. It’s also the first step in recognizing how NATO’s membership process may unintentionally invite this kind of crisis.

The relationship between alliance formation - imminent partnerships, especially - and war is a close one, as we explored in a recent scholarly article. In 1939, for instance, Britain made a commitment to defend Poland, but was not able to make good on the pledge right away. Germany attacked Poland before Britain and France could get into position. In 1954, the Chinese communists attacked islands held by the Chinese nationalists in a failed attempt to block an alliance between the United States and Taiwan. And in a situation remarkably similar to the current crisis in Ukraine, Russia attacked Georgia in 2008, after NATO membership for Georgia was proposed. Perhaps not coincidentally, Georgia is still not a NATO member.

Alliances - even “defensive” ones like NATO - bring about significant power shifts, creating a new landscape of winners and losers. When a country stands to benefit from a future power shift caused by joining an alliance, then it knows its hand will be strengthened in future negotiations. As a result, negotiations in the present - such as those between Ukraine and Russia over the status of two breakaway regions in Ukraine’s East - lack staying power. Whatever is agreed upon today can unravel after the power shift.

Political scientists refer to this phenomenon as a “commitment problem” - and commitment problems lead to crises and even war. Our research suggests that impending alliances are particularly dangerous when certain conditions apply. Conflict is most likely to occur when the alliance explicitly or implicitly targets another country; when the anticipated power shift from the alliance is large; when it takes time for the alliance to be fully implemented (opening a window for attack); and when an attack is likely to block the alliance.

Ukraine’s potentially joining NATO checks those boxes. NATO is a military juggernaut, and Ukraine’s situation would be utterly transformed if its 30 members were pledged to defend it. NATO also “targets” Russia, in the sense that its raison d’etre, at its founding, was to counter the Soviet Union. In Putin’s mind, war today to block NATO membership for Ukraine may lead to a better outcome than negotiating with Ukraine in the future, when it could be backed by the combined strength of NATO countries.

In principle, Ukraine and NATO could have defused the situation by committing to bar Ukraine from NATO. Russia’s aggressive incursion into eastern Ukraine suggests that this solution is now unlikely. But the underlying commitment problem, as well as other factors, made this approach unrealistic from the beginning. The NATO powers understandably didn’t want to reward Putin for his aggression, and Ukraine itself wants badly to be under NATO’s umbrella. What’s more, it’s not clear that NATO’s rules permit such a concession: NATO’s “open door” policy, based on Article 10 of its founding treaty, holds out the promise of membership to any European country able to fulfill specific obligations of membership (civilian control of the military, a democratic government, and so on). Why would Putin believe a commitment to rule out membership for Ukraine if it otherwise seems on track for meeting membership requirements?

Potential new alliances can always provoke hostility, but the path NATO lays out for potential members all but invites armed conflict - however inadvertently. To join NATO, countries must first be offered a membership action plan, a formal invitation and a tailored road map for future NATO membership. To obtain such a plan, prospective new members must first peacefully resolve outstanding international, ethnic, and territorial disputes. The problem is obvious: Putin can sabotage a state’s NATO bid by starting a conflict.

He’s done it before. In 2003, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili made Georgian accession to NATO a priority. Five years later at a NATO summit in Bucharest, U.S. President George W. Bush pushed for a membership action plan to be offered to Georgia. However, separatist movements in the Abkhazia and South Ossetia regions served as a roadblock. Other NATO members, including France and Germany, were reluctant to extend a membership action plan under these conditions.

Seeing an opportunity, Russian forces invaded in August 2008. (In 2011, then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev boasted that Georgia would have already become a NATO member had Russia chosen not to attack.) Putin may have invaded the Crimean Peninsula in 2014, grabbing it from Ukraine, for similar reasons. By now, using force to thwart NATO bids is a standard play for Russia.

A better approach for defending Ukraine might have used the United States’ commitment to Taiwan as a model. That commitment is deliberately ambiguous - and therefore sidesteps the problem of creating a dangerous implementation window on the way to a formal mutual defense pact. Certainly, the United States’ stance on Taiwan does not create a road map for China to use armed conflict to prevent a U.S.-Taiwan alliance, as the NATO membership rules do.

The current standoff in Ukraine points to an underlying systemic problem. Telegraphing the possibility of a military commitment can trigger a dangerous race between efforts to implement and to block the alliance. NATO is likely to face these crises again, because its transparent and drawn-out membership processes exacerbate the dangers caused by potential alliances.

Even as the United States and its allies work diplomatically to end the Ukraine crisis, they should be thinking about how to change these structural flaws. In particular, the alliance might consider replacing its road map for future members with a more opaque, private, deliberative process, so that adversaries aren’t encouraged to preempt membership by instigating fights.

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Brett V. Benson is an associate professor of political science at Vanderbilt University. Bradley C. Smith is an assistant professor of political science at Vanderbilt University.


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