Flashback: Why NATO stiffed Ukraine
In November 2021, Jonathan Swan pressed NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg on "Axios on HBO" about why Ukraine hasn't received NATO membership: "Putin must know that the way to stop a country joining NATO is to invade it."
Why it matters: NATO promised Ukraine in 2008 that it would eventually become a member of the alliance, but offered no specific timeline. As Russia built up a massive military presence on Ukraine's borders, it demanded guarantees that Ukraine would never join NATO — and invaded after the Western allies refused.
Jonathan Swan: I was in Kyiv earlier this year to interview President Zelensky. They badly want to join NATO. If Russia invades Ukraine again, what would NATO do about it?
Jens Stoltenberg: So I met recently and just last week President Zelensky, and I once again expressed NATO’s support to Ukraine, our support to Ukraine’s territorial integrity, sovereignty, and the fact that NATO—
Swan: You know that drives him crazy when you say that?
Stoltenberg: I know that he wants something more, and I respect that he appreciates the support he gets from NATO, from NATO allies. But he also has been very clear also in our meeting that he wants something more. He wants full membership.
Swan: He wants real, meaningful protection against Russia. They were promised NATO membership back in 2008. Nothing’s happened. They got invaded. Their territory was seized. It’s still captured by Russia.
Stoltenberg: It’s wrong to say that nothing has happened—
Swan: On the membership front.
Stoltenberg: Yeah. They have not become members. But, first of all we have strengthened our partnership. We are working much more closely with them.
Swan: But you won’t defend them obviously.
Stoltenberg: Ukraine is not part of NATO.
Swan: I know. No, I understand that—
Stoltenberg: Meaning Ukraine is not covered by our collective defense clause — Article 5. To be a NATO member, you need to meet the NATO standards. We helped with modernizing, fighting corruption. But 30 allies have to agree, and we don’t have consensus agreement in NATO now on inviting Ukraine into becoming a full member.
Swan: I can think of current NATO members whose governments are deeply corrupt, undemocratic. Isn’t this just really about, you know people don’t want to fight with Putin, they don’t want to provoke him? And it’s a dangerous lesson because Putin must know that the way to stop a country joining NATO is to invade it.
Stoltenberg: Well, Putin and Russia has protested against every enlargement of NATO. Russia and Putin expressed a lot of criticism against North Macedonia and Montenegro joining NATO, and they have joined NATO recently, over the last couple of years.
Swan: And those armies are more proficient than Ukraine’s?
Stoltenberg: Well, we have the right to make our own assessments on whether a NATO country — an applicant country, an aspirant country meet the NATO standards.
Swan: Promoting democratic values is a cornerstone of NATO. How does NATO define “democracy”?
Stoltenberg: The rule of law, individual liberty, free elections.
Swan: Is Turkey still a democratic government?
Stoltenberg: They have elections. The opposition was able to win an election in Istanbul recently. But I think also it’s fair to say that you know, I know that several allies have expressed concerns about Turkey.
Swan: Erdoğan is interfering in the judiciary, locking up his enemies, jailing journalists, re-running elections.
Stoltenberg: When allies have strongly different opinions about these issues we meet, for instance, in this room and use the political, diplomatic leverage they have to raise these issues.