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Zelenskyy accepts Ukraine cannot become a NATO member until the war ends

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Ukraine's president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, is giving up hopes of having his country join NATO anytime soon. After months of urging that NATO's members admit Ukraine, he acknowledged yesterday it would be, quote, "impossible" for that to happen before the war with Russia ended. We're joined now by John Deni, research professor at the U.S. Army War College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. Professor Deni, thanks for being with us.

JOHN DENI: My pleasure, Scott.

SIMON: Just a couple of days ago, President Zelenskyy met European leaders in person and urged them to admit Ukraine to NATO. What do you think changed?

DENI: Well, I think, frankly, he is merely acknowledging the reality of the situation confronting the alliance and Ukraine. Clearly, there are members within the alliance - most notably the Baltic states, Poland - that have been pushing hard for NATO to pull Ukraine in sooner rather than later, to offer them otherwise security guarantees if membership is not immediately possible. Yet I'm sure Mr. Zelenskyy's ambassador here in Washington has been informing him that there is still resistance to that. And I think obviously part of the resistance is that the United States and its NATO allies are not terribly eager to get pulled into the war with their own troops.

SIMON: Well, of course, and that raises the question, because the NATO treaty stipulates that an attack on one member country is regarded as an attack on all of them, is this as fundamental as NATO countries didn't want to go with to war with Russia?

DENI: I think that's exactly right. And you've hit the nail on the head. The key part of the treaty is so-called Article 5. And it is the part of the treaty that commits each ally to the defense of all the others if there's an attack on them. Clearly, NATO and the allies are not eager to become involved directly in the war. Now, that still leaves open the possibility of the allies, at their summit in Vilnius coming up in just a few weeks in July - leaves open the possibility the allies may offer some clearer path to NATO membership or some other kind of security guarantees short of full membership. Frankly, I still think those two things would be a bad idea right now.

SIMON: Well, let me draw you out on that. You think that if Ukraine formally became a member of NATO, it could frustrate an eventual agreement to end the war in Ukraine?

DENI: Well, Scott, let me be clear. I think eventually Ukraine does need to be a member of the alliance. I think after the war is over, membership of Ukraine in NATO is going to be the only way to deter a future Russian attack and all the instability and insecurity that would then have for vital U.S. interests across Europe. But until the war is over, frankly, I think discussing membership for Ukraine in NATO or other security guarantees is really not a very good idea and a bad thing for Ukraine actually, because I think it - if there's discussion of this, if there are security guarantees offered, frankly, I think it incentivizes the Russians to fight harder and fight longer. This war is going to have to end through a political settlement. And the Russians will not be very eager to end it if they know Ukraine is going to jump into NATO as soon as it's over.

SIMON: Do you think this will be regarded as a setback in Ukraine?

DENI: I don't think this will be regarded as a setback in Kyiv so much as it is a statement of reality by the Ukrainian president. Let's remember that he has been a tireless advocate for membership of Ukraine in both NATO and the EU. I don't see that changing, even if he does acknowledge the reality that that membership may not be offered at the Vilnius summit next month.

SIMON: Does Ukraine really need to be a formal member of NATO? I mean, they're getting an awful lot of assistance from member states already, aren't they?

DENI: They're getting an awful lot of assistance. That is exactly right. But we know that the rhetorical commitments, the policy statements, the agreements that have been entered into between Ukraine and the West or Ukraine and Russia, those things have not protected Ukraine in the way that Kyiv and those of us in the West had hoped. The commitment of NATO to eventually allow this country into the alliance, the 1994 Budapest Memorandum between the U.K., the U.S., Russia and Ukraine - none of those rhetorical commitments really did the job. It's going to take NATO membership, the commitment to Article 5 and specifically the commitment of the United States to help defend Ukraine eventually once the war ends and to deter the Russians from another attack.

SIMON: John Deni, research professor at the U.S. Army War College and nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. Thanks so much for being with us.

DENI: My pleasure, Scott. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.