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Admitting Ukraine Into NATO Would Be a Fool’s Errand

This week, President Trump is meeting with allied heads of state at a summit [1] of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Among the many items on the agenda is the question of enlarging NATO to include other countries such as Ukraine. Although Russian aggression in Ukraine has been rightly condemned, those who urge for NATO to accept Ukraine as a full member are making a grave mistake.

If Ukraine joined NATO, it would become an even more unstable hotspot that America would be obligated to defend. Why should the U.S. risk war [2] with a nuclear-armed Russia in Moscow’s backyard? NATO is a military alliance to defend Europe, not a democracy-promotion machine intended to reorder the political equilibrium in every European country. Though Washington may wish it, NATO cannot solve every problem nor can it smooth over all local flash points.

It’s easy to understand why some wish to bring Ukraine under the alliance’s security umbrella. After all, NATO has deterred Soviet and Russian aggression for nearly 70 years, and good Westerners who watched the Maidan protests have had their heart strings pulled. But expanding NATO means that if Ukraine asks for help in its current war, America’s sons and daughters will be called upon to die. If Trump and other administration officials asked American voters whether that’s something they want, the answer would be a firm “no.”

Furthermore, calls for Ukraine to join NATO forget that deterrence works [3] because it relies on mutually assured destruction (MAD) and on some level of respect for each side’s national interests. When one side communicates that it no longer cares about the other’s security concerns, the likelihood of war skyrockets. For instance, in 1962, when Moscow put missiles in Cuba, America reacted very forcefully to get the Soviet Union to remove themeven though doing so brought the world to the brink. Furthermore, in 1983, when NATO staged its largest-ever exercises under Reagan—known as Able Archer 83 [4]the Soviet Union thought it was a cover for an attack and nearly launched their own nuclear strikes as a result.

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These same dynamics apply to Ukraine and the question of NATO accession. Although obviously the United States would never deliberately attack Russia, it doesn’t look that way from Moscow. Whether anyone likes it or not, Putin believes that Russia is reacting defensively and fears the possibility of a NATO-led overthrow of his government. He saw what happened when the Western-backed Maidan toppled Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych and thinks America might be tempted to do the same [5] to him. As a result of thisand of Putin’s general revisionism [6]Russia is the spoiler [7] for any Ukrainian conflict and would likely escalate [8] the use of force to keep Ukraine out of NATO.

This is why U.S. deterrence wouldn’t apply as easily to Ukraine if it did start the process of joining NATO. If Russia was willing to annex Crimea and invade eastern Ukraine as a de facto veto on Ukraine’s NATO aspirations, it would certainly do far worse if official accession plans were announced. So far, NATO has pledged [9] that Ukraine will one day join, but no such plans have been implemented. Additionally, it would likely take several years of reforms [10] in accordance with a membership action plan [11] before Ukraine could join NATO, which would give Russia time to react.

If Russia believes Ukraine is worth fighting for, then America and NATO need to deeply consider the implications rather than just push ahead for membership. To ignore this reality is to be naïve about how the world works. America cannot be the world’s crusader for democracy in every crisis. Where would that end? The argument that other countries’ interests do not matter and that the U.S. just needs to bring everyone under its protective umbrella collapses on itself. Reduced to its absurd logical conclusion, that would mean America should try to protect literally every state on the planet from aggression and dictatorship while also preparing to fight anyoneeven nuclear powerswho gets in the way. The brutal truth is that the U.S. needs to protect its own democracy and prosperity. We cannot always save the day and Washington can no more deliver a perfectly happy ending to Ukraine than it could to Iraq.

As former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine Steven Pifer wrote [12], “Until the simmering conflict in the Donbas and frozen conflict in Crimea are resolved, Ukraine has little prospect of membership. Bringing Ukraine in with the ongoing disputes would mean that NATO would face an Article 5 contingency against Russia on day one of Kyiv’s membership.” Moreover, Henry Kissinger [13] himself has urged that Ukraine ought to be considered a bridge between West and East rather than another potential NATO ally.

Washington needs to realize that NATO’s expansion is not always in America’s interests and that in this case the cost would be far too high. The United States should focus on holding NATO’s interest-based red lines while also recognizing Russia’s interests—challenging them where we must but not in every possible circumstance. The alternative would be for the Second Cold War to drag on longer than is necessary to the risk of all.

John Dale Grover is a fellow with Defense Priorities and a writer at Young Voices. He is also a graduate student at George Mason’s School of Conflict Analysis and Resolution. His articles have appeared in The National Interest, Forbes, Fox News, Real Clear Defense, and The American Conservative.

18 Comments (Open | Close)

18 Comments To "Admitting Ukraine Into NATO Would Be a Fool’s Errand"

#1 Comment By saurabh On July 11, 2018 @ 1:18 pm

Hey, let’s have some mention of the US role in destabilizing the Ukraine. For example, US Senator John McCain attended the Maidan protests to support their “just cause”:

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Later, a tape emerged of Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland planning who should become the next leaders of the Ukraine (their favorite, Arseniy Yatseniyuk, in fact went on to become the Prime Minister of the Ukraine).

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Then, shortly after the overthrow of the Ukrainian government and its replacement by a government formed by the ‘protestors’, the IMF granted it an unprecented $17.5 billion loan.

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Finally, the US/NATO began conducting joint military exercises with the Ukrainian military clearly intended to provoke Russia:

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In other words, the US (mostly under secretary Clinton) seems to have actively been attempting to subvert and replace the Ukrainian government. This is hardly what one could call “supporting democracy”, or be perceived as having anything to do with democracy at all.

#2 Comment By Myron Hudson On July 11, 2018 @ 1:49 pm

And if NATO is not paying their full share, as we are constantly told, why would we want them to take on an economic basket case like Ukraine?

#3 Comment By Mark Thomason On July 11, 2018 @ 2:33 pm

NATO is already over-extended. It should not have been pushed into the Baltics and right up to the Russian border. NATO was created for its own safety; it does not owe that expansion to everyone who would draw on its strength. Priorities must be set, and they must be priorities of the original purpose, not of ever-expanding neocon dreams.

#4 Comment By Alex Granovsky On July 11, 2018 @ 4:49 pm

Putin is insane. If West going to surrender on Ukraine, Kremlin won’t stop. Don’t be fooled by football games or Russian capitalism – you have to claw your way through this disguise and you will find the old Soviet kgb-made agenda of world domination, and it is hell on Earth for EU and USA.

#5 Comment By stephen armstrong On July 11, 2018 @ 5:38 pm

@ Myron Hudson, Ukraine already spends massive amounts of its GDP in Military spending far in excess of the 4% being asked of NATO members. This article ignores the fact that the purpose of NATO is to keep Russia in check. Ukraine has the largest army in Europe besides Russia, they are right next door to Russia and have been killing Russians for the past 4 years. All these things make them prime candidates to not only join NATO but to become community leaders of the alliance.

#6 Comment By b. On July 11, 2018 @ 6:01 pm

“Washington needs to realize that NATO’s expansion is not always in America’s interests and that in this case the cost would be far too high.”

“Washington” is committed to regime change in Russia and China, and, as Germany and South Korea are learning, will subordinate everything else to ensure forward basing and deployment of military means. Given the Payne-full pursuit of “winnable” nuclear war, it is doubtful they consider any cost too high.

#7 Comment By cka2nd On July 11, 2018 @ 7:39 pm

“After all, NATO has deterred Soviet and Russian aggression for nearly 70 years”

Oh, please.Talk about a big lie.

“and good Westerners who watched the Maidan protests have had their heart strings pulled.”

But mainly their legs pulled.

“Although obviously the United States would never deliberately attack Russia”

Only because Russia could respond in kind. Take away that rough technological parity and Russia is just another Iraq, Libya, Panama or Grenada.

“He saw what happened when the Western-backed Maidan toppled Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych and thinks America might be tempted to do the same to him.”

Just as they are currently doing to Maduro in Venezuela and Ortega in Nicaragua. I’m starting to think countries should ban any organization that takes money from the National Endowment for Democracy or any of its affiliates, or at the very least, force them to register as agents of a foreign power.

#8 Comment By Mark Krvavica On July 11, 2018 @ 8:52 pm

Ukraine should know that NATO is a Cold War relic, the U.S. should have left that alliance during the 1990s before it became a democracy promotion machine.

#9 Comment By Romegas On July 12, 2018 @ 2:37 am

NATO is nothing other than a latter day Delian league, a protection racket and a fancy word instead of empire.

#10 Comment By ME On July 12, 2018 @ 9:56 am

On December 5, 1994 the leaders of Ukraine, Russia, Britain and the United States signed a memorandum to provide Ukraine with security assurances in connection with its accession to the NPT as a non-nuclear weapon state.

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#11 Comment By Thaomas On July 12, 2018 @ 10:23 am

Let’s hope that the agreement, if that what it was, to increase NATO’s military muscle will send a strong message to Russia to back off of threatening it’s neighbors (and return Crimea to Ukraine), ideally so as to make incorporating Ukraine into NATO unnecessary.

#12 Comment By Sid Finster On July 12, 2018 @ 11:15 am

What “Russian aggression”?

And the people of Crimea were and are by and large overjoyed to be rid of Ukraine. The people I know in the Donbass only wish Russia would invade.

#13 Comment By Michael Kenny On July 12, 2018 @ 11:49 am

What I find repugnant in the author’s argument is the tacit denial of Ukrainians’ human rights and human dignity. If Russia thinks it in its “national interest” to invade and annex Ukraine, and my necessary implication, any other sovereign state whose existence Russia unilaterally deems to be contrary to its “national interest”, Mr Grover thinks that the rest of the world should simply lie down meekly and accept that. Mr Grover’s worldview is essentially atheistic and conflicts with the Christian values American “conservatives” claim to hold. I’ll leave to the editors of this website to sort out that conflict!

#14 Comment By snapper On July 12, 2018 @ 1:50 pm

@ Sid Finster

The Russians seized Crimea by force. That’s an act of war. Doesn’t matter what the locals think.

#15 Comment By Anne (the other one) On July 12, 2018 @ 6:53 pm

@snapper & Michael Kenny

Ukraine isn’t a real nation. Meaning Ukraine was created after World War II by purging all non-Ukrainians from the future Ukrainian state. Ukrainians aided the Nazi’s killing of Jews and afterwards massacred the Poles in Volhynia and Eastern Galicia.

There is no meaningful link between the Ukrainians and Crimeans. They are two separate people using two different languages. Crimea is ethnically Russia. When Ukrainians separated, the first act was to ban the Russian language. Knowing Ukraine’s history of genocide, the Crimeans wanted out. Putin came to their rescue.

At the time, a BBC announcer described this Ukrainian separatists as Neo-Nazi’s and I thought how appropriate.

#16 Comment By SteveK9 On July 14, 2018 @ 2:34 pm

If Ukraine is admitted to NATO, or I should say the fascists in Kiev are admitted to NATO, then Russia will invade Ukraine … for real this time. And they won’t wait around a few years to do it. I expect they would set up a border between themselves and the rump of Ukraine in the West, which would be heavily militarized.

#17 Comment By Mark Marshall On July 15, 2018 @ 5:40 pm

“Although obviously the United States would never deliberately attack Russia, it doesn’t look that way from Moscow.” Indeed, it is obvious that the United States would never attack Russia, even if it doesn’t look that way from Moscow. Equally obvious is that Russia would never attack the United States. But does it look that way from Washington?

#18 Comment By Matt On July 16, 2018 @ 3:03 am

Make Russia part of NATO and only then make Ukraine part of NATO.