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It Is Time to Shut Ukraine’s Door to NATO

The alliance isn’t a social club.

Credit: Alexandros Michailidis

NATO is celebrating its 75th anniversary in Washington. The latest summit has proceeded like past meetings, filled with unrealistic promises, self-indulgent predictions, and sanctimonious warnings. Despite welcome increases in European military outlays, NATO remains North America and the Others. Only the U.S. is capable of waging war against nuclear-armed Russia. 

The meeting featured the Ukraine lobby’s continuing campaign to bring Kiev into NATO, using a supposedly defensive alliance to entangle NATO members, especially America, in the Russo–Ukrainian war. The strongest support for doing so comes from countries such as the Baltic states—charity towards all—whose principal duty in a full-scale conflict between NATO and Russia would be to cheer for America as the latter’s cities were incinerated by Russian ICBMs. 


So far President Joe Biden has resisted doing the Full Monty for direct combat in Ukraine. Nevertheless, he has steadily increased the intensity of NATO’s proxy war against Russia. Last month he also initiated a new, 10-year security agreement with Kiev, which provides for consultation “at the highest levels to determine appropriate and necessary measures to support Ukraine and impose costs on Russia.” 

“We are not waiting for the NATO process to be completed to make long-term commitments to Ukraine’s security to address the immediate threats they face and deter any aggression that may occur,” he explained. 

The U.S. should just say no to Ukraine in NATO. The latter’s purpose is to protect members and advance their interests. That originally meant defending against the Soviet Union, to prevent the Red Army from marching through West Germany’s Fulda Gap and on to the Atlantic. It isn’t obvious that Moscow ever intended such a maneuver, but Joseph Stalin was a uniquely evil and threatening figure. Hence America provided a defense shield for Western Europe nations until they recovered economically and politically and could fend for themselves. Yet policymakers including President Dwight D. Eisenhower expected the U.S. troop presence to be temporary. As Eisenhower opined in 1951: “If in ten years, all American troops stationed in Europe for national defense purposes have not been returned to the United States, then this whole project will have failed.”

With the collapse of the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact, the transatlantic alliance completed its mission. The bad guys were gone, the good guys were triumphant. However, Europeans never warmed to the idea of taking over responsibility for their own defense. After all, Uncle Sam had long doubled as Uncle Sucker. The Europeans worked hard to preserve their place on Washington’s defense dole, proposing new duties for NATO, including, bizarrely, fighting the drug war and promoting student exchanges.

Peace might have persisted if the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations had not treated Russia as a defeated nation, expected to accept whatever Washington deemed Moscow’s just desserts. Vladimir Putin was always an authoritarian by some measure, but he was not always hostile to America. The first foreign leader to call President George W. Bush after 9/11, he also delivered a notably accommodating speech to the German Bundestag just two weeks later. 


Putin’s attitude changed with NATO’s manifold broken promises about NATO expansion and the steady march eastward to Russia’s border. It was easy for allied governments to insist that Putin should not fear such an advance, but history hangs heavily over a country that suffered three devastating invasions from European powers over the last two centuries. As William Burns, then U.S. ambassador to Russia, noted in 2008, “Ukrainian entry into NATO is the brightest of all redlines for the Russian elite (not just Putin). In more than two and a half years of conversations with key Russian players…. I have yet to find anyone who views Ukraine in NATO as anything other than a direct challenge to Russian interests.”

Nor was that all. The allies promised NATO membership to Ukraine (and Georgia). Moreover, Washington and its allies turned the organization into an aggressive weapon in the wars against Serbia and Libya, which had neither attacked nor threatened any NATO member. In the first case, the allies declared their unilateral authority to dismember a sovereign nation, one with historic ties to Moscow. Russian anger flared at the grassroots as well as among elites. There also were allied-backed color revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine, as well as the 2014 allied support for a street putsch against an elected Ukrainian president who retained substantial backing in his nation’s Russophile east. Western officials may have seen themselves as modern Vestal Virgins, chosen by providence to bring heaven to earth, but if Russia or China used the same tactics toward Mexico or Canada, one can imagine the caterwauling—and threats of military retaliation—from Washington.

None of this justified Russia’s invasion. Yet one can understand why Putin saw no other solution when Washington refused to negotiate. The allies denounce the “salami slicing” by China in Asian-Pacific waters, but expected Moscow to accept similar tactics by the U.S. and NATO in Ukraine: the allied attempt to create a fait accompli with Ukraine as a de facto Western military ally, through NATO in Ukraine rather than Ukraine in NATO.

Yet, after helping to foment the worst European conflict since the Second World War, none of the allies sent combat troops to defend Ukraine. Observed Daniel DePetris of Defense Priorities, “The Europeans may frame the war as some epic contest between civilization and the forces of darkness, but none of them are willing to deploy their own troops into the fight or the formidable costs such a decision would bring.” For 14 years, NATO members promised Kiev an eventual invitation but refused to provide one. Such assurances continued even more fervently after Russia invaded, but again without an alliance marriage proposal forthcoming. 

At the latest summit the fraudulent promises continue. Much public attention greeted the draft communique’s statement that Ukraine’s path to alliance membership was “irreversible.” However, nothing suggested that the process would speed up. The allies could spend years releasing additional press releases affirming that Kiev's accession remains irreversible and still do nothing. One explanation for the latest delay is that someone apparently noticed that Ukraine’s government is corrupt, too much so to incorporate into a military alliance, even to thwart the supposed threat to Western civilization. 

In fact, Kiev should be excluded because it is not in America’s or Europe’s security interest to go to war with nuclear-armed Russia over Ukraine. For most of America’s history, Ukraine was ruled from Moscow, which never caused anyone in Washington concern. Putin has shown no interest expanding westward and warned against Ukraine’s inclusion in NATO because he did not want to face a war with the U.S. through the alliance. His difficulties in defeating Kiev would be greatly magnified by an attempt to subjugate the rest of Europe. Indeed, attempting to swallow just Ukraine would weaken Russia by ensuring continuing conflict. The very real danger of the conflict expanding is due to the West recklessly pushing a proxy war toward a full-scale conflict, with dispatch of deadly weapons for use against Russia and allied personnel to aid in the use of those arms against Russia. The allies made the slope toward full-scale war ever more slippery.

Beyond that, of course, the conflict is a great human tragedy, but preventing tragedy is not within NATO’s writ. Moreover, despite its oft-expressed humanitarian pretensions, Washington has allowed multiple international conflicts and civil wars to rage wildly, killing hundreds of thousands or even millions of civilians, with nary another thought. Like Russia, the U.S. has launched illegal wars and underwritten fratricidal conflicts abroad irrespective of the casualties involved. The Biden administration’s determination to fuel the Ukrainian conflict, which Kiev looks unlikely to win, is anything but humane.

Indeed, promising the latter NATO membership would leave Moscow with little incentive to settle the conflict, since continued battle would be the best means to forestall eventual membership. Indeed, Russia would have an incentive to escalate, leaving nothing but death and desolation in its wake. Ukrainians might gain false hope, encouraging them to keep fighting, hopeful that the allies would eventually join the fight. If Kiev nevertheless sought to end the conflict, Moscow could revive the fighting if accession to NATO appeared to become a realistic possibility. 

Nor, ironically, would granting membership after a settlement have the deterrent effect intended. Russia would remember that the allies spent years refusing to bring Kiev in and then refusing to defend Ukraine when it mattered. Why would the allies reverse course if hostilities erupted again? Ukraine would be no more important to Western security tomorrow than it is today or was yesterday.

Although the Russo–Ukrainian war might be the most important current issue for NATO, the future of the alliance also requires attention. Instead of promising to drag America, or at least allow America to be dragged, into another European war, U.S. officials should begin preparing for a European designed and led defense system. The American people are moving in that direction, with almost as many supporting a reduction or withdrawal of U.S. troops from Europe as in favoring keeping forces there. And after years of wailing and gnashing of teeth, most European members of NATO are spending more on their militaries, with several nations pushing to increase the alliance target for military spending from 2 to 2.5 to even 3 percent of GDP. 

One could imagine NATO led by Europeans with Washington as an associate member, prepared to cooperate when appropriate. Or a continental defense system rooted in the European Union, with which the U.S. would partner when interests warranted. Or some other alliance permutation, based on Europeans taking over responsibility for what obviously matters more to them than America, their own security. Such a shift won’t be easy, but continental attitudes are changing. A third of Western Europeans believe that the U.S. is “somewhat unreliable” in guaranteeing their defense. Popular majorities favor their nations being primarily responsible for their defense, which should be encouraged by Washington. 

Still, resistance from the usual suspects on both sides of the Atlantic remains strong. An unnamed NATO official recently declared, “I already lived through NATO during Trump’s first term. And I really don’t fancy another.” Alliance advocate Michael Peck, upset that a third of Americans want “to end the country’s most important and most successful security relationship,” wrote an article entitled “NATO Must Sell Itself to Americans.” Yet Peck admitted that “The problem isn’t a lack of effort to cement transatlantic ties. There has been no shortage of conferences and think tank reports—even a “NATO Youth Summit”—to discuss European security.” 

Despite the ever-expanding pretensions of global leadership by cloistered and spoiled Washington elites, the U.S. is headed toward domestic crisis. America suffers from a deficient president and divisive challenger; a diverse people increasingly estranged, bitterly sundered by geography, culture, and belief; an aging society ill-prepared for shifting demographic burdens; cities bedeviled by failing infrastructure and violent crime; and an essentially bankrupt government, burdened by hundreds of trillions of dollars in unfunded liabilities. Federal debt continues to rocket upward and could be double America’s GDP by mid-century. It is time to concentrate on confronting our problems at home.

Ukraine’s desire to join NATO is understandable. But the alliance’s purpose is to improve the security of its members, not offer charity to outsiders. Worse, bringing Ukraine into NATO would make conflict with Russia much more likely. Eight decades after World War II the world has changed. American dominance has lessened. Allied capabilities have burgeoned. The Europeans should take over responsibility for their own futures.