To put it bluntly: there is no good reason ever to expand NATO to include Ukraine. Realism means not only recognizing limits, but setting them. To say that now, though, in the current context, is to confirm to Russia that their approach to Crimea was effective, and should be repeated [bold mine-DL]. Therefore, the objective of our diplomacy should be to create a context within which saying such a thing is possible again, because it is part of a more general resolution of outstanding issues. And in the meantime, we should expect a persistently higher level of tension in the region.
Maybe I’ve missed something. If we agree that bringing Ukraine into NATO at any point in the future would be a mistake, what is the point of pretending otherwise? One thing that could help to reduce tensions is to make clear that the U.S. is not interested in continuing NATO expansion to the east. Continued Western ambiguity on this point isn’t helping anyone, least of all Ukraine, which hasn’t been trying to join the alliance for years. This would be a recognition of the reality that Ukraine wouldn’t have been a suitable for membership even if the recent crisis had never happened, and has become even less desirable as an ally as a result of that crisis. We should be less worried about appearing to “reward” Russia and more concerned to dispel any confusion about U.S. and allied intentions and commitments.
If the U.S. can publicly acknowledge that there are no “immediate plans” for Ukraine to join the alliance, as Obama said this week, it should not be that much harder to admit that it isn’t ever going to happen. Besides, Western leaders shouldn’t be afraid to rule out NATO membership for Ukraine when Ukrainians have previously done that for themselves. It doesn’t concede anything to Russia to say that the alliance isn’t going to make a colossal blunder, which is what further expansion into the former Soviet Union would be. If that also helps to de-escalate the current crisis, which it could, then so much the better.