If Ukraine Joins NATO, Does the U.S. Know What It’s Bargaining For?

The recent NATO summit in Lithuania has concluded and it has been announced that Ukraine will not be invited to join the alliance. This is obviously not what Ukraine wanted, considering that they have been lobbying hard for an invitation for the past several years. Upon hearing the news, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was clearly upset, and complained that a lack of an invitation was “unprecedented and absurd.” Yet, U.S. President Joe Biden said it was “premature” to let Ukraine into the alliance, and that the war with Russia had to be resolved prior to Ukraine being admitted to NATO.

Nevertheless, progress has been made towards such a goal. A NATO-Ukraine council has been established, and once the conflict is over, Ukraine will not need a Membership Action Plan to apply. Additionally, the Group of Seven issued a Joint Declaration of Support for Ukraine that will consist of “bilateral, long-term security commitments and arrangements” to ensure the protection of Ukraine, which includes additional military and financial aid.

So, while NATO has decided to not invite Ukraine or give a specific timeline for when it can expect to join, America and its western allies have made it clear that it will be a member at some point, and until that time comes, they will continue to help defend Ukraine.

This is good news for Ukraine, but is it also good news for America?

There are several problems with this policy, none of which have been seriously discussed.

One is Ukrainian politics, which have been a major reason why America and its allies have never been serious about inviting Ukraine into the alliance in the first place. To qualify for NATO, the applicant must first have the political and legal institutions in place which “demonstrate a commitment to democracy, individual liberty and support for the rule of law.” A major reason why Ukraine has never been offered concrete plans to join NATO is because their institutions suffered from, to use Biden’s own words, a “cancer of corruption,” which includes politicized courts, a lack of due process, and weak property rights.

Unfortunately, things may have only gotten worse since Russia invaded last year. Under Zelensky, Ukraine has nationalized all TV outlets and made rival political parties illegal, canceled presidential elections, and repressed and harassed opposing religious institutions. It also keeps a “black list” of those Americans critical of the war, and has worked with the FBI to limit the online speech of American citizens.

If illiberal politics were a major reason for denying Ukraine NATO membership prior to the war, why would the alliance admit it after those problems became worse? No one has explained this, yet if America is supporting Ukraine in an effort to save the “free and open” world, it needs to stop glossing over such obvious contradictions.

Another issue is that Ukraine is by most accounts an irresponsible security partner. While most of America’s European allies free ride on America’s protection, it seems to have the opposite effect on Ukraine, and instead incentivizes them to be more aggressive. Since early 2022, America has provided Ukraine with billions in military aid accompanied with strict instructions on how it is to be used.

Specifically, Ukraine was to refrain from using American weapons to attack the interior of Russia because it could possibly lead to an escalation that directly involved NATO. This was a major reason why fighter jets and long range missiles have been denied. Yet, Ukraine has repeatably demonstrated a disregard for these instructions, and has on several occasions behaved recklessly. For example, in May of this year a pro-Ukrainian militia in cooperation with Kyiv used U.S. armored vehicles to invade the Belgorod region of Russia. It is also highly likely that Ukraine was been behind a drone strike on Moscow, the assassination of a pro-war Russian citizen, and the attack on Nord Stream 2 pipeline.

We must keep in mind that regardless of how this war ends, Ukraine and Russia will continue to share a border, which means that they will be forced to have some sort of relationship, even if it is bitter and antagonistic. Kyiv will never be happy with losing land to Russia and Moscow will always be interested in the politics of Ukraine. This will produce a situation of ongoing tension that Kyiv could exploit if it is aware it can rely on NATO protection if things turn hot.

The last thing America needs to consider is what will happen to American-Russian relations if Ukraine does secure permanent protection from NATO. America has been well aware that Ukraine’s status is a red line for Russia, which is why America sought to keep its distance from the country. Just like America, Russia does not accept a hostile security alliance directly on its southern border, especially one as aggressive as NATO. This has little to do with Putin himself but is a consequence of Russia’s geography and history, which is why it has been an enduring feature of Russian foreign policy. These security concerns do not just magically disappear because America agrees to protect Ukraine. If anything it will exacerbate Russia’s anxiety, and lead to a further deterioration in American-Russian relations which will produce a new set of problems that America must contend with.

Is America aware of what it is bargaining for with Ukraine? Whether America adopts the “Israel model” or Ukraine eventually secures membership in NATO, it is important to realize that America is not entering a security alliance with Ukraine, but rather assuming responsibility for its security. Despite claims that Ukraine “earned” NATO membership because it has acted bravely against Russia, it still remains a corrupt, increasingly authoritarian, and unreliable ally that, if allowed into NATO, will permanently break America’s relationship with Russia. Until these issued are resolved, America should not let Ukraine into NATO, and instead work towards making it a neutral country.