The Biden administration risks creating a crisis with Russia with its ill-considered shows of support for the Ukrainian government. President Biden expressed his "unwavering support" for Ukraine in a phone call with Ukrainian President Zelenskiy, and there are reports that U.S. ships may be sent into the Black Sea to "send a message" to Russia. Zelenskiy has also started calling on the US and NATO to expedite Ukraine’s membership in the alliance in a "signal" to Moscow in response to a buildup of Russian forces along the border. "NATO is the only way to end the war in Donbass," Zelensky has said. It would be more accurate to say that talk of NATO membership is a good way to ensure that the war in the Donbass escalates and spreads.
To the extent that Biden encourages the Ukrainian government to believe that they have US and/or NATO backing in the conflict, the US could be responsible for provoking escalation by Russia or reckless moves by Ukraine. The ensuing fighting would be disastrous for millions of civilians in eastern Ukraine. Nothing is more likely to set off alarms in Moscow than revived talk of NATO membership for Ukraine. If the US and NATO started moving towards approving Ukraine’s membership, it is practically guaranteed that Russia would act first to prevent that outcome. At this point, reviving NATO membership as an option paints a target on Ukraine without providing them with any of the theoretical protection that might come with membership. It would be far wiser to quash this notion publicly and stress the need for de-escalation in Biden’s communications with both the Russian and the Ukrainian governments.
Biden’s declaration of "unwavering support" is either empty posturing or potentially dangerous overreaching. The US has no obligations to defend or support Ukraine in a conflict with Russia or Russian-backed proxies, and it has no vital interests at stake that would justify taking their side. Reflexively throwing support behind Ukraine has become a bipartisan pastime in Washington, but it has nothing to do with US or allied security. The Ukrainian government should be under no illusions that the US will bail them out if they get into trouble, but Biden’s own words create confusion as to just how far the US would be willing to go.
This same mismatch of exuberant rhetorical support and an unwillingness to follow through helped set up Georgia for disaster in the August 2008 war, when the reckless Georgian government under Saakashvili misinterpreted Bush’s fulsome praise for Georgia and his support for their membership in the alliance as proof that the US would intervene on their behalf in a conflict. Saakashvili escalated the conflict in South Ossetia in the expectation that the US would back him up only to find that the US was never going to fight for Georgia after all. As Ted Galen Carpenter concluded in a recent article, "For all the previous expressions of support, the United States and its European allies were not willing to risk a dangerous, unpredictable confrontation with a nuclear-armed power over an obscure territorial dispute."
If NATO still serves any purpose, it is supposed to be a defensive alliance that keeps its members safe from external attack. Trying to expand NATO deeper into Russia’s backyard by inviting in a country that is already at war would serve only to put other alliance members at risk and risk dragging the US and our European allies into an unnecessary war. Many of our European allies recognize the risk of adding Ukraine to NATO. That is why they refused to approve a Membership Action Plan (MAP) for them back in 2008, and it is why many of these same governments will reject the idea again today. The best thing the alliance could do for Ukraine right now is to close the door to future membership permanently in order to undo the mistake that NATO made by promising that Ukraine would eventually be allowed to join.
It is amazing that it still needs to be said in 2021, but Ukraine’s membership in NATO is never going to happen, and it would be in the best interests of all concerned to admit that. The outbreak of conflict in 2014 already showed that the US and its allies weren’t going to fight for Ukraine and wouldn’t have been able to defend the country even if they had been willing to try. When they admitted the Baltic states, the alliance carelessly extended security guarantees to several countries on Russia’s border that they could not effectively defend. Expanding the alliance again to include Ukraine would repeat the same mistake on a much larger scale, and Russia would call NATO’s bluff before the ink on the MAP was even dry. Atlanticists like to say that Russia does not get a veto over alliance membership, but the Russian government has already demonstrated before that it can and will exercise that veto if it is sufficiently provoked. NATO shouldn’t make the same mistake twice, and the US should be discouraging the Ukrainian government from believing that it can end the conflict by calling for more Western support.
Daniel Larison is a contributing editor and weekly columnist for Antiwar.com and maintains his own site at Eunomia. He is former senior editor at The American Conservative. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.