Following the conclusion of a U.S.-German agreement that cleared the way for the completion of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, Ukraine has been complaining about betrayal by the West. Ukraine views the pipeline as a threat to its own transit fees from Russia, and their government has lobbied for U.S. sanctions to block it. The Biden administration’s somewhat surprising decision to ignore their lobbying caught them flat-footed. The Ukrainian government and its supporters in the West should realize that the fight over the pipeline shows once again that when push comes to shove Washington is not going to side with Ukraine. That decision has obvious implications for how much support Ukraine can expect from Western governments when it comes to defending their country, but Kyiv remains in denial about this and keeps chasing after membership in Western institutions. The European Union can make its own decisions about what it wants to do, but the US should make it crystal clear to Ukraine that they will never be admitted to NATO. Only a firm and unequivocal no from Washington will lay the issue to rest.
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba repeated his government’s calls for Ukraine to be included in both NATO and the European Union in a recent article for Foreign Affairs: "In the case of Ukraine, above all, recognizing the new reality means institutionalizing the country’s place within the West. It is time for the United States and Europe to set out a clear road map for Ukraine to finally join NATO and the European Union." Ukraine is free to define its identity however it likes, but that does not oblige Western institutions to bring them into the fold. Providing Ukraine with a "road map" to join NATO would repeat the mistake made at the alliance summit in Bucharest in 2008 when Ukraine and Georgia were told that they would one day become members.
It has been unfair to dangle alliance membership as a possibility when Ukraine was never going to be allowed in. Persistent opposition from France and Germany always made adding Ukraine to the alliance a non-starter. At the same time, opening the door to NATO membership exposed Ukraine greater danger than if the alliance had never said anything. Adding Ukraine as a new member never made much sense for the alliance. It was an idea born of the hubris of the Bush era, and there had been no serious thought given to how Ukraine might be defended if it ever joined.
The US and its allies cannot realistically protect Ukraine, which has a 1,200-mile land border with Russia. Making a pledge to defend Ukraine when it isn’t possible all but invites a challenge from Russia. Mike Sweeney stresses how impractical defending such a long border on Russia’s doorstep would be in his report for Defense Priorities: "This point can’t be emphasized enough: NATO would need to defend a frontier that’s roughly equal to the distance between New York City and Miami." Defending the Baltic states is already a stretch. Moving the border of NATO hundreds of miles to the east would commit the alliance to defending the indefensible.
Incredibly, Ukraine’s foreign minister dismisses the distances involved and Ukraine’s proximity to Russia: "No country’s geographic proximity to Russia should restrict the strategies or Washington or Brussels." The Ukrainian government has to dismiss these concerns because the case for Ukraine’s membership falls apart as soon as they are considered. The problem is not just one of physical distance, but also a matter of vital interests. To accept Ukraine into NATO would require viewing their security as a vital interest that was worth going to war over, and it simply isn’t that important to the US and never will be. Even if the US extended a security guarantee to Ukraine, no one would believe that it was serious because the US has no vital interests at stake in Ukraine.
Some officials in the Ukrainian government seem to overrate their country’s importance to the US and our European allies. One of President Zelensky’s advisers, Oleksiy Arestovych, was quoted a few weeks ago delivering this warning to Western government: "If the West keeps surrendering Ukraine’s interests for a friendship with Russia, Ukraine may turn to the East." The Ukrainian government can always try its luck with China, but they are unlikely to find a more receptive audience for their complaints in Beijing than they do in Washington. Perhaps the adviser thinks that invoking the specter of Chinese influence will motivate the US to pay more attention to Ukrainian preferences, but if so he has misread the terrain.
The government may be eager to join, but Ukrainian public opinion remains divided over joining the alliance. Neutrality for their country is what many Ukrainians would prefer, and according to one 2020 survey neutrality had the support of the majority. That is also the arrangement that is least likely to cause more conflict. The US and its allies have already proven in 2014 and afterwards that they are not willing or able to defend Ukraine, but Ukraine is still burdened by the promise that was made to them in 2008. That promise should never have been made, and the US and NATO would be doing them a great favor by officially rescinding it.
Until the US clarifies things, this issue of continued NATO expansion will remain an irritant in relations with Russia and it will contribute to regional instability. The longer that it takes the US and its allies to correct their earlier error, the more time and effort the Ukrainian government will waste on lobbying for a result that isn’t happening. The best thing that Biden could do for the US and Ukraine is to stop creating false hope that Ukrainian membership in the alliance is still possible.
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.