Should the U.S. be ready to go to war with Russia over Ukraine? NATO’s answer is yes. At least, leaders of the transatlantic alliance continue to encourage Kiev’s ambition to join NATO, thereby becoming yet another costly Washington defense dependent.
US policymakers should remember that alliances are supposed to be a means to the end, America’s security, not the end itself. Absent necessity to protect an overriding, genuinely vital interest, risking war with a nuclear-armed power, in this case Russia, would be a particularly stupid policy.
Ukraine has a long, storied, and tragic history. Subsumed by the Russian Empire, Kiev briefly gained independence amid the Russian Revolution, German victory over the Bolshevik regime, and the bitter Russian civil war. (Poland also was intimately involved in the ludicrously complicated period of chaos and conflict.)
Unfortunately, the territory, augmented by lands that had been governed by Austro-Hungary, ultimately was reabsorbed by Moscow, this time through the new but not improved imperial Russia in the form of the Soviet Union. Ukraine suffered through the murderous Stalin-induced famine, known as the Holomodyr, which killed millions. Estimates vary widely but range up to about ten million.
Unsurprisingly, many Ukrainians initially welcomed German troops as liberators in 1941. However, Adolf Hitler viewed Slavs as untermenschen and saw Ukrainians no differently. Berlin’s murderous mistreatment turned the population against the Nazis. Perhaps six million Ukrainians died during the war – and another 1.4 million were killed fighting with the Red Army. After Moscow’s forces returned Ukrainian resistance, this time against the Soviets, continued for years. The territory was beset by famine, again. About one-fifth of Ukraine’s population, including ethnic Germans and Tartars, was deported.
Freedom finally came. In 1990 a popularly elected parliament approved the Declaration of State Sovereignty of Ukraine, which set Ukrainian law before that of the Soviet Union. In late 1991 Ukraine voted for independence and a president. A nation then of 52 million, it was the largest constituent republic to break away from the U.S.S.R. Alas, the new country suffered from economic decline, corruption, awful leadership, and Russian meddling.
Kiev inherited some 3000 nuclear weapons, stationed in its territory during the Cold War. In 1994 Ukraine joined the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and two years later transferred the warheads to Russia to be dismantled. Through the Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances the US, Russia, and the United Kingdom promised to respect Ukraine’s sovereignty and offered vacuous security assurances. The agreement was a presidential proclamation, not ratified by the US Senate, and provided no practical recourse, backed only by a promise to go to the UN Security Council for redress. Which in practice was no promise at all.
Ukrainians’ choice in leaders seemed perennially suspect. The first two presidents were essentially apparatchiks from the past. Among the least competent leaders was American favorite Viktor Yushchenko. This president won just 5.45 percent of the vote in his 2010 reelection campaign and his party garnered only 1.11 percent of the vote in the 2012 legislative election. His successor was the egregiously corrupt but freely chosen Viktor Yanukovych, who represented Ukraine’s Russia-friendly east.
Yanukovych’s decision to reject an economic association agreement with the European Union and forge closer relations with Moscow triggered demonstrations in which violent demonstrators took over government buildings in Kiev’s center. Such protests were easy to organize since the capital was located in the country’s west, dominated by the opposition and oriented toward America and Europe. As violence mounted Washington and Brussels promoted what amounted to a street putsch, even discussing their preferred candidates for prime minister. Yanukovych agreed to early elections, but his support dissipated and the Rada removed him.
Moscow responded violently, seizing Crimea, in which Sebastopol naval base is located. Russia subsequently held a referendum, which backed annexation. The vote was highly unfair but probably reflected local sentiment. The territory historically was part of Russia, transferred to Ukraine only in 1954. The shift caused little practical difference in the Soviet Union; the move likely reflected political maneuvers involving Ukrainian Communist Party officials as Nikita Khrushchev and his Politburo colleagues fought for supremacy in the aftermath of Joseph Stalin’s death.
Vladimir Putin’s government also backed ethnic-Russian insurgents in Donetsk and Luhansk. Some 13,000 people so far have died in the ensuing conflict. In 2016 both sides agreed to the Minsk Protocol, in which Kiev agreed to constitutional changes enhancing regional autonomy in the Donbas and Russia promised to end military support for opposition forces, after which the region would be reintegrated into Ukraine. The pact has not been fulfilled due to failures on both sides, especially by Kiev: nationalists opposed the accord from the start and some Ukrainians reconsidered retaining areas with a heavy ethnic Russian presence.
Although Ukraine is not a member of NATO – it was promised membership, along with Georgia, in 2008, without any timetable given – much of official Washington urged American military intervention. Some policymakers proposed rushing Kiev into the transatlantic alliance. Others urged sending US troops to Ukraine to serve as a tripwire for war to discourage further Russian action. Almost everyone backed arming Kiev’s armed forces.
The Obama administration provided non-lethal aid. Despite the Trump administration’s supposed pro-Russia bias, it ramped up tensions by shipping Javelin anti-tank missiles to Ukraine. Much has been made of unproved claims that Russia provided bounties for the Taliban for the killing of US personnel. Yet the only purpose of the Javelins is to kill Russians and ethnic Russian separatists. If the Afghan allegations are true, they could be retaliation for American intervention in Ukraine. Yet in July Democratic and Republican congressmen joined to introduce legislation approving more than $300 million in additional assistance for weapons and training.
NATO remains a Ukrainian dream. In 2018 the Rada, or parliament, changed the constitution to make transatlantic alliance membership a key national objective. Last year legislators approved a similar measure, strengthening the government’s commitment to "implementation of the state’s strategic course for obtaining" full NATO (and European Union) membership.
Unfortunately, Kiev’s aspirations are being promoted by alliance officials. For instance, in June NATO named Ukraine as an Enhanced Opportunities Partner. That status increases prospects for military cooperation and some Ukrainians see it as a stalking horse for alliance membership. The Atlantic Council’s Peter Dickinson observed: "NATO’s decision was widely toasted by Ukraine, where it was welcomed as a timely boost to the country’s Euro-Atlantic integration ambitions."
Last month NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, who has regularly encouraged Ukraine’s alliance ambitions, and Ukrainian Defense Minister Andriy Taran held a phone conversation to discuss security. They issued a joint statement: "The parties agreed to strengthen the presence of forces and equipment on land, sea and in the air area of the Black Sea region by increasing air patrols and the presence of naval ships of the Alliance member countries. The defense minister expressed interest in establishing a joint exchange of information on the situation in in the region and invited NATO member states to join the national strategic exercises scheduled for this autumn in southern Ukraine."
However, that was not all from Kiev’s standpoint. Ukrinform reported: "The defense minister also noted the irreversibility of implementing the state’s strategic course towards the acquisition of full membership of Ukraine" in NATO. "In addition, Taran stressed the need to restore regular meetings of the Ukraine-NATO Commission at a ministerial level, and also assured that Ukraine, as a reliable NATO partner, will continue to provide forces and resources to NATO-led crisis response operations and the NATO Response Force (NRF)."
Kiev indicated that it is determined to persist despite lack of acceptance so far. Last December Deputy Prime Minister Dmytro Kuleba complained that "NATO says, ‘doors are open,’ and one day we’ll become members, but that day is not specified or marked in red anywhere on the calendar." But the government’s efforts continue despite resistance: he explained that "we are doing it for our country."
Unfortunately, though Ukraine’s position is understandable, the possibility of its membership in NATO is dangerous for all parties. Since the transatlantic alliance has said it will not bring in nations involved in ongoing conflicts, Moscow currently has little incentive to settle disputes with Ukraine. Put simply: Fighting in the Donbas prevents Kiev’s inclusion. Yet adding Ukraine would be even worse. Kiev then could immediately trigger Article 5, which covers members under attack, calling on the other 30 to act. Of course, in practice that would mean America and only America – no one else would confront nuclear-armed Russia.
Moscow’s treatment of Ukraine was brutal and wrong but not surprising. Declassified documents detail how US and European officials lied to, or at least grossly misled, Soviet and Russian officials about plans for NATO expansion, which moved the alliance up to Russia’s new borders – and less than 100 miles from St. Petersburg. At the time Moscow had little military means to object to NATO’s aggressive moves. That has since changed dramatically.
Russians also were uniformly outraged by the alliance’s 1999 campaign against Serbia, which had neither attacked nor threatened any other nation, and attempt to impose a regional settlement contrary to Moscow’s interests – indeed, without even considering Russian security. That prompted Moscow’s dramatic and desperate race to insert its own troops in Pristina, Kosovo before the arrival of NATO forces. Heedless of consequences, NATO commander US General Wesley Clark ordered his deputy, United Kingdom Gen. Sir. Michael Jackson, to block the airport. Jackson courageously refused, stating: "I’m not going to start the Third World War for you."
Then came the Western-backed if not quite-orchestrated ouster of Yanukovych. Ukraine was better off without him, but that isn’t the principle point. Imagine if the Soviet Union encouraged a coup against an elected, pro-American president of Mexico, promoted Moscow’s candidate to head the new government, offered the latter membership in the Warsaw Pact, and pushed to reorient Mexico’s trade with the US to Soviet allies in South America. Washington officials would immediately be issuing ultimatums and developing war plans – all the while losing their minds.
America has no reason to make Ukraine into an ally, official or unofficial. Given its recent travails, the latter deserves human sympathy, not combat support: it has never mattered for US security, spending most of American history as part of either Imperial Russia or the Soviet Union. It certainly does not matter to the US today.
Nor does Ukraine much affect European security, even though, given the territory’s geographic proximity, Kiev’s status concerns the Europeans more. Moscow’s assault on Ukraine reflected the former’s determination to protect Russia, rather than desire to unsettle Europe. If the Europeans nevertheless are worried, they should act on their own. Unfortunately, NATO membership would become a transmission belt of potential war leading straight to America, which would be the only alliance power ready to confront Russia. Yet nothing at stake would warrant that kind of risk.
There is another reason to not add Kiev to America’s already lengthy list of defense dependents: the country would be difficult to defend. Mike Sweeney of Defense Priorities warned in a new study: "It would be negligent of the US to admit Ukraine into NATO without a clear idea for how its 1,200 mile-border with Russia would be defended, short of total reliance on the threat of nuclear war – a dangerous and outdated strategy. 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."
Even if effective defense was more feasible, alliance membership would not change the reality that Russia’s interests in Ukraine are far more serious than America’s, which means the former would be willing to spend and risk far more to achieve its objectives. Washington policymakers would have no serious explanation for Americans as to why the government was willing to fight a nuclear war over a nation that had never mattered to the US
It has oft been said that Moscow should not be able to veto NATO membership offers. Of course, but that is not the issue. The US should ally with nations that make the US safer. Inducting Ukraine would put Americans at much greater risk. So Washington should say no irrespective of what Russia or Ukraine want. NATO membership is not an entitlement. Rather, it is a means for member states to better protect themselves. If the Europeans want to safeguard Kiev, let them do so. But then, Germany would have to spend a lot more than its present 1.38 percent of GDP. And we all know how likely that is.
Instead of building up Ukraine’s hopes, the US should join with the Europeans, who always have been less enthused about bringing Kiev into the alliance, and inform Ukraine that it has been taken off the membership track. Joining the international equivalent of a city’s most prestigious gentleman’s club just won’t happen.
At the same time, the US and Europe should open talks with Moscow. The Brookings Institution’s Steven Pifer observed: "It may well be that Moscow requires some idea of what a future European security order might look like, including the relationship between Ukraine and NATO, before it moves to resolve the conflict in Donbas." It is difficult to imagine Moscow making a serious agreement otherwise.
A modus vivendi should be possible: the end of NATO expansion and sanctions in return for termination of Russian support for Donbas insurgents and assassinations on allied territory, as well as commitment, backed by the threat of specific consequences, for not interfering in future elections. The West would accept in practice but refuse to grant formal recognition of Crimean annexation without a new, free, and internationally monitored poll. Ukraine would be militarily and politically neutral or nonaligned but left free to pursue economic relations both east and west.
Of course, Washington could not force such a course on Kiev. However, US officials should tell Ukraine what America is and is not prepared to do, allowing the former to respond however it wishes. And with membership on the US defense dole precluded, Kiev would have to consider alternatives. As Sweeney noted, "Removing NATO membership from the discussion would force Ukraine to focus on more realistic options such as neutrality. In addition to helping decrease tensions with Russia, formal non-alignment would also allow Ukraine to focus on internal challenges, like corruption and economic reform."
Ukraine deserves admiration and sympathy. But it never has been and should never become an American defense responsibility. There should be no expectation of NATO membership, which would leave Americans on the hook to protect Kiev from an angry and nuclear-armed Russia. That certainly would not be in Americans’ interest. It probably would not be to Ukraine’s advantage either, given the inevitable increased tensions and risks. The common assumption in Washington that no one dare challenge the US is a disaster waiting to happen.
Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute. A former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is author of Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire.