US Should Close the Door to Ukrainian Membership in NATO

Last week President Joe Biden attended the latest NATO summit but achieved nothing of note, other than reaffirming America’s promise to defend Europe even if the Europeans won’t do so themselves. However, he did reject the attempt by Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky to force the alliance to admit Kyiv.

Adding Ukraine as a defense dependent would be against America’s interest by making conflict with Russia more likely. Just imagine how Washington would have reacted to the Soviet overthrow of the Mexican government and proposal to add the new regime to the Warsaw Pact. Outrage, hysteria, and frenzy would overwhelm Washington. There would be little consideration of democratic and juridical niceties as demands to "Do Something!" reached a crescendo. Rather than leave Ukrainian membership in NATO as an open possibility, thereby undermining relations with Moscow, the administration should announce that it opposes any further expansion of the transatlantic alliance.

Through no fault of their own, some nations end up in bad neighborhoods. Ukraine is one. For centuries part of the Russian Empire and Soviet Union, Kyiv gained its independence when the U.S.S.R. collapsed in 1991. Ukraine’s short life has been bedeviled by lawless, corrupt, incompetent, and ineffective rule. Out of desperation two years ago the Ukrainian people elected as president a comedian who played Ukraine’s president on TV. The results of that selection have been mixed at best.

Ukraine’s position is made more difficult by the fact that it is essentially two states. After the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in World War I, Ukraine added western lands with more Catholic, less Slavic peoples, to a country which trended more Russian and Orthodox. These differences remain evident today in voting patterns. In 1783 Russia annexed Crimea from the Ottoman Empire. In 1954 Moscow transferred the peninsula from Russia to Ukraine, an internal move that had little practical significance in the USSR; the shift likely reflected Soviet politics, as Nikita Khrushchev sought the support of Ukraine’s party chief to consolidate power after Joseph Stalin’s death.

Kyiv’s position seemed secure in the immediate aftermath of the Soviet dissolution. Ukraine even turned over the nuclear weapons left by Moscow in 1994. However, a combination of factors turned the Putin government hostile: expansion of NATO despite assurances to the contrary, dismemberment of Serbia, attempts to exclude Moscow from Balkans policy, color revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine, the 2008 promise to bring Kyiv into the transatlantic alliance, Europe’s push for economic dominance in Ukraine, and the 2014 street putsch in Kyiv promoted by Washington and Brussels.

In response to what it perceived as serious challenges to its security interests Russia forcibly annexed Crimea and promoted violent separatism in eastern Ukraine’s Donbass region. Moscow’s actions were unjustified and obviously lawless, but the US would not have supinely accepted a Soviet-backed overthrow of Mexico’s government followed by reorientation of that country’s trade away from America and membership in the Warsaw Pact. Moreover, Crimea was historically Russian and a majority of its residents very likely supported the move, though the Moscow-conducted referendum was anything but fair.

Russophobes dismiss Moscow’s complaints. For instance, the Atlantic Council’s John Herbst derided the prospect of NATO membership for Ukraine: "it ain’t happening any time soon." Yet the alliance has enthusiastically accepted any member, however implausible or marginal, such as Montenegro and North Macedonia, both military midgets.

More important. US and alliance officials continue to publicly encourage Kyiv. And Ukrainian politicians have spent most every waking hour over the last seven years plotting to get into NATO. Zelensky maladroitly continued that campaign last week. Although Herbst complained that Zelensky should not have "put this [issue] on the agenda," the former does not believe that it should never be discussed. Indeed, he was confident that Biden’s dismissive response does "not mean that Ukraine will never enter NATO. But I don’t think it is very useful to talk about this at this point in time."

None of this is reassuring for Moscow. Nor should it be for America.

Kyiv’s push reflects the hope that US support would both deter further Russian military action and ensure victory in any war that might occur. This might be in Ukraine’s interest, but it is not in America’s interest. Kyiv’s concerns, no matter how legitimate, do not justify America going to war with a nuclear-armed power. Indeed, the Europeans, who would be much closer to any combat, have been significantly less enthused about launching a crusade for Ukraine against Russia.

US officials tend to see themselves as masters of the universe, capable of commanding other nations and deterring war by merely waving their pinky fingers at potential malefactors. However, that world is long gone if it ever existed. Ukraine matters far more to Russia than to Europe and especially the US, meaning Moscow will spend and risk much more to achieve its objectives. Moreover, Russia, which possesses nuclear weapons and a strong conventional force, has local military superiority. If war occurs everyone will look to just one NATO member – and it isn’t Germany, Denmark, or Montenegro. In the event of war over Ukraine most of the other 29 alliance members would check their calendars and discover that they are busy, so very busy, and would at most send a token unit or two along with their best regards. After all, polls indicate that the Europeans don’t want to defend each other, let alone a country such as Ukraine. Americans would be expected to do whatever was required for victory, essentially irrespective of cost.

Such a policy would be madness for Washington.

Nevertheless, NATO’s leadership and US officials continue to affirm their intention to add Kyiv. However, while publicly affirming Ukraine’s eligibility everyone says Kyiv has yet to meet the conditions necessary for membership. That didn’t stop Zelensky from pressing his case when he met Biden last Monday. The Ukrainian president later explained: "If we are talking about NATO and the [Membership Action Plan], I would really like to get [from Biden] specifics – yes or no. We must get clear dates and the likelihood of this for Ukraine."

Given the latter’s troubled economy and politics, Kyiv might never be ready for membership. Nevertheless, Zelensky acted like he received a NATO invitation, tweeting: "Commend @NATO partners’ understanding of all the risks and challenges we face. NATO leaders confirmed that Ukraine will become a member the Alliance & the #MAP is an integral part of the membership process. Deserves due appreciation of its role in ensuring Euro-Atlantic security." Perhaps he hoped for informal or even careless agreement by the allies, which would aid Ukraine’s future prospects.

However, Biden was alert enough to say no way. Although he said the ongoing conflict would not keep Kyiv out of the alliance, he sounded a bit annoyed, noting that membership "depends on whether they meet the criteria. The fact is they still have to clean up corruption. The fact is they have to meet other criteria to get into the action plan. And so school’s out on that question, it remains to be seen." Biden added a warning: "they have to convince, and it’s not easy."

This isn’t the first time that the Ukrainian government has attempted to bully the alliance, meaning America, into offering a security guarantee. A couple months ago Andriy Melnyk, Ukraine’s ambassador to Germany, warned: "Either we are part of an alliance like NATO and also make our contribution to strengthen this Europe, or we have only one option; to rearm ourselves." By which he meant to again acquire nuclear weapons, though how Kyiv could put such a plan into action is unclear. (Ukraine had been left with the Soviet Union’s nuclear-topped missiles but returned the nukes as part of a multilateral deal reached in 1994.)

Given past US behavior, Russia would be foolish to count on Western forbearance. So keeping the Donbass conflict alive is the most obvious way to hinder Ukrainian membership, since applicants are expected to resolve conflicts with other states before joining. In this way NATO’s unwillingness to say no has created an incentive for continuing conflict.

Rather than placate Zelensky – alliance membership is supposed to advance American security, not exhibit American sympathy – the US and European governments should seek to make a deal with Moscow, offering to kill Kyiv’s membership bid, which is not in their interest anyway, for an end to Russian support for separatists in the Donbass. The best achievable end state for Ukraine, at least without borrowing the US armed forces, would be geopolitical neutrality combined with economic flexibility. Kyiv should be friendly with countries east and west without allying militarily with any of them. But it should be free to trade and otherwise associate with anyone it chose. (Of course, Washington should not prescribe Kyiv’s course, but the US can set its own policy, meaning no security guarantee for Ukraine, leaving the latter to adapt accordingly.)

Washington also should end military assistance for Kyiv. At the NATO press conference, after discussing possible Ukrainian membership Biden stated: "In the meantime, we will do all that we can to put Ukraine in the position to be able to continue to resist Russian physical aggression, and it will not just depend on me whether or not we conclude that that Ukraine can become part of NATO, it will depend on the alliance and how they vote."

US aid can increase the price that Moscow would pay for any attack, but the latter can always trump allied support, as evidenced by Russia’s recent "exercise" – the swift and large-scale military buildup along its border with Ukraine. Moscow will always have more at stake in the conflict than will Washington. Moreover, the seeming prospect of Western military support could encourage Kyiv to take a more confrontational policy which would end up leaving it more exposed and broader conflict more likely. Better to use the cessation of assistance as a bargaining chip in seeking a modus vivendi to end the fighting.

Indeed, addressing Ukraine is an opportunity for the Biden administration to end the US practice of treating NATO allies like Facebook Friends: the more, the better. The best that can be said for adding countries like Montenegro and North Macedonia is that they are useless rather than harmful. When the logical next candidate is the Duchy of Grand Fenwick, famed for its role in the fictional series beginning with The Mouse that Roared, expansion has reached its logical end. Bringing in both Georgia and Ukraine would be affirmatively dangerous, greatly increasing the risk of conflict.

Zelensky has a tough job and understandably would like for his nation to force its way onto the American defense dole. However, that would not be in US interests. On last week’s trip Biden rightly rejected Kyiv’s attempt to manipulate Washington and the other NATO members. Now the administration should firmly close the door to Ukraine’s possible entry.

Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute. A former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is author of several books, including Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire.