It is time to accede to political and strategic reality and move from dangling the prospect of NATO membership for Ukraine – which would neither deter Russia nor improve America’s security – to one in which we focus on outcomes that have a chance of reducing the possibility of war in Europe: encourage Ukraine to adopt a position of neutrality and engage diplomatically with Russia to implement the Minsk Protocols.
Refusing to do so increases the chance for a war that would serve neither the interests of Ukraine, NATO, nor the United States. The fears of renewed war between Russia and Ukraine are not far-fetched.
Last August, Russia began again building up forces near the Ukraine border. By mid-November, the number had risen to a reported 100,000. Last week, Gen. Kyrylo Budanov, Chief of Ukraine’s Defense Intelligence agency, warned that Russia is preparing for an attack into Ukraine by the end of January or the beginning of February. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said he is concerned that the buildup of Russian troops indicates they are “trying to rehash” their 2014 invasion.
This troop surge is particularly concerning for two reasons. First, there are no obvious additional tensions between Moscow and Kyiv that would provide typical explanations for the move. Second, some of the troops in this buildup just participated in a major exercise that simulated an attack conducted under circumstances eerily similar to those that exist near Ukraine today.
In September, Russia held its largest exercise in 40 years, Zapad-21, along with troops from neighboring Belarus. Upwards of 200,000 total troops took part in the massive exercise. According to a post-exercise assessment conducted by the Center for European Policy Analysis, Zapad-21 practiced concepts “aimed at achieving operational surprise at the onset of a conflict” and included “a renewed emphasis on peacetime pre-positioning of force and equipment… to increase combat readiness and general preparedness.”
One of the key participants in the Zapad-21 exercise was the headquarters of Russia’s 41st Combined Arms Army (CAA), ordinarily stationed in Novosibirsk, about 2,000 miles from Ukraine. However after the exercise concluded in mid-September, the Washington Post reported that the unit did not return to its home base but “instead linked up with other Russian forces near the Ukrainian border.” A CSIS analysis of available satellite imagery confirms that the 41st CAA is still positioned opposite Ukraine.
In November, Putin stated that Ukraine represented “the most pressing and sensitive issue” for Russia and that he was concerned his “red lines” were not being taken seriously by the West, notably citing NATo’s eastward expansion. Russia’s current troop buildup opposite Ukraine implies his warnings may not be empty rhetoric, as Putin may well be seriously considering seizing the Donbas and Luhansk regions of Ukraine.
The United States and all of Western Europe are right to oppose any resort to the use of force to change borders. Doing so would greatly increase the fears of the European states near Russia and could lead to a new arms race and military buildup in the region.
Whether we like it or not, however, we have to recognize that Putin – who in the past resorted to force against parts of Georgia and Ukraine when he felt his interests were at risk – may act to move on portions of eastern Ukraine again if he perceives Russia’s vital interests are threatened.
There is almost no chance the United States or NATO will go to war with Moscow over the non-treaty partner of Ukraine, as doing so would be a strategic blunder of the first order. Given that reality, then, it is in Washington’s and Ukraine’s interests to pursue other policies that have a realistic chance of preserving the peace in Europe.
Many will suggest that encouraging Kyiv to declare neutrality instead of seeking NATO membership is a sell-out to Moscow’s threats. Instead, it is a recognition of stark reality: Ukraine sits astride a 1,200 mile border with Russia and does not have Article 5 security guarantees – if NATO were to extend such guarantees, it would very possibly spark a major war that could devastate much of Central and Eastern Europe, and in a worst case, result in a nuclear exchange. Bluntly put, nothing at stake in Ukraine is worth risking plunging NATO into a war with nuclear-armed Russia. It’s time to accede to that reality and give Ukraine its best chance of a free and prosperous future.