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Ukraine Joining NATO Could Spark War with Russia. There Is Another Way

A U.S. Marine with 1st Battalion, 3rd Marines, fires a shoulder-fired Javelin missile during exercise Bougainville II at Pohakuloa Training Area, Hawaii, April 18, 2021. Bougainville II is the second phase of pre-deployment training conducted by the battalion designed to increase combat readiness through complex and realistic live-fire training. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Jacob Wilson)

In an effort to deter Russian President Vladimir Putin from attacking Ukraine, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen wrote on Monday it was time to call “Putin’s bluff,” by setting “out an action plan to realize our promise” to offer NATO membership to Ukraine and Georgia.

Instead of deterring the Russian leader, such action would more likely spur Putin to act.

While no one in the West should surrender decision-making to Moscow, there are a number of practical measures Washington could take to deescalate the situation – and simultaneously increase U.S. national security.

Going back well into the Cold War, the most popular – if not reflexive – Washington response to anything related to Moscow is to “show strength” and lead with either the threat or imposition of sanctions, or to posture militarily with exercises near the Russian border and talk of expanding NATO to Russia’s border. While these ideas play well with establishment thinking and major media, they have been disastrously unsuccessful in accomplishing U.S. strategic objectives.

Regardless of who sits in the White House, the president’s top foreign policy objectives must always be to protect the American homeland and preserve our ability to prosper. Sometimes the best means of attaining those objectives is the threat or use of force.

Congress declared war in 1941 when the United States was deliberately attacked by Japan. America fought that war to complete victory. Strength and resolve preserved our security and prevented a nuclear war with Russia in 1962 when President John F. Kennedy stared down a Soviet dictator. But there is a far longer, more ignominious string of policy failures that partly or fully resulted from relying on the use or threat of force.

Consider America’s disastrous and unnecessary war of choice in Vietnam that neither improved our security nor prevented any mythical dominoes from falling (at a cost of 58,000+ troops dead). Likewise, the 20-year Afghan war in which a parade of presidents and generals lied to the American people, that “just a little more force” would win the day (predictably, it never did, and at a cost of over 22,000 total U.S. casualties and a mind-numbing $2 trillion, we outright lost the war).

And perhaps most egregiously, we chose to fight a wholly unnecessary war against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in 2003 (which remains an open sore for periodic U.S. combat losses – and whose government is now more closely aligned to Tehran than Washington).

I could also cite the utter failures of our military-first policies to stop North Korea from getting nuclear weapons, our virtually exclusive reliance on “maximum pressure” against Iran (which does more to push Tehran to acquire nuclear weapons than dissuade them), and what may prove to be the most damaging of all: the decades’ long relentless drive to push NATO up to Russia’s border, somehow believing that would keep us safe, when the only fruit it has produced is to increase the risk of war with Moscow.

In light of so much policy failure over the past several decades in which coercion and threat or use of military force have played the primary role, we should recognize that we are dangerously beyond the time when new methods must be applied. This deteriorating situation in Ukraine is the perfect place to change course to something that has a chance of producing a positive outcome for America.

No one in the West desires to see Ukraine lose its freedom or be invaded by Russia. The question is, what strategies give Kyiv the best chance of avoiding that fate? If we continue only threatening severe sanctions against Moscow, promise to send more weapons to Ukraine, and deploy more NATO combat power along Russia’s border, the most likely outcome is to precipitate the result we claim to want to prevent: the loss of Ukraine’s territorial integrity and the possibility of war between the U.S. and Russia. There are, however, superior options available to Washington and NATO.

First, the Western alliance should pay more attention to its own standards and cool the jets on talk of offering membership to Ukraine. NATO has properly strict standards for any aspirant country. No nation should be invited to join the alliance, NATO documents specify, “which have ethnic disputes or external territorial disputes, including irredentist claims, or internal jurisdictional disputes.” Ukraine has dramatic internal ethnic disputes between the eastern and western parts of their country and have major territorial disputes with Russia.

Second, the United States needs to focus more on American national security than a non-treaty country with significant disputes with its nuclear-armed neighbor. There is no value for the U.S. in risking war with Russia or in materially worsening relations with them, over a long-simmering border dispute between two nations.

Third, the policy that has the best chance of preserving Ukrainian sovereignty and increasing NATO security would be for Kyiv to declare military neutrality. Putin’s overriding fear is the NATO military alliance advancing to his border. Removing that possibility greatly reduces any motivation Putin may have to invade and would enhance NATO security by keeping a buffer between Russia and the alliance.

Many in Brussels and Washington chafe at such a consideration, suggesting such a policy would be giving in to Russia. Many will instead continue advocating for threats of sanctions, for building up further military power near Russia and giving increasingly lethal weapons to Kyiv to fight Moscow. The disaster of the past several decades of failed military-first policies should conclusively disabuse Western policymakers from believing that, this time, threats and military power will work.

Observing that Putin has already used military power to achieve limited aims against bordering states in 2008 and 2014 should also demonstrate to NATO leaders that more threats will likely push Putin to order additional Russian action into Ukraine, not deter him from it.

It is time we acknowledge the multiple, decades-long instances of failure through the application of military-first policies, and instead, change course to something that acknowledges on-the-ground reality and has a chance at successfully attaining a positive outcome for U.S. national security. Stubbornly clinging to failed policies of the past because forceful, coercive tactics have become the norm, could cause us to discover the cost to our country is more than we can afford.

Daniel L. Davis, now a 1945 Contributing Editor, is a Senior Fellow for Defense Priorities and a former Lt. Col. in the U.S. Army who deployed into combat zones four times. He is the author of “The Eleventh Hour in 2020 America.” Follow him @DanielLDavis1.

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Daniel L. Davis is a Senior Fellow for Defense Priorities and a former Lt. Col. in the U.S. Army who deployed into combat zones four times. He is the author of “The Eleventh Hour in 2020 America.” Follow him @DanielLDavis1.