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Ukraine Joining NATO Is a Dead Dream

NATO F-16 Fighter. Image Credit: Creative Commons.
NATO F-16 Fighter. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

Ukraine in NATO Never Made Military Sense: the Russo-Ukraine War Exposes Why – During a January 7th press conference, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, despite Russia’s massive troop buildup, defiantly affirmed NATO’s door would remain open for Kyiv, saying “we stand by our decisions at the (2008) Bucharest Summit when it comes to (membership for) Ukraine and Georgia.” Irrespective of what Russian President Vladimir Putin may have wanted, it should now be painfully obvious why NATO’s 14 year-long obsession with Ukrainian entry into the alliance was a mistake from the beginning.

One of the hurdles that few in the West have been able to get over is the understanding that Putin was against extending NATO to Ukraine, and thus we must be for it. Otherwise, the thinking reflexively went, we would be “giving in” to Putin and “showing weakness.” To an untrained observer, it might have appeared a no-brainer that it would make NATO stronger by adding Ukraine (especially knowing Putin would hate it). For those willing to observe geography and consider the military fundamentals involved, however, a very different “no-brainer” decision was obvious.

On May 9, 1955, West Germany officially joined NATO, bringing the total to 15 member states. Just five days later, the USSR announced the formation of the rival Warsaw Pact military alliance. The Soviet Union, with its massive conventional military and later nuclear arsenal, sought to balance NATO, with the Iron Curtain separating the two alliances through East and West Germany, barely 400 miles from the English Channel.

At the height of the Cold War, the Warsaw Pact outgunned NATO in tanks and armored personnel carriers, a stunning 180,000 vehicles to 68.000, in personnel, 6 million to 4.5 million, and in nuclear-tipped strategic missiles, 2,743 to 1,997. There was virtually no strategic depth between the Iron Curtain and France’s west coast. In the waning days of the Cold War, I was in the 2nd U.S. Cavalry Regiment responsible for patrolling a portion of the East-West dividing line in West Germany and was sharply aware of how precarious all of NATO would be if the Red Army came pouring through the Fulda Gap.

As the 20th Century came to a close, however, the security environment had shifted radically, as the vast majority of the geographical and military advantages weighed heavily in NATO’s favor and against Russia. The Warsaw Pact alliance was dissolved in early 1991 and months later the USSR ceased to exist. In 1999, NATO expanded to 19 members with the accession of the Czech Republic, Poland, and Hungary.

At that moment NATO stood unopposed. Central and Eastern Europe were free. Russia was an economically anemic state with a rusting, crumbling shell of a military. At the turn of the century, NATO was at the zenith of its power. Had it ceased expansion at 19 members, the alliance would today remain in a preeminent position of power and security.

In the year 2000, NATO had a buffer between it and Russia in the north with the three Baltic states, in the east with Belarus and Ukraine, and in the south with Romania, Serbia, and others. Economically, the bloc was among the most powerful in the world. Militarily, the eastern flank NATO states had mutually reinforcing borders with other member states, and independent and non-threatening countries on their eastern borders. Four years later, however, NATO began to give away its advantages and incurred military risk.

With the accession of the three Baltic states in 2004, NATO, for the first time in its history, weakened its common defense by extending Article 5 guarantees to three states that were perilously exposed to Russia, and had only a small land corridor to the rest of the alliance, nearly surrounded by Kaliningrad, Belarus, and Russia. In the event of a conflict, it would be very difficult to get land power in to the three Baltics, and the supply lines would be exposed to Russian ground, air, and missile attack, with little means of mutual support from other alliance members.

In 2008, NATO officially declared that Ukraine and Georgia would one day be granted alliance membership. If the 2004 invitation for the three Baltic states weakened NATO, the entrance of these two – most especially Ukraine – would potentially put the entire alliance at risk in the event of future war.

The first point is that adding Ukraine does not, in any way, improve the defensibility of the alliance. It would have been a net loss. Unlike the post-1999 NATO borders, there would have been no buffer between the majority of the Baltics and the entire eastern half of Ukraine.  It sticks out into Russian territory like a swollen thumb. Militarily, that would mean – as was painfully demonstrated prior to the outbreak of war last month – the Russian military could mass, at any time of its choosing, on three sides of Ukraine.

Moreover, Russia could build permanent military bases, missile silos, and store large war stocks within driving distance of the border. NATO, meanwhile, would have hundreds of miles of potentially contested roadways over which it would have to reinforce its troops were it to fight Russia. The last point is the worst, however: as we are witnessing in real-time right now, the danger of escalation to tactical or strategic nuclear weapons is dangerously high in a combat scenario between NATO and Russia.

No Russian leader – whether Putin or any successor – would countenance a NATO land attack on its soil. In such a scenario, the chances the Kremlin would order a tactical nuclear strike is high – as would be the opposite: if a Russian land army began to advance through Ukraine towards the rest of the alliance, such an incursion would likely not make it far before nervous Western governments would be tempted to use a tactical nuke of our own.

The ramifications, not just for Europe but for the world, could be catastrophic, as any use of nuclear weapons, by any party, could spin out of control. A 2019 simulation exercise, in fact – simulating a Russian attack on Ukraine – escalated to a nuclear exchange, and a billion people were estimated to have died. NATO should never have offered membership to Ukraine. Wholly irrespective of anything Putin does or doesn’t want, we need to do what’s best for our alliance – and for global security – and shelve any future consideration for Ukrainian membership in NATO.

A 1945 Contributing Editor, 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 Twitter: @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.