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Ukraine Joining NATO? History Says Don’t Bet on It

F-35. Image Credit: Creative Commons.
Capt. Andrew “Dojo” Olson, F-35A Lightning II Demonstration Team pilot, performs over Miami Beach, Fla., May 25, 2019. Olson performed the demo during both days of the Miami Beach Air and Sea Show. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Jensen Stidham)

The leaders of NATO and its member states are a lot like the discredited French royal family, the Bourbons. Of the latter, said the French statesman Talleyrand, they “had learned nothing and forgotten nothing.” At the November meeting officials reiterated the same promise made at the same location, Bucharest, Romania, 14 years ago, that Ukraine could eventually enter NATO.

Alliance members declared: “We firmly stand behind our commitment to the Alliance’s Open Door policy. We reaffirm the decisions we took at the 2008 Bucharest Summit and all subsequent decisions with respect to Georgia and Ukraine.” By which NATO is continuing its practice of lying to Kyiv. Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg conveniently avoided the topic of timing: “It is important now that we take it step by step,” by which he meant forever. The delay is for the candidate country’s benefit, he unconvincingly suggested, since “The most important and urgent step is to ensure that Ukraine prevails, and that is exactly what we are doing.”

In fact, over the last decade-plus no European government and no US administration after that of George W. Bush was prepared to go to war for Ukraine. Yet, alas, no one was willing to tell Kyiv the truth. Hence years of smarmy protestations of eternal friendship made by governments without the slightest intention to ever ally with Ukraine.

Never mind the catastrophic consequences from this false promise, which helped bring on the current war. British Times columnist Edward Lucas noted the cost of the Ukraine conflict: “Tens of thousands of people are dead. Hundreds of thousands are maimed and traumatized. Millions are displaced. The final bill for reconstruction could easily reach a trillion pounds. This comes not from a natural disaster.”

He blamed Germany, for dealing with Russia, but the transatlantic alliance more directly bears responsibility for having misled both Moscow and Kyiv. The allies have steadfastly refused to accept any responsibility for their malign actions and no official from NATO or a member government has been held accountable for misleading Kyiv and Moscow.

Ukrainian officials wanted to believe NATO and assumed that one day big brother would take over their security. That promise, backed by weapons and training from multiple alliance members, may have convinced Ukraine to hang tough against Russia rather than fulfill the Minsk Accords, adopted in 2014 and 2015 to end the Donbass conflict. Alas, explained David R. Cameron of Yale University’s Macmillan Center: “More than anything else, it was the refusal of Ukraine to implement the provisions of Minsk 2—especially the provision that would give the predominantly Russian-speaking regions a special constitutional status—that caused Russia to threaten military action against Ukraine.”

Moscow also took allied assurances to Ukraine seriously and assumed that, at some point, NATO and Kyiv would consummate the alliance. After all, the allies had violated their previous promises not to expand NATO despite multiple warnings from Russia. Moreover, Washington and Brussels did not press Ukraine to comply with the Minsk Accords negotiated to resolve the Donbass dispute. Indeed, in a new interview in Die Zeit, former German Chancellor Angela Merkel admitted that that the allies viewed the agreement as essentially a ploy if not pure fraud: “The 2014 Minsk agreement was an attempt to give time to Ukraine. It also used this time to become stronger as can be seen today. The Ukraine of 2014-2015 is not the modern Ukraine.”

Vladimir Putin still bears sole responsibility for invading Ukraine, which was a monstrous crime. However, it is not accurate to call his atrocious aggression unprovoked. Perhaps the Soviets/Russians were naïve to believe Western assurances of goodness and love. But the West’s bad faith in expanding the alliance to Russia’s border was manifest. It is hardly surprising that Putin believed Ukraine would eventually join NATO, especially given the military relationship established between Kyiv and the alliance.

Why did NATO officials and members offer a succession of assurances to Kyiv which they never intended to fulfill? One reason may be that lying simply seemed the easiest way to make everyone happy. Like political candidates who tell people what they want to hear.

Another is that the Europeans could not ignore Bush’s reckless insistence that Georgia and Ukraine be allowed to join. Rather than tell him no—after all, Washington was doing all the heavy lifting to defend the continent, and the Europeans certainly didn’t want to anger their Sugar Daddy—they said yes, but mañana, which seemed harmless. Mercifully, Bush was soon out of office and then even the Obama administration agreed the answer should be no. However, no one wanted to admit that they had lied, so it was easier to keep saying yes, but mañana.

The basic point is that it was never in any NATO member’s interest to defend Ukraine. In fact, strictly speaking, many Europeans don’t believe that it is even in their interest to defend other members of the transatlantic alliance. In 13 European NATO members whose populations were polled, majorities in only three favored standing by their neighbors. In every case they expected Washington to intervene and save the day.

European free-riding aside, Ukraine was never a security concern of America or its allies. For most of US history, Kyiv was controlled by the Russian Empire or Soviet Union. During the Cold War much was made of Ukraine’s role as one of the “captive nations” held by Moscow, but this was a propaganda, not security, initiative by Washington. No doubt, after the USSR’s collapse, members of the transatlantic alliance wanted Ukraine to remain free. But they never intended to fight for it.

If NATO’s members believed that Ukraine warranted allied defense, they would not have spent 14 years promising to bring Kyiv into NATO and instead would have done so. And they would not now be doing everything possible to avoid defending Ukraine while shoveling arms its way. Other than the Baltics, which advocate a more confrontational policy toward Russia—presumably in the belief that if war erupted they could simply lie low and wait for the American cavalry to ride to the rescue to fight for them—the allies have sought to avoid any clash that could escalate to full-scale war.

For instance, after the Ukrainian missile hit Polish territory, killing two, there was a collective intake of breath across the alliance. Europe’s relief was enormous after discovering the missile’s actual origin. Even so Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky enthusiastically beat the drums of war based on what he must have known to be his nation’s missile strike. Indeed, he acted as if Kyiv already was a NATO member, contending that the alliance had an obligation to trigger Article 5 regarding collective defense. However, allied desire to take up arms on Kyiv’s behalf was nil and both Washington and Warsaw sharply rebuked him.

Of course, this reluctance to act frustrates Kyiv. Most Ukrainian analysts appear to have trouble understanding why the rest of the world won’t declare war Moscow for their benefit. So in September Ukraine again asked for accelerated inclusion in the transatlantic alliance. Zelensky insisted: “De facto, we have already completed our path to NATO. De facto, we have already proven interoperability with the alliance’s standards.” He now hoped “to make it de jure.” 

Ukraine’s application was largely ignored, except by Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis, who contended that membership was “basically unavoidable,” that “NATO will have to have a way to accept Ukraine.” Alas, Vilnius’ could barely defend itself, let alone Ukraine in any war. Despite its oft-expressed concern over The Russian Threat, it spends little more than a miserly two pennies of every Euro on defense. Lithuania’s active-duty force is just 23,000, so Vilnius “relies on NATO membership for its security,” according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies. However, if serious about its defense, the ever-hawkish government could spend much more and emphasize territorial defense before asking other members to take on additional military responsibilities.

Some other voices advocate membership for Kyiv. Wrote Lucas: “Any postwar security guarantees should be constructed not to reassure Russia, which nobody has attacked, but to protect Ukraine, ideally through immediate NATO membership.” Yet London is moving backward on defense and doesn’t have Lithuania’s excuse of being so small. The British government has dropped its goal of three percent of GDP for defense. Moreover, according to Bloomberg, Britain “is said to be preparing to cut defense spending in real terms.”

But no worries. The US would do most of the heavy lifting in any conflict with Russia. So why worry? It is always so much easier to spend other nations’ money and risk other nationals’ lives. Which is why Ukrainian officials are dedicated to breaking down resistance to NATO expansion. “There are still many psychological barriers that we have to overcome,” said Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba.

Despite Kyiv’s continuing attempt to push America, especially, and the Europeans into war with Russia—Zelensky presumably believes the nukes from both sides would fly over, not into, Ukraine!—he once indicated his willing to abandon NATO membership. Last March, with Russian and Ukrainian interlocutors meeting to talk peace terms. Zelensky admitted that joining was out of reach: “It is clear that Ukraine is not a member of NATO; we understand this. … For years we heard about the apparently open door but have already also heard that we will not enter there, and these are truths and must be acknowledged.”

What happened? The conflict continues and Kyiv has been winning. With no peace talks in the offing, Zelensky is going all in. Apparently, he has decided to mimic his European supporters, and hopes to get the same deal as current NATO members: that the US will forever protect it, no matter how little it does on its own behalf. Defense welfare for the well-off and able-bodied! Ten months after the Russian invasion of Ukraine Europe is still more talk than action about increased military efforts, and the continent even lags badly when it comes to financial and materiel aid to Ukraine, despite the latter’s much greater importance to its immediate neighbors.

Still, today, at least, existing members—at least those who would be called upon to do the defending if attacked by Russia—oppose bringing Ukraine into NATO. There has been some talk of providing alternative security commitments, but those seem more fake than real. For instance, an anonymous French presidential adviser told Politico: “Our country is ready to give security guarantees.” At least, he or she added, Paris desired to provide “guarantees that would involve us in the sense that if Ukraine were attacked, we could assess the means of assisting it, and of enabling it to re-establish its sovereignty and its territorial integrity.”

It is unclear what that means, other than the defender would not be NATO. Paris explained: “These are security guarantees which, in a way, are similar to those which exist in the European Union Treaty, but which are basically different from the NATO model.” This sounds like the much-noted Budapest Memorandum, which led to Ukraine’s denuclearization, which was to be enforced by going to the Security Council in response to a violation. Which essentially was a joke. In reality, the guarantor powers never intended to enforce the agreement.

Are there other options? Mariya Omelicheva of the National War College admitted: “Washington has already signaled an unwillingness to offer Kyiv the kind of legally binding protections it has requested. So has the UK, which announced that the country was not ready to become a guarantor of Ukraine’s independence when the latter floated a peace deal with the Kremlin.”

Instead, she suggested the Israeli model: “While thinking of Ukraine’s future in terms of ‘a big Israel with its own face’ may be unusual and even extreme, centering Ukraine’s security on the principle of self-defense is a better alternative than banking on collective security that comes with eventual membership in NATO. By maintaining close defense partnerships with the US and European countries for modernizing and equipping its military and bolstering its air defense and drawing on assistance from other partners willing to share technology, training, and intelligence, Ukraine can tailor its security posture to its unique situation and security needs.” In a sense, this would continue NATO’s present policy of arming, but not fighting for, Kyiv.

This at least would be a step in a more realistic direction. Whatever the rhetoric emanating from the transatlantic alliance, there is no support for giving security guarantees to Kyiv. Ukrainians are unlucky, living in a bad neighborhood. But Kyiv’s supposed European friends still don’t want to go to war on its behalf. If they won’t do so, the US certainly shouldn’t.

Ukrainians must take reality into account. For understandable reasons, they want security assurances. However, they need to look for answers outside of NATO. This means that any stable peace regime will require taking Russian and Ukrainian security requirements into account.

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. Bandow is a 19FortyFive Contributing Editor. 

Written By

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, specializing in foreign policy and civil liberties. He worked as special assistant to President Ronald Reagan and editor of the political magazine Inquiry. He writes regularly for leading publications such as Fortune magazine, National Interest, the Wall Street Journal, and the Washington Times.