What if Ukraine and Georgia Had Joined NATO Years Ago? We Present a History of What Occurred in This Debate and What Might Have Been: “It will be a disaster, a tragedy, if we don’t get the NATO Membership Action Plan,” Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko said in 2008 to U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on the sidelines of The World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos, Switzerland.
What to Do About Ukraine and Georgia
Rice admittedly did not know what to do in 2008 with the possible accession of Ukraine and Georgia into NATO that year. The Germans and French were against it because of their belief that Russia would be antagonized. The Russians were obviously against it. Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili’s government was making a strong case for alliance membership. Rice, according to her memoir, No Higher Honor, took it to the U.S. National Security Council to deliver both sides of the issue, membership or no membership, to President George W. Bush.
George W. Bush Favored NATO Accession
Bush was resolute and decided quickly. “If these two democratic states want the Membership Action Plan, I can’t say no.” Bush was determined and public about his stance. He later told the media that he “strongly supported” Ukraine and Georgia’s membership.
German Support Was Key
The 2008 NATO Bucharest Summit in Romania was coming up soon and Rice needed to get the Germans and other members on board to support Ukraine and Georgia for the Membership Action Plan. Rice pressed Germany but to no avail. She left for Bucharest with no consensus with Germany on the future of the Ukrainian and Georgian quest for NATO.
It took some wrangling with the Germans at the summit, but Rice was able to get German Chancellor Angela Merkel to agree. Not for an immediate Membership Action Plan for Ukraine and Georgia, but the next best thing, support for eventual membership.
“NATO welcomes Ukraine’s and Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations for membership,” Rice told reporters. “We agreed today that these countries will become members of NATO … it is a matter of when, not whether.”
History Was Not Kind to NATO Ambitions
But it didn’t happen. If Ukraine and Georgia could have achieved NATO Membership then, beginning with a concrete Membership Action Plan in 2008, could this have changed history? Perhaps full membership could have helped Ukraine avoid the annexation of Crimea by Russia in 2014 and the invasion of Ukraine by Russia in 2022.
NATO Membership a ‘Lay Up’
What happened to the Georgian and Ukrainian bids? Was this an idle promise? It seemed like everything was possible for Kyiv and Tbilisi – NATO membership was going to be a “lay-up” in basketball parlance. But it was not to be.
What If History Was Different?
We should look back at this time as a pivotal moment. The United States made a promise. The president at the time supported the future of membership. Was the whole effort useless? It is a cacophony of “what ifs.” Counterfactual history is usually not a road to embark on. Georgia and Ukraine never made it into NATO. That is a fact. But 2008 could have been the first step toward a more secure and peaceful post-Soviet space. Russia may not have been so aggressive with Article V of the alliance posing as a deterrent. To be sure, Vladimir Putin could have embarked on his destructive path despite NATO. We can’t be positive the Kremlin would resist violating the rules-based order. Russia might have had more respect for the borders of Georgia and Ukraine. Indeed, Russia ended up invading Georgia four months after Bucharest.
Then the War in Georgia Happened
Unfortunately, due to a mix of rash decision-making, European wobbling, and American indecision, Georgia spiraled down into a full-blown war that killed, displaced, and disgraced thousands of people. Beyond the human tragedy, from a global perspective, the greatest calamity of the Georgian-Russian war was Russia’s strident rejection of the Post-Cold War order. While Russian actions undermined Georgia’s territorial integrity, they made the first and unrepairable crack against the rule-based order that had been defended by the West, particularly the United States. Furthermore, NATO’s visible hesitation to grant a Membership Action Plan to Georgia and Ukraine, and the following failure to come to Tbilisi’s rescue, encouraged Moscow to employ the same playbook against Ukraine in 2014 as it annexed Crimea and conducted brutal incursions in Eastern Ukraine while laying the groundwork for Russia’s unprovoked and full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022.
The United States Dropped the Ball
While European hesitation, notably German and French-over, Georgia’s and Ukraine’s NATO membership had been on the surface in the run-up to the Bucharest summit in 2008, American indecisiveness and weakness on the issues were a bit unexpected – given their public statements. The Americans proved to be so incoherent internally that they managed neither to overcome European skepticism nor consolidate necessary support behind Georgia and Ukraine’s NATO membership bid.
Difficult to Keep the Americans On Board
In retrospect, one can easily see that President Bush was pushing for Georgia and Ukraine’s NATO membership, despite the reservations from U.S. intelligence agencies. He had to deal with a growing division within his foreign policy team in order to deliver on his promise of offering the Membership Action Plan for Georgia and Ukraine.
Red Line for Russia
Under Secretary William Burns’ memo to Secretary Rice – “Ukrainian entry in NATO is the brightest of all the redlines for the Russian elite,” that “it is hard to overestimate” the strategic consequences of offering Ukraine NATO membership and it would “create fertile soil for Russia, meddling in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine.” This statement illustrates how the U.S. foreign policy team was divided on the issue upon arriving in Romania and how the Bush administration was not up to the game in Bucharest.
The U.S.’ unreadiness to offer Georgia and Ukraine Membership Action Plan was translated into the U.S.’ belated diplomatic engagement with Germany and France, which turned out to be not sufficient enough to convince the skeptics to change their positions. By offering Georgia and Ukraine a distant prospect for NATO membership in Bucharest, the alliance not only recognized Russia’s indirect veto on the allies’ decision-making but emboldened Putin to be more demanding while laying the groundwork for Russia’s subsequent aggressions against Georgia and Ukraine.
From the historical perspective, the Bucharest summit turned out to be the inflection point that paved the way for Russian military aggressions while heralding both the beginning of the end of the post-Cold War period and the current global systemic restructuring.
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Brent M. Eastwood, PhD, serves as the Defense and National Security Editor of 1945. He is the author of Humans, Machines, and Data: Future Trends in Warfare. Brent is an emerging threats expert and former U.S. Army Infantry officer. You can follow him on Twitter @BMEastwood.
Miro Popkhadze is a Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute’s Eurasia Program. He was Georgian Ministry of Defense Representative to the United Nations from 2015 to 2019. Prior to this assignment, he served as the Assistant Defense Attaché at the Embassy of Georgia to the United States in Washington, DC. Popkhadze was a non-resident Fellow at the Atlantic Council of Georgia in Tbilisi.