America Is in Denial About Ukraine’s Future in NATO gnewsplus24

U.S. President Joe Biden has said for years that Ukraine will one day become a member of NATO. In fact, he was asserting this before most Ukrainians had any desire to join the alliance. “If you choose to be part of Euro-Atlantic integration, which I believe you have, then we strongly support that,” he announced on a trip to Kyiv as vice president in 2009. In Ukraine that year, only 28 percent favored NATO membership for their country, while 51 percent opposed it. Biden has remained committed to the idea in principle. “Ukraine’s future lies at NATO,” he insisted again in Vilnius, Lithuania, last summer.

At the same time, he has made extremely clear that the United States is not prepared to go to war with Russia to defend Kyiv. Any direct involvement of U.S. troops in the current conflict could mean “World War III,” he said in 2022, and “we will not fight the third world war in Ukraine.” Biden raced to pull all U.S. troops out of the country ahead of Russia’s invasion in February 2022. And, to avoid provoking Moscow, he has delayed supplying Kyiv with advanced weapons and has restricted their use in ways that critics say have hamstrung Ukraine’s defense.

There’s no direct inconsistency in these positions. After all, Ukraine is not a NATO member yet. And Biden has said the country will not become one until after the current war is over. It is eminently reasonable for a U.S. president to worry about nuclear escalation. And at times the White House seems to have received alarming intelligence about Russian preparations to use tactical nuclear weapons.

But Biden’s stance raises some difficult questions. If he is unwilling to risk provoking Russian President Vladimir Putin into a nuclear confrontation, then why are we promising to commit to do just that if necessary to defend Ukraine in the future? After Ukraine enters NATO, that is what Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty will require, as Biden clearly recognizes. If defeating Russia in Ukraine is a U.S. vital interest, then why are we holding back now? And if it is not, then why should we pledge to risk everything on Ukraine’s behalf later?

These questions about Ukraine point to a troubling contradiction in how NATO has expanded in the recent past. The alliance’s deterrent power depends on widespread belief in the strength of its members’ mutual commitment. At the height of the Cold War, U.S. leaders really were prepared to raise the nuclear ante to defend their European allies. But the way NATO grew after 1989—with no obvious military threat looming, a blurry mission, and little discussion of the dangers—invites speculation about just how strong that commitment is today.

The U.S. public was never much engaged with the issue. As foreign-policy experts clashed in early 1997 about NATO expansion, only 20 percent of American respondents said they were following the debates even “fairly closely.” Later that year, only 10 percent could identify even one of the potential new members. What made NATO enlargement sellable to Western publics was, paradoxically, the sense that it was not really needed. Back then, Russia hardly looked threatening, so what did it matter what one promised to its neighbors? Had Western citizens thought they might have to send troops to defend Tallinn or Warsaw, opposition would certainly have been louder.

NATO expansion was supposed to be not just safe but cheap: It was not meant to cut into the promised “peace dividend.” This led to the odd spectacle of a defense alliance simultaneously expanding its territory and slashing its armaments and military spending (as a share of GDP). At times, NATO looked less like a military partnership than a disarmament pact.

Since 1989, NATO has added 16 countries. At the same time, the 16 pre-1989 members cut their military expenditures from an average 3.7 percent of GDP in the alliance’s first 40 years to 1.9 percent since 1989. Total manpower in the 16 countries’ armed forces fell from 5.8 million in 1989 to 3.5 million in 2020.

After joining the club, the new members also downsized their forces. The 12 that enrolled between 1999 and 2009 had spent 1.8 percent of GDP on defense in the decade before accession on average. That fell to 1.5 percent in the 10 years after joining. A decade after accession, the median new member had 75 percent fewer tanks, 55 percent fewer combat aircraft, and 59 percent fewer artillery pieces, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies. Its military manpower had dropped by a third.

NATO’s border with Russia in the Baltics was left particularly vulnerable. Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania had three tanks between them when they joined in 2004—and still only three tanks 10 years later. War games suggested that invading Russian troops could reach Tallinn and Riga in “36 to 60 hours.” Until 2010, NATO did not even have a plan for their defense.

Initially, one could reasonably think that Russia posed no real threat. But after Putin’s tirade to the 2007 Munich Security Conference, the massive cyberattack on Estonia that year, Russia’s suspension of implementation of the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe Treaty, its invasion of Georgia in 2008, its military exercise in 2009 simulating an attack on a Baltic neighbor and a nuclear strike on Poland, the seizure of Crimea in 2014, and the covert war in Donbas, that line was no longer tenable.

NATO did eventually respond in 2017 by deploying about 3,000 German, British, and Canadian troops in the Baltic states. But, against a potential Russian force of scores of thousands, those service members were at best a trip wire, at worst a pool of hostages. Only after Russia invaded Ukraine in 2022 did planning step up. Even now, the pace arguably lacks urgency. Latvia’s defense minister has warned it may take a decade to build the first line of defensive bunkers on his country’s borders.

To be clear, expanding NATO in the 1990s may have been the right decision. There were two plausible strategies vis-à-vis Russia—enlarge and defend or don’t enlarge and engage—both with pros and cons and huge uncertainty. But the course actually chosen—expand and disarm—did not make much sense.

From early on, there was a sense of unreality about the whole operation. Western leaders wanted to expand the West’s footprint on the cheap. And the new recruits thought NATO membership could substitute for building an adequate conventional defense. The Ukraine invasion exposed the wishful thinking in these positions.

This legacy cannot be ignored as the West ponders Ukraine’s future. For all NATO leaders’ impressive rallying after February 2022, Putin has observed the alliance over the past 30-plus years and drawn conclusions. His goal is to exploit the internal weakness and self-delusion that he senses at its heart. He may not frontally attack a NATO member in the near future. But he has already stepped up subversion and sabotage. And he is watching for opportunities.

For Ukraine, NATO membership would link the calculus of nuclear escalation to any future Russian aggression. But if Putin suspects that Western readiness to face annihilation for Kyiv is patchy, he may view the brinkmanship game as one he can win. Given his goal of undermining NATO cohesion, membership for Ukraine would also pin a new target on its back. Ukraine in NATO would risk becoming, in Putin’s eyes, the alliance’s front-line weak spot.

The key question is whether other alliance members—not just their foreign-policy elites but general publics as well—are ready, in Biden’s words, to “fight the third world war” over Ukraine. If they are not, then inducting Kyiv after the current war ends may actually make both it and the West less secure. It will provoke Putin to prod and probe in the hope of inflaming Western divisions.

To reject Ukraine’s bid for membership now would implode morale and set off bitter recriminations. Having prematurely promised this in 2008, the West cannot safely retract its pledge. But on this point, Biden may be right to delay. Focusing on the NATO question is to miss the real point—what Ukraine most needs now and in any future scenario is a formidable conventional defense capacity.

The 10-year security agreement signed by Biden on June 13 expresses the right sentiment. But it epitomizes the limitations of the West’s recent policy. All know this agreement may disappear in a puff of smoke on Inauguration Day 2025. As usual, the West offers generous promises with murky paths to fulfillment. Too many pieces of paper, too few F-16s.

What Ukraine needs is a detailed, fully funded, broadly backed Western plan, insulated against future political turbulence, to create the kind of defense infrastructure on its eastern border that could repel—and therefore deter—a future Russian invasion. To avoid Russian blackmail, if not actual missiles, the country will need a large network of top-of-the-line air defenses. It will need intelligence-sharing arrangements with Western governments and an in-country military-industrial base that can rapidly resupply weapons. And, of course, it will need economic aid to rebuild its civilian infrastructure and capital stock. This is a very tall order. But an invitation to NATO will not in itself provide these things—and it cannot substitute for them.

To deter attacks on other NATO members, the alliance must rapidly reinforce its eastern borders. All three Baltic states now have conscription, so the number of trained reserves will grow. But their armed forces now own no battle tanks and no fighter aircraft. At the July 2023 Vilnius summit, NATO leaders agreed to scale up the battlegroups of roughly 1,000 Western troops stationed in each Baltic state to “brigade-size units” of more than 3,000 troops each. But they gave no timeline and promised the increase only “where and when required,” hardly a reassuring phrase.

As a possible second Trump presidency looms and Russian troops inch forward on the Ukrainian battlefield, it remains uncertain whether NATO leaders will draw the right lessons from recent decades. To avoid vulnerability to Putin’s blackmail, we must prevent Russian troops from seizing land and then declaring it under their nuclear umbrella. Treaty commitments are no substitute for robust border defenses. These must be rapidly reinforced, despite the cost. And this time, leaders must explain clearly to their citizens why the safety of all NATO members now depends on what happens in Ukraine and the alliance’s own front-line states.


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