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Ukraine’s Risky Bid to Join NATO

Ukraine is about to begin a slow-motion process to join NATO as early as 2020. It’s probably not going to happen, and it would be way too late to save the country from the violence Russia has already inflicted, but we can hardly fault the Ukrainians for giving it the old college try.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenerg and Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko held a joint press conference in Kiev this week. “Today,” Poroshenko said, “we clearly stated that we would begin a discussion about a membership action plan and our proposals for such a discussion were accepted with pleasure.”

“We are also here to demonstrate NATO's solidarity with Ukraine,” Stoltenberg said, “and our firm support for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of your country.”

What a difference five years can make. In 2012, when asked if and how they would vote in a referendum, just 26 percent of Ukrainians said they would vote “yes” to join NATO. Today, 78 percent say they’d vote “yes.”

Charting a neutral third path between Russia and the West used to make sense, up to a point. Ukraine is more liberal and democratic than Russia and a bit less corrupt, but it shares a great deal of culture and history with the leviathan next door. Now that Vladimir Putin has invaded, annexed the Crimean Peninsula and backs a violent insurgency in the eastern Donbass region, splitting the difference between Moscow and Brussels seems daft. No serious person can believe the West would ever attack Ukraine or lop off parts of its territory.

The Ukrainians should have joined the North Atlantic alliance a long time ago. Their country would almost certainly still be intact right now if they had.

Russia has never invaded a member of NATO. While I’d like to say Russia probably never will, just about anything can happen if you wait long enough. Years from now, decades from now, generations from now, the entire world may be unrecognizable. Given enough time and enough change, there’s no telling what Russia might do in Europe. So far, though, Russia has never invaded a member of NATO. Membership in the Western alliance is the closest thing to guaranteed safety that exists in this world. NATO expansion at least semi-permanently restricts the zone that Russia can destabilize and wreak havoc upon with impunity. It’s a good thing all around if you’re not a Kremlinist, which is one of the reasons Vladimir Putin hates NATO expansion so much.

The other reason is that he, like so many of his countrymen, for reasons of both geography and history, inherently fears foreign invasion. Look at a relief map. The Russian heartland around Moscow and St. Petersburg is bang in the middle of one of the earth’s vastest stretches of flat land, unprotected by mountains and water and wide open to attack from every direction except from the Arctic. Few otherwise powerful nations are so vulnerable.

The reason Russia has expanded so far from its major populations centers (historically as far as Berlin and Alaska) is because it has been brutally invaded from both the east and the west, most disastrously by the Mongols, Napoleon Bonaparte and the Nazis. Russians can’t hide behind mountains as the Swiss can or behind oceans like the Americans, so instead they seek to build a “moat,” so to speak, of vassal states that they’ve conquered or can control from a distance. Such states would bear the brunt of a foreign invasion and force an enemy army to disintegrate ahead of impossibly long supply lines.

Russia’s need to surround itself by a ring of vassals is perfectly understandable, but it means occupation and war for the vassals and a constant state of anxiety for the vassals’ neighbors. It’s in the West’s interest, then, for Ukraine to join NATO, but Russia has far more to lose in Ukraine than the West does. Ukraine is one of Russia’s last buffer states to the west. Nearly all the rest have joined NATO already. And while Ukraine is not Russian, it is the place where Russia’s proto-civilization Kievan Rus was born in the 9th century.

Putin wants it a lot more than Americans do, which is why his soldiers are there and ours aren’t. And it’s the reason his soldiers—or at the very least his proxies—are going to stay. There is virtually no chance Ukraine will be admitted to NATO while it’s fighting a Russian-backed insurgency in the east. Nor will Ukraine be admitted while Kiev has a disputed territory conflict with Moscow. Putin may have lost Ukraine after the Maidan Revolution in 2014, when a mass protest movement dislodged the Kremlin’s puppet President Viktor Yanukovych, but war in Ukraine and Putin’s annexation of Crimea ensure that Russia’s loss is not the West’s gain.

The insurgency would have to end, one way or another, before Ukraine could join NATO. Russia would also have to return Crimea to Ukraine, or Ukraine would have to cede Crimea to Russia.

Since Russia will almost certainly never give up Crimea—it is desperately short of warm water coastline—Ukraine’s only viable option is surrendering territory.

The Ukrainians might go for it. They might think it’s worth it. They’re never going to get Crimea back anyway. They’d be well advised, though, not to let the Russians know in advance that it’s going to happen lest they provoke Putin or his successor to lop off even more territory. If he thinks he’s on the verge of losing a Ukrainian rump state to NATO, you can bet your bottom dollar that Putin will seriously consider invading it first. So it’s all fine and good if Ukrainians want to join NATO, but at some point, preferably sooner rather than later, they ought to say no more about it in public until it’s a fait accompli.

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