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Bring Ukraine into NATO
It’s the best option in the long-term to check Russia’s aggression, help Ukraine rebuild its country anew, and safeguard regional and global peace.
This weekend, President Joe Biden will head out on a five-day trip to Europe focused on bolstering America’s ties with European allies in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). His visit comes at a time of uncertainty in Russia’s war and Ukraine’s counteroffensive to push Russian occupation forces out of the country.
Biden will start his trip in London to reaffirm strong bilateral U.S.-UK ties before traveling to Lithuania and then Finland to mark the newest country to join the NATO alliance, a group growing in size thanks to Russia’s attack on Ukraine. But the main event of this trip is the NATO summit on July 11 and 12 hosted by Lithuania, a small Baltic nation on the frontlines in the effort to defend freedom in the world.
Biden heads on this trip at a time when U.S. public support has increased substantially in recent weeks for supporting Ukraine’s efforts to defend itself. Two-thirds of Americans (65 percent) support providing arms to Ukraine, according to Reuters/Ipsos poll last month, a 19-point jump from 45 percent in May. This increased support may reflect views that Russia is now more vulnerable in the wake of last month’s attempted mutiny against President Vladimir Putin.
Tell me, how does this end?
One central question that looms over this particular NATO summit: What sort of support and guarantees will the United States and its NATO allies provide Ukraine while the war still rages? In other words, what vision do Ukraine, NATO, and the United States have for the desired end state in the coming years? The answer to these questions remains muddled a year and a half into the defense of Ukraine.
The lack of a clear definition of the desired end state of military campaigns that the United States has been involved in and supported over the past quarter century is a self-imposed strategic challenge. It’s also one of the main reasons why various campaigns have produced the mixed results we’ve seen around the world. Too often, successive U.S. administrations have defined their goals in reaction to threats or to avoid certain scenarios, rather than defining them in terms of the desired outcomes. It then fixates on tactical and operational questions, like this recent decision to send controversial munitions to Ukraine. Getting caught in the trenches of the day-to-day operations often clouds the view of the big picture.
Remember when President Barack Obama “surged” forces to Afghanistan in 2010, and he defined the end goal of “disrupting, dismantling, and defeating Al Qaeda and its affiliates in Pakistan and Afghanistan?” Flash forward more than a dozen years later: mission sort of accomplished, but it would be difficult to say that the outcomes of all of the lives and money spent met their full potential in those two countries when one does a clinical assessment of the continued challenges to human security. The same could be said for Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, and other places where the United States and its partners have relied on heavily militarized approaches to threats that failed to define clear end states or to integrate other components of U.S. power into the policy equation.
To help bring greater clarity to the efforts to help Ukraine defend itself, Biden should back the call from some NATO countries to invite Ukraine to join the NATO alliance with a concrete membership action plan. I’m told Biden is very unlikely to support this position on this trip, but it’s ultimately the position he should stake out at some point.
I’ve heard several thoughtful and considered arguments against this view: the alliance is divided on this topic, the domestic politics of some NATO members are fraught, proposing this while the war is wages complicates possible peace negotiations, and Russia might respond by escalating its war against Ukraine even more or continuing to fight beyond the point at which it might otherwise have cut its losses.
A series of workshops and discussions with experts this spring and summer has convinced me that putting Ukraine on a pathway to NATO membership is best of a range of options to restore stability in Europe and inoculate the world against Russia’s destabilizing actions in the long run. The key phrase here is “long run,” because any road from invitation to accession into NATO for Ukraine will take many years—a hard thing to contemplate in our current world, dominated as it is by short-term consideration and plagued by attention deficit disorder.
There are three main reasons why President Biden should lead an effort to rally NATO allies behind a clear, yet long pathway to Ukraine’s membership:
1. A pathway to NATO membership for Ukraine is a better long-term alternative for peace and stability than the status quo or other kinds of security guarantees.
Some have argued that the current model of support—ongoing weapons supplies to Ukraine from an international coalition—is sufficient and that doing anything more than that will upset the conditions for creating peace and stability. But the main problem with this argument is that it is usually accompanied by the defeatist caveat that this costly war will likely go on for years, no matter what. It remains to be seen whether the current counteroffensive will produce a major shift on the battlefield, however, and Max Boot reminds us that it’s premature to judge the impact of these still-fledgling efforts. Nevertheless, continued Russian attacks against Ukrainian civilians and cities are an indication that sticking with the status quo will likely perpetuate a relative stalemate that leaves ordinary Ukrainians at the mercy of a creaky but still lethal Russian war machine.
A second “middle” option between the status quo and a clear pathway to NATO membership has been floated in recent months. This alterative would offer Ukraine coordinated security guarantees, something akin to the relationships the United States has had for years with countries like Israel, Japan, and South Korea. Expect this to be featured at this upcoming NATO summit—it’s the sort of “split the baby down the middle” thinking that tends to win out in debates among a foreign policy team this is very good at analyzing issues from multiple angles and settling on some sort of compromise.
The main elements of this second option include long-term commitments to help Ukraine build its defenses, including a steadier pipeline of aid and joint training programs. Some of these arrangements include commitments on air defenses, and in some places like Japan, South Korea, and Qatar, which Biden declared a major non-NATO ally, there are U.S. military bases and troops. It’s important to note, however, that the United States has mutual defense treaties with Japan and South Korea that require America to come to the aid of these countries if they’re attacked—obligations similar to NATO’s mutual defense provisions but ones that don’t arise in close defense cooperation relationships of the sort the United States has with Israel or Qatar.
One key shortcoming of this second option: it repeats the same mistake the United States made in most of the wars of the past quarter century. It fails to define with sufficient clarity the desired end state. Want to inadvertently perpetuate to so-called “forever war” challenge? Choose door number one (status quo) or door number two (some unclear security guarantee).
In short, these ideas of security assurances for Ukraine that we’re likely to hear bandied about at this upcoming NATO summit probably amount to the “worst of all worlds” option, one that adds more costs and risks to the United States and its allies than the benefits it provides to Ukraine and European stability. Russia’s attacks on Georgia and its first invasion of Ukraine came after NATO offered a vague pathway to membership to both countries.
It's hard to imagine this scenario becoming a reality that helps Ukraine build an effective deterrent model against Russia, in part because of Russia’s track record over the past quarter century and more. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the only countries that Russia has invaded with conventional troops are all outside of NATO, and despite repeated overheated propaganda from Russia’s leaders, it has not conducted a conventional military attack on a NATO member, including those bordering Russia, despite targeting many NATO countries with cyberattacks and political warfare and interference.
A clear pathway for Ukraine joining NATO after the cessation of hostilities is the best guarantee for long-term security. In many ways, Ukraine joining NATO is both an idea ahead of its time but also way behind the curve—had Ukraine joined NATO years ago after it gave up the nuclear weapons on its territory, it may not have ever been attacked by Russia.
2. Russia’s likely reactions to calling for Ukraine’s NATO membership will further weaken and undercut its position at home and abroad.
Russia today is an unpredictable but ultimately vulnerable and declining power. Moscow’s military has performed poorly on the battlefield, so much so that it had to reach out in desperation to other declining, retrograde forces like Iran for help. It’s a relatively minor global economic force, with an economy of about $1.5 trillion gross domestic product, less than each of the U.S. states of California, Texas, and New York. Italy has a larger economy than Russia, and although Moscow still has some sway in global energy markets there are signs that grip may be slipping in some ways too.
Russian neo-imperialism is a good way to describe what Russia under Putin has tried to do over the last two decades, but with very limited success. History tells us that expansionist empires collapse for many reasons: overreach, depletion of resources and national will, strong opposition from those fighting for their sovereignty and national self-determination, and overwhelming military defeat from global powers, as was seen Nazi Germany and Japan in World War II. In the process of making aggressive moves in the region and around the world, Putin has gutted Russia’s economic potential and incentivized a brain drain of talent that will hurt Russia’s ability to compete in the world.
If NATO were to make an offer for Ukraine to ultimately join the alliance, Russia will likely overreact—but it would be unwise to put too much stock in what damage Russia might do, including with its nuclear weapons, something that China, India, and others have warned Russia against using. Any overreaction by Russia will likely further isolate and weaken it, and the mindset of self-deterrence in certain U.S. foreign policy circles helped produce the predicament Ukraine and the world find themselves in now.
3. A long-term pathway to NATO membership can create more incentives for Ukraine to reform its democracy, government, and economy.
A third reason why President Biden and the United States would be wise to lean on helping craft a long-term pathway with a NATO membership action plan for Ukraine is that the process of accession can help provide more incentives for Ukraine to improve its governance, including creating higher anti-corruption standards, bolstering democratic reform, and reforming Ukraine’s economy in the long run. Joining NATO, as with a likely parallel effort to bring Ukraine into the European Union, comes with a process that’s aimed at certain countries meet key criteria that can motivate the sort of reforms that the West tried to promote for years in Ukraine with mixed success before this war.
If the United States and its NATO allies operated with a bold, affirmative vision, it would seek to define a stable and prosperous Europe in the long-term, one in which Ukraine is connected to its neighbors like Poland and other regional actors like the Baltic states in a new security paradigm and creates a new hub for freedom and prosperity in Europe.
Half-measures like some mix of security guarantees supported by those with a technocratic managerial mindset misread how to shape Russia’s calculus under Putin and risk prolonging the war. The same can be said for those who make calls for diplomacy without grounding their proposals in the harsh reality of what Russia continues to do every day in Ukraine, a replay of what’s unfolded in places like Syria. Also, the “blame America first” mindset among isolationists and restrainers who make arguments that enable Russia’s aggression offers little more than a recipe for more instability in Europe and the world. Constructing a pathway to Ukraine’s membership in NATO represents a long-term investment in security and stability for Europe, as Peter Juul argued earlier this year.
President Biden should lead the NATO alliance in creating a pathway for Ukraine to join NATO in the coming years—if not at this Vilnius summit, then perhaps at the July 2024 NATO summit in Washington, D.C. That’s the most effective way of securing his legacy as a U.S. president who helped defend freedom in the world.