Admitting Ukraine to NATO would raise the prospect of a grim choice between a war with Russia and the devastating consequences involved or backing down and devaluing NATO’s security guarantee across the entire alliance. At the Vilnius summit and beyond, NATO leaders would be wise to acknowledge these facts and close the door to Ukraine, stresses the ‘Foreign Affairs’. .
Ukraine’s membership aspirations will now be a central topic of debate at NATO’s summit in Vilnius. The way in which this issue is settled will have serious consequences for the United States, Europe, and beyond. The stakes could not be higher.
Membership in NATO encompasses a commitment by the allies to fight and die for one another. Partly for this very reason, its members worked throughout the post – Cold War era to avoid expanding the alliance to states that faced a near-term risk of being attacked. NATO leaders have also long understood that admitting Ukraine involves a very real possibility of war (including nuclear war) with Russia.
Indeed, the chance of such a conflict and its devastating consequences is the main reason that the United States and other NATO members have sought to avoid being drawn in more deeply into the war in Ukraine. The tension is clear: almost no one thinks that NATO should fight directly with Russia for Ukraine today, but many favor promising Ukraine a path into the alliance and committing to fight for it in the future.
Ukraine should not be welcomed into NATO, and this is something U.S. President Joe Biden should make clear – ultimately states do what is in their self-interest. And here, the security benefits to the United States of Ukrainian accession pale in comparison with the risks of bringing it into the alliance. Admitting Ukraine to NATO would raise the prospect of a grim choice between a war with Russia and the devastating consequences involved or backing down and devaluing NATO’s security guarantee across the entire alliance. At the Vilnius summit and beyond, NATO leaders would be wise to acknowledge these facts and close the door to Ukraine.
To date, advocates of further U.S. and NATO involvement in the Ukraine war have failed to clarify the U.S. strategic interests at stake.
The U.S. interest in admitting Ukraine to NATO is even less clear, with a tangle of arguments present in the policy discourse. One view holds that European stability and security require Kyiv to join the alliance. By this logic, if Putin is not stopped in Ukraine, he will expand his aims and attack NATO member states.
There is a sense that Ukraine has “earned” NATO membership by fighting and weakening an adversary of the alliance. In this view, deepening NATO cooperation with Ukraine would add another layer of deterrence against a renewed Russian assault.
These claims are understandable but wrong… Strategy is about choice, and the United States’ choices today are stark.
Admitting Ukraine to NATO would present problems for the alliance, especially the security guarantees embedded in Article 5 of the alliance’s founding treaty. To be sure, Article 5 only formally commits the NATO allies to treat an attack on one as an attack on all and to render the assistance they “deem necessary.” In practice, however, member states have viewed NATO membership and the Article 5 guarantees that go along with it as a U.S. commitment to go to war on behalf of its allies.
The problem with extending such guarantees to Ukraine: an Article 5 guarantee could pull the United States into a direct conflict with Russia.
If Ukraine were in NATO, the United States could be pushed to come to Ukraine’s defense by deploying troops and even threatening to use nuclear weapons on Ukraine’s behalf. American policymakers may hope to deter future Russian aggression against Ukraine by creating a path for Kyiv into NATO, but doing so creates a real possibility of drawing the United States into what Biden has called a “World War III” scenario.
There is also the question of the costs of defending Ukraine. NATO is already struggling to find the conventional forces and operating concepts it needs to service the alliance’s existing commitments. The war in Ukraine has made clear that modern, high-intensity conflict between conventional militaries consumes incredible quantities of resources. Viewed in this light, inviting Ukraine to join NATO would exacerbate the gap between the alliance’s commitments and its capabilities.
Should Ukraine join the alliance, the burden of finding the resources to defend Ukraine short of nuclear war is therefore likely to fall disproportionately on the United States.
At a time when Washington already faces serious resource demands both at home and in Asia, it risks being backed into a corner: with Ukraine in NATO, Washington will need to divert resources from other priorities, some of which are arguably of greater importance, or accept increased risk along what would be a dramatically expanded eastern front. In either case, the United States will have incurred large costs and burdens at a moment when American time, attention, and resources are needed elsewhere.
Ukraine’s desire to join NATO is understandable. Still, strategy is about choice, and the United States’ choices today are stark. For much of the post – Cold War period, the United States could expand its international commitments at relatively low cost and risk. Those circumstances no longer exist.
With fiscal pressures at home, a grave challenge to its position in Asia, and the prospect of escalation and an erosion of credibility vis-à-vis Moscow, keeping Ukraine out of NATO simply reflects U.S. interests. Instead of making a questionable promise that poses great dangers but would yield little in return, the United States should accept that it is high time to close NATO’s door to Ukraine, writes the ‘Foreign Affairs’.
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