Opinion: Ukraine deserves to hear the truth about NATO

Editor’s Note: Daniel R. DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities and a syndicated foreign affairs columnist at the Chicago Tribune. His work can be seen in The New York Times, Politico, The Wall Street Journal and The Guardian, among other publications. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more at CNN Opinion.

A year ago, NATO heads of state gathered in Vilnius, Lithuania, for their annual summit. A gathering designed to send Russian President Vladimir Putin a message about NATO’s resolve and commitment became clouded instead, however, by the question of Ukraine’s eventual membership in the alliance.

Daniel R. DePetris - Courtesy Daniel R. DePetris
Daniel R. DePetris - Courtesy Daniel R. DePetris

The communique released after the multi-day event reaffirmed a commitment given by the alliance during the 2008 summit in Bucharest: Ukraine will become a NATO member, even if the timing is yet to be determined.

For Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, the reaffirmation was far short of his expectations. He called NATO’s unwillingness to establish a concrete timeframe for Ukraine’s membership “unprecedented and absurd,” causing consternation in the Biden administration and nearly derailing the summit.

Washington and Kyiv were able to patch up the acrimony. But with NATO leaders in Washington this week to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the alliance, the Ukraine membership question continues to hover over the proceedings like humidity in the dog days of August.

The United States and its allies will no doubt continue to insist ad nauseam that it’s only a matter of time before Ukraine is given the privilege of joining NATO. Indeed, according to the draft communique for this week’s summit, NATO is preparing to emphasize that Ukraine’s path to joining the allliance is “irreversible,” — a declaration first made by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg in April.

In reality, however, Ukraine is nowhere near membership. NATO doesn’t look prepared to bring Ukraine into the alliance, and there’s a good case to be made that bestowing membership status on Kyiv would be bad policy. It’s long past time for the Biden administration to stop pretending otherwise. The White House should give Zelensky the honesty he deserves.

First, the US should be clear up front about how difficult it is for an aspiring country to become a member of NATO. Its charter makes clear that member nations agree to defend any other member of the alliance that comes under attack: “The Parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all.” On paper, Poland is as obligated to come to the defense of the US as the US is obligated to come to the defense of Poland.

Several key NATO members, however, haven’t been especially eager to come to the defense of Ukraine. In 2008, when then-President George W. Bush wanted to offer Ukraine (and Georgia, another former Soviet state) a plan to get the accession process started, allies like France and Germany were opposed to it.

After the Russian annexation of Crimea in March 2014 put the issue on the agenda once again, it was the US that had qualms. Then-President Barack Obama instead said that Washington would call a meeting of the NATO-Ukraine Commission, a body to nurture the bilateral relationship. Biden stated as recently as last month that he is “not prepared to support the NATO-ization of Ukraine.” Because NATO makes decisions through consensus, any single member can block Ukraine’s accession.

The notion that Kyiv will enter NATO as long as the war in Ukraine is churning is of course fanciful for the simple reason that the members of the alliance would then be compelled to fight Russia directly, which raises the question of whether bringing Ukraine into NATO, even if feasible, is actually wise. Zelensky, who has spent a great deal of time since Russia’s invasion trying to press the subject of membership, himself understands this necessary delay quite well.

Some foreign policy scholars, like former US Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul, have recommended extending a NATO invitation to Ukraine to pave the way for when the war is over. This would presumably deter Putin over the long-term and prevent Moscow from using any ceasefire to rebuild its military for another invasion of Ukraine months or years down the line.

But this scenario is also problematic. Why would Putin consider a ceasefire or diplomatic settlement with Kyiv if he knew that NATO membership for Ukraine was just around the corner? Far from promoting a settlement, this idea could make the war’s termination virtually impossible for Putin, who explicitly called on Ukraine to drop its aspirations to join NATO as a core condition of any peace negotiation. As dozens of foreign policy experts wrote in an open letter last week (which I signed), “The closer NATO comes to promising that Ukraine will join the alliance once the war ends, the greater the incentive for Russia to keep fighting the war and killing Ukrainians so as to forestall Ukraine’s integration into NATO.”

All that aside, it’s not altogether clear that extending a NATO security guarantee to Ukraine would be fully honored — which could undermine the alliance itself.

NATO countries have repeatedly demonstrated that they won’t get into a direct shooting war on Ukraine’s behalf. The West’s justifiable reticence to get involved militarily in Ukraine suggests that when push comes to shove, NATO is not going to plunge itself into a war with the world’s largest nuclear power. A NATO security guarantee without credibility is merely a paper promise, one which Russia might choose to test. NATO would then be presented with two unpalatable options: stand idly by and erode the power of its collective defense clause or wage an unwanted war against a country with more than 5,500 nuclear warheads.

In short, insisting Ukraine will become a member of the NATO family, even if the practical roadblocks are easy to foresee, does a disservice to the United States and NATO, as well as Ukraine. The US exposes itself as a superpower giving a prospective client state false hope. NATO reveals itself to be divided on the Ukraine accession question. And Ukraine is forced to endure the humiliation of being strung along, like a proverbial hamster on a wheel that can’t reach the hunk of cheese in front of it.

The best Ukraine is likely to get from NATO is more air defense batteries and missiles, a stronger training program for its troops and a commitment to help Kyiv hold the line. Biden should tell Zelensky point-blank that NATO membership is a fool’s errand — and while he’s at it, he ought to apologize to all Ukrainians, for waiting so long to state the obvious.

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