Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelensky speaks as President Joe Biden looks on July 12 in Vilnius, Lithuania. Ukraine would pull its weight as a NATO ally, writes Seth Cropsey.
Sean Gallup/Getty Images
About the author: Seth Cropsey is the founder and president of Yorktown Institute. He served as a naval officer and as deputy Undersecretary of the Navy and is the author of Mayday and Seablindness.
The Biden administration has failed an essential test: It cannot manage NATO in a coherent manner in Ukraine.
Ukraine has sought NATO membership for years. Its requests took on new urgency after Russia’s full-scale invasion last year. Kyiv hoped for clear answers at the summit that concluded Wednesday in Vilnius, Lithuania. But after nearly 18 months of war, and after ample opportunity for debate, negotiation, and policy formulation within the Atlantic Alliance, the best the Western allies could come up with is an equivocating statement that Ukraine “will” join NATO when the allies extend an “invitation” after Ukraine meets certain unspecified “conditions.” This simply defers the issue for another year.
NATO membership is not an act of charity. NATO is a strategic entity designed primarily to safeguard the European powers from the threat of Russian hegemony, and thereby to ensure that the U.S. does not face a Russia that adds to its power the resources, population, and territory of the European continent. Any new member of NATO must increase the strategic position of the Atlantic Alliance, at minimum by adding a significant geography to it, and ideally by providing robust military capabilities.
Ukraine meets both criteria. The Ukrainian armed forces have fought Russia to a standstill and, with only months of training at best on sophisticated Western equipment, have employed NATO-standard weapons to deadly effect. Ukraine’s defense industry, meanwhile, is now world-leading in drone development, a critical capacity that the U.S. would do well to leverage to improve its own military. Ukraine has demonstrated its military competence: It would pull its weight as an ally.
Strategically, moreover, Ukraine occupies a crucial position within Europe. Throughout the Cold War, the Soviets held a commanding geographic position, one that might have allowed it to punch through Germany and drive to the Rhine in short order. There were no natural defensive anchors for the Western position. This necessitated the rapid employment of nuclear weapons to break up Soviet logistics and slow Warsaw Pact tank spearheads, with all of the attendant devastation a nuclear exchange would cause.
Modern NATO is in a different position. Ukraine is a valuable strategic addition to the alliance because it provides NATO a coherent defensive position. This is not to say that Russia could not be defeated in a major war if Ukraine were subjugated. But the deterrence and military cost of that policy would be far higher.
Europe is safer with Ukraine in NATO. Moreover, absent a clear NATO pathway, Ukraine will be attacked again. Russia must hold Ukraine in the long term if it is to challenge the European order and be a legitimate force alongside China in Eurasia. The reality is that Ukrainian and European security are inextricable.
The Russian threat will return even if Ukraine retakes all its territory and joins NATO. The question for the West is whether it would be served by having Ukraine as a full-fledged ally when it does. The answer is undeniably in the affirmative.
Yet there is an essential contradiction of interests that the Biden administration has not managed. Ukraine’s accession to NATO before the war ends would put NATO into hostilities with Russia. But in many ways this is already the case, considering the degree of intelligence and operational support NATO powers have supplied. Moreover, there is no indication that Russia would seek to escalate the conflict if Ukraine joined NATO—the essential situation, in which Russia avoids direct combat with non-Ukrainian forces, remains the same. Nevertheless, there is an obvious risk.
However, absent a concrete NATO timeline, Russia has an incentive to continue the war indefinitely. Unless there is a clear pathway and time frame, Russia will keep fighting until the West’s political cohesion fractures. A clear commitment to Ukraine independent of Russian actions is a strong signal to Russia of NATO’s priorities.
Delay and equivocation about U.S. support for Ukraine have allowed Russia to stay in the fight, making a Ukrainian battlefield victory that much more difficult, extending the conflict, and thereby undermining alliance cohesion.
But now that the Biden administration has put Ukraine and NATO in this position, the only option is greatly increased support. The U.S. must commit to another 12-month arms cycle including fighter jets, tactical ballistic missiles, and anti-ship missiles and mines to combat the Russian air force and Black Sea Fleet. The conflict must be brought to a successful military close, since now only that can resolve the contradictions of NATO interest.
More probable, however, is extended equivocation and inaction. Putting aside the battlefield situation for a moment, this points in two dark directions. Ukraine could seek an Israeli-style solution, creating a massive conscript army that can fight off Russia. But this relies on two elements that are lacking: a diplomatic-military approach on Washington’s part that is willing to oppose Russia until it negotiates directly with the U.S., or nuclear weapons. Ukrainian nuclearization has consequences too destabilizing to European security to accept.
Alternatively, Ukraine could seek bilateral relationships with NATO members, most likely Poland and perhaps the Baltic and Black Sea states. But this will simply splinter NATO along its east-west line. In short, options beyond NATO are far worse than NATO membership.
It’s not too late for President Biden to manage the alliance by giving Ukraine all the equipment needed to defeat Russia. Promises about the future won’t do.
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