by Matthew Mai
Two developments this month have underscored the perilous nature of Ukraine’s geopolitical position and why joining NATO would be a poor remedy.
First, the Biden administration struck a deal with Germany over the controversial Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline. It’s an energy project often described by Eastern Europeans as a threat to their security. Instead of imposing sanctions on the firms working on the nearly finished pipeline, the administration sought commitments from Berlin that it would invest in Ukrainian energy infrastructure and provide diplomatic support to the Three Seas Initiative, a geopolitical forum of 12 Central and Eastern European countries located on the Baltic, Adriatic, and Black seas.
The second development was the publication of an essay by Russian President Vladimir Putin, “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians.” As the title suggests, Putin discusses at length his view on the historical, cultural, religious, and linguistic ties between Russia and Ukraine, particularly in the eastern region of Donbas. Putin asserts that Ukraine “simply does not need Donbas” while maintaining that the “true sovereignty of Ukraine is possible only in partnership with Russia” as “one people.” Russia will engage Ukraine only if it “is not a tool in someone else’s hands to fight against us.” However, Putin also repeats a previous warning that any Western designs on Ukraine would force Russia to destroy the country.
For American policymakers, these two developments should validate any doubts that attempting to incorporate Ukraine into Western political and security institutions, particularly NATO, would be a dangerous and counterproductive initiative with no chance for peaceful implementation.
Keeping the door open for Ukraine to join NATO courts war with Russia. I would contend that Russia’s 2014 seizure of Crimea and instigation of the separatist insurgency in Donbas were a reaction to a U.S.- and European-supported revolution that overthrew the pro-Russian government in favor of one determined to move closer to the West. Moscow viewed this development as a direct threat to its security. Crimea, for example, hosts a base for Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, the upgrades of which in recent years have tipped the balance of power in Russia’s favor against the NATO navies of Turkey, Romania, and Bulgaria. A pro-Western government in Kyiv could have blocked the use of the base in Sevastopol or, worse, hosted NATO naval forces and thereby denied Russia a conventional military presence. This is a region where Russia has 400 kilometers of exposed coastline and maintains critical shipping lanes to the Caucasus.
Similarly, the presence of American and NATO military assets on Russia’s vulnerable eastern border would likely be unacceptable to any Russian leader. Ukraine carries special significance given that Charles XII, the kaiser, and Adolf Hitler all used it to launch large-scale offensives into Russia. While the status quo remains unacceptable to Russia’s security interests, holding out the prospect of NATO membership doesn’t do Ukraine any favors either. Efforts to bring Ukraine into the Western fold will only prevent reconciliation with the separatists in Donbas and permanently compromise Ukraine’s territorial integrity.
The United States should permanently halt moves toward NATO expansion. U.S. policy should be revised to reflect the more realistic calculation that Ukraine will be better off as a neutral state between Russia and the West. As the Nord Stream 2 pipeline deal shows, wealthy Western European countries are unwilling to subordinate their interests to compensate for Ukraine’s compromised position. If European NATO allies don’t consider the fate of Ukraine essential for their security, why should the U.S. risk war with Russia over it?
(c) Washington Examiner