Why fast-tracking Ukraine into NATO is a terrible idea

Ewan Watt Freelance Writer
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“I love Germany so much,” remarked the French novelist Francois Mauriac, “that I hope there will always be two of them.” Europe’s divisions, regularly exacerbated by historical grievances and mischievous statecraft, have a tendency to spill out into a global standoff. Whereas world powers dealt with the German nation divided into two states for much of the 20th century, all eyes are now on Ukraine, a state divided into two nations.

Ukraine has come to symbolize something akin to a cultural tug of war between East and West, a gateway to the European Union and NATO but also the treacherous path of being ‘Finlandized’ by Moscow. By invading the Crimea, a clear violation of Ukraine’s territorial integrity, Vladimir Putin has shown that in an era of phony red lines, it’s unthinkable for Russia’s near abroad to slip out of her control. But amidst talk of new sanctions the crisis has also sparked a new conversation about whether an opportunity was missed to offer Ukraine full membership of NATO to help fend off the belligerence of the Russian bear. Now calls have come to the fore in support of fast-tracking their membership.

The argument goes that if Ukraine had the guarantee of NATO’s Article V any intention in Moscow for further conflict would quickly abate because of the military alliance’s superior firepower. If we were to be honest, this debate is moot, as some wiser heads have highlighted, because “no country can join [the alliance] if it has unresolved territorial disputes with its neighbors.” But honesty doesn’t grab the headlines in Washington and so the debate will persist along with the troublesome questions that accompany it.

Firstly, allowing Ukraine to join would shift NATO forces from being arbiters of a diplomatic solution to the precipice of war. If a military alliance is to be an effective instrument for deterrence, it must also be backed by a willingness to shed blood on behalf of its members.  To paraphrase Sean Connery in “The Untouchables,” NATO can’t just bring a knife to Russia’s gunfight. As former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said of calls to send U.S. ships into the Black Sea, “It’s a threatening gesture, but if you’re not prepared to do something about it, it’s an empty gesture.”

From the perspective of Clausewitz, Article V and the strength of NATO’s deterrence is only as good as her membership’s (read: the United States) political will to go to war with a nuclear power — which in the case of Ukraine, is zero to none. Proponents of this position also like to think that despite Russian assertions, Ukraine joining NATO would not provoke any kind of attack from Moscow. Why not? Given that the very few western leaders are prepared to sanction war to deter the Russians, NATO would be shown to be nothing more than a paper tiger, with dangerous implications beyond Ukraine.

As NATO expands, political will for conflict must also grow in order to ensure that the integrity of Article V does not diminish. Yet this assertion does not bear any resemblance to reality. European defense budgets have plummeted and after the debacles of Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya, few politicians outside of Graham-McCain World would even contemplate shedding blood to repulse a nuclear power. The day that a NATO member is attacked and members fail to drum up the political wherewithal to respond, the alliance is effectively over. The threat of Ukrainian provocations aside, if NATO membership really is what Putin fears the most, there’s the possibility that he’d be willing to take the ultimate risk and shed blood. Irrationality ought to cut both ways.

Finally, the most troubling aspect about this debate is that proponents of NATO membership for Ukraine have not just displayed ignorance pertaining to inter-state risk, but also the political dynamics of Ukraine itself. To large swaths of Ukraine, NATO is the totemic symbol of Western imperialism, with polls showing a consistent (and growing) majority opposing membership. Given the precarious situation of the country it’s hard to think of anything more likely than NATO membership that could spark an internecine conflict and thus generate more regional instability than Russia’s incursion.

But there is also the all-important question of who in Kiev would sign off on membership? As things stand Ukraine’s deposed president is in Russia and it’s questionable whether Oleksandr Turchynov, the country’s interim head of state, has the authority to join the alliance. Without the will of the Ukrainian people and a democratically elected president, membership would resemble something akin to a NATO coup that could spark yet more unrest and destabilize the entire region.

The risks exposed by the Georgian debacle in 2008, and what is happening in Ukraine today, have not succeeded in giving pause to a vocal minority of national security professionals. Where their prescriptions fall short is not with regard to what they hope to achieve, but rather, what they are prepared to risk should a miscalculation occur. Let me help them: miscalculation in this instance risks a war between two or more nuclear powers that could fundamentally alter human history. It’s understandable that in such dire situations we in the West would search for a silver bullet. Such a move, however, could unleash an arsenal from the East.

Ewan Watt writes extensively on state and national issues in the US, covering the 2012 presidential election for both print and online publications. He writes strictly in a personal capacity. You can follow him on Twitter at @ewancwatt