As Ukraine continues to push for NATO membership, Russia says Kyiv joining the Western alliance would be a “red line” for Moscow. An ominous Russian troop buildup near the Ukraine border indicates Vladimir Putin might not be bluffing. Before further consideration of extending NATO’s Article 5 security guarantee to Ukraine, however, Washington needs to carefully weigh what is at stake for American security and prosperity.
Bottom line: that discussion needs to center on the folly of willingly stepping into border disputes between nations that have shown a willingness to use force on each other. Extending NATO membership to either Ukraine or Georgia is a disaster-in-the-making for the United States and should resolutely be avoided.
Much of the discussion among Washington’s establishment figures has centered on the risk to Ukraine of an eventual all-out Russian invasion to capture the entire country. NATO membership, some argue, is “the fastest path to restoring peace in Ukraine.”
Others suggest that “Georgia’s democratic development and pro-Western stance could wither without more political, economic, and security support from the West,” and thus recommend Tbilisi also deserves NATO membership. But these arguments rest on flawed assumptions, or more pointedly, insufficient focus on the factors that matter most to the United States.
First, such contentions assume that extending NATO membership will deter Russia from further territorial ambitions against either Ukraine or Georgia. The far more likely case is that it will incentivize Russia to seize one or both countries. It’s not hard to understand why.
Americans don’t have to like Russia and especially don’t have to agree with Moscow’s rationale for its foreign policy. But, to give us the best chance of making sound policy decisions of our own, it is essential to understand how Moscow views the situation. The Russians are no less likely to react with grave apprehension to an advance of the Western military alliance to their borders any less than we would if either Russia or China made a military alliance with Mexico or Cuba.
Further, it’s not simply that both Georgia and Ukraine have a contentious history with Russia. The Kremlin has already inflicted military blows on both countries and still has Russian troops occupying parts of Georgian territory and more than 100,000 troops near the border of Ukraine. Putin reiterated recently that any NATO expansion into Ukraine would be crossing a “red line,” resulting in unspecified consequences.
The implications should be crystal clear: If Mr. Putin has already resorted to force on both bordering countries, the likelihood of the Kremlin applying even more force against those same countries increases significantly if NATO advances to the literal border of Russia. And if either Ukraine or Georgia came to blows with Russia after membership was granted, Article 5 would likely suck the U.S. into a devastating war it neither wants nor needs.
Second, and perhaps more importantly, advocates of extending NATO membership to Ukraine and Georgia have failed to present any plausible benefit to the United States for the tremendous risk we would incur. When the United States originally joined the NATO alliance, it made sense because the United States, along with Western Europe, were all at risk from the USSR, and the requirement that European armies would come to our aid in the event of a clash was a real benefit to our country.
Today, there is no such potential security benefit for the U.S. by adding two unstable countries directly adjacent to Russia. Just months ago, tensions over the border almost brought Moscow and Kyiv to the brink of open war.
Relations between Washington and Moscow are probably worse today than at any time since the end of the Cold War. There are frequent demonstrations of military power by both the U.S. and Russia against each other on the ground, in the air, and at sea, any one of which could unexpectedly go sideways, spiraling out of control and into war. The last thing the U.S. needs to do is add more potential for conflict by adding Ukraine or Georgia into NATO. Their border disputes with Moscow are not worth the ultimate sacrifice of American service members.
• Daniel L. Davis is a Senior Fellow for Defense Priorities and a former Lt. Col. in the U.S. Army who deployed into combat zones four times. He is the author of “The Eleventh Hour in 2020 America.” Follow him @DanielLDavis1