Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday moved Russia troops into the breakaway eastern Ukrainian territories of Donetsk and Luhansk after recognizing them as independent states on Monday and slamming Ukraine as illegitimately taken from Russia. With as many as 190,000 Russian troops now positioned at or over the border and the Russian parliament granting Putin the power to use troops abroad, the Kremlin has laid the groundwork for large-scale military action.
It’s abundantly clear that NATO members are unwilling to shed blood and possibly stumble into a war with a nuclear-armed Russia for Ukraine’s sake.
Meanwhile, the diplomatic track is holding on by a thread. Russia remains unimpressed with U.S. security proposals, even as it leaves the door open for more discussions. A rumored meeting between President Joe Biden and Putin hangs in the balance
Predictably, the U.S. responded to Russia’s moves Tuesday by continuing its strategy of coercion and deterrence to discourage Russia from conducting an all-out invasion: announcing further economic sanctions on Moscow, including certain Russian banks, and additional defensive arms for Kyiv.
Yet if the objective of these measures is to push Russia into withdrawing its military presence near the Ukrainian border, the strategy is obviously failing. Instead, we are now witnessing what could become the first salvos in a war that U.S. intelligence estimates could kill tens of thousands and create millions of refugees. The U.S. needs to take much more drastic action to stop the quickly accelerating military train before it races off the track.
Specifically, the U.S. needs to shut down the prospect of NATO extending membership to Ukraine. For Russia, sitting by as another neighboring state flirts with leaving the Russian orbit to become a permanent member of the West’s security order is inconceivable. Preventing such a scenario from happening in what Russia views as its near-abroad, especially after watching NATO nearly double in size since the fall of the Berlin Wall, is perhaps the most urgent Russian national security priority today. (Just as the U.S. would never countenance Russia trying to form a military alliance with Mexico.)
Russia has a lot at stake in this crisis, and it would be a major mistake if the U.S. underestimated the length to which Moscow is willing to go to maintain what is left of its sphere of influence. While taking NATO membership off the table seems anathema to many in the West, it is merely an acknowledgement of the reality in front of us: Ukraine is not a suitable candidate for NATO membership and likely never will be. Even Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy recognizes that Kyiv’s NATO aspirations are a “dream.”
Indeed, ending the fiction that Ukraine could join NATO is not so much a capitulation to Russian demands as it is a reflection of the alliance’s own dynamics going back as far as 2008, when the group rejected President George W. Bush’s attempt to extend the NATO security umbrella to Ukraine (and fellow former Soviet republic Georgia). As a compromise, the alliance declared that both nations “will become members of NATO” at some unspecified future date. The central tenet of NATO is that an attack on one is an attack on all, with members of the alliance promising to come to one another's aid and defense if requested; it’s abundantly clear that NATO members are unwilling to shed blood and possibly stumble into a war with a nuclear-armed Russia for Ukraine’s sake.
Ultimately, it’s up to NATO members to determine which states get to join the alliance. But it’s important to note that even Ukrainians themselves are divided on the question. While a survey this month put Ukrainian support for potential NATO membership at 56 percent, the numbers are in the low 30s in the south of the country and at 40 percent in the east. Previous Ukrainian presidents have aspired to join NATO only to reassess because of Russian pressure, a desire to improve bilateral ties with Moscow or a recognition that a bid was unrealistic.
The U.S. and NATO are treading on dangerous ground, choosing to defend this empty dream even though it risks a war. This is not only reckless, but morally repugnant, for such a position sentences millions of Ukrainians to the worst scenario: a deadly, ugly Russian military onslaught it doesn’t have the capacity to stop.
And it is fantasy to think the package of financial sanctions and military assistance on offer to Ukraine will dent Putin’s goals. Biden signed an executive order on Monday banning U.S. imports and exports to the separatist areas, as well as blocking the assets of separatist officials. On Tuesday the European Union targeted sanctions at 27 Russian individuals, entities and companies, and all of the Russian lawmakers who voted to approve of Putin’s recognition push. And in a speech at the White House later in the day, Biden unveiled a larger set of financial measures aimed at cutting off Russia’s ability to raise money in the West and freezing the assets of several oligarchs close to Putin.
But the Kremlin most likely has been expecting the U.S. response to include stronger economic sanctions, which means Putin’s government may be better prepared for them. Putin knows that the harshest possible sanctions the U.S. and its European allies could take – kicking Moscow out of the SWIFT banking system – is not an option given the blowback it would mean for Europe’s own economies. Russia’s $630 billion in foreign reserves could also cushion any sanctions Washington and Europe implement, at least for a time.
Similarly, improving Ukraine’s defenses is unlikely to change Russia’s calculus. Since reports emerged of a Russian troop buildup near Ukraine’s border, Washington has flown planeloads of military equipment into Ukraine, including anti-tank and bunker-buster missiles, ammunition and artillery shells, signaling to Moscow that military action would be a costly endeavor.
While it’s true the Ukrainian army is far superior to what it was in 2014, when the earlier round of war with Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine broke out, it’s also true that Russia holds an overwhelming military advantage on land and sea, and in the air and cyberspace. Russia would be bloodied if it chooses a full-scale invasion and occupation of Ukraine, but any resistance Kyiv could muster would at best slow what would be an inevitable Russian military victory.
Sovereignty and territorial integrity matter, as Biden eloquently stated in a speech on Ukraine this month. But so do geography, power and self-interest. Washington and Brussels need to be honest about the current realities on the ground and wake Ukraine up from its dream of NATO inclusion once and for all.
If that cold, hard truth is too much for the alliance to support, a temporary moratorium on the discussion of possible membership would preserve the option for the future, de-escalate the situation and provide the U.S., Europe and Russia with an opportunity to embark on a longer, more comprehensive discussion about a new European security order. Such a discussion is simply impossible in the current tension-filled environment.
Ultimately, stemming a war at the low cost of acknowledging reality is a better outcome than risking a war for the sake of principle.