Robert E. Hunter served as US Ambassador to NATO and as chief White House official for Europe and the Middle East. He was Senior International Consultant to Lockheed-Martin from 1998 - 2013. He has written speeches for three US presidents and three vice presidents and provides coaching in strategic planning, political and executive communications and media handling.
Ukraine will not join NATO — not now, and most probably not ever. Even continuing to float the idea has immediate negative consequences.
This is a basic fact, for at least one reason: Joining NATO takes the agreement of all 31 current alliance members — a consensus. Several, including France and Germany, say that they will never agree. The reasoning is that under Article 5 of the 1949 NATO Treaty, “The Parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them … shall be considered an attack against them all, and consequently they agree that … if such an armed attack occurs, each of them will assist the Party or Parties so attacked by taking forthwith, individually and in concert with the other Parties, such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force… .”
Thus, under today’s circumstances, if Ukraine were a member of NATO, the Alliance — including the United States — would be formally at war with Russia and not just in today’s “indirect” or “proxy” war. More consequently, allies would be under heavy moral/political, if not legal, pressures (“as it deems necessary”) to become far more engaged militarily against Russia than now. That would apply especially to the United States, the sine qua non of everything that NATO stands for, and to whom all NATO allies always look for leadership in dealing with Moscow.
Thus, if the United States failed to pursue direct military conflict with Russia, countering Moscow’s seizure of all of Ukraine’s occupied territories (as a NATO ally protected by Article 5), the credibility of U.S. guarantees to other NATO allies would come into question; and so would the credibility of U.S. commitments to allies elsewhere, notably in Asia. Further, the Biden administration would have to abandon its calibrated policy of trying to reduce risks of major escalation of the conflict, with unforeseen but dangerous consequences. Thus, the U.S. and others are providing Ukraine with enough military support so that it does not lose more territory and can contain Russian advances — but apparently not enough to enable Kyiv, say, to try to recover the Crimean peninsula or make major military attacks into Russia itself.
It is precisely this logic that leads President Volodymyr Zelenskyy — and who can blame him? — to press for an early decision on Ukrainian membership in NATO: to require the West to provide far greater military support and to make a moral/political/strategic commitment to recovering all of occupied Ukrainian territory. It is also the logic that is leading several allies to try “slow-rolling” the effort to bring Ukraine into NATO. In recent weeks, the Biden administration also appears to have begun having second thoughts about the commitment that the George W. Bush administration (and thus, NATO) made at an Alliance summit in 2008, that “Ukraine and Georgia will become members of NATO” — a pledge that four U.S. administrations (and thus, NATO) have continued to make, likely with little, if any, reflection on the implications.
All of this is happening against a much broader geopolitical landscape. In 1989, President George H.W. Bush declared a new grand strategy of a “Europe whole and free” and at peace. President Bill Clinton followed suit; I was key negotiator for Clinton as his ambassador to NATO. The concern was to avoid humiliating the Soviet Union (Russia) for losing the Cold War and disintegrating. The precedent feared in Washington and in key European capitals was the War Guilt Clause in the 1919 Treaty of Versailles, requiring that Germany take full responsibility for World War I. That clause was exploited by Adolf Hitler to provoke German revenge. The U.S. insight, supported by allies, was to try avoiding Russian revanche. It was largely working until about the end of the 1990s, when those in the U.S. government who understood the grand strategic goal were replaced by people who saw no point in recognizing Russia’s eventual return to great power status — a failure of historical and political imagination of stupendous significance.
Vladimir Putin’s aggression against Ukraine, coupled with atrocities committed by Russian soldiers and Wagner Group mercenaries, is of far greater import than all else that has happened in the last two decades. But Putin’s aggression against Ukraine did not happen “out of the clear blue sky.” Perhaps he always had the idea of trying to reconstitute the old Soviet Union, or at least what he argues is the historic unity between Russia and Ukraine, a highly debatable proposition.
But the West, led by the United States, was unwittingly active in fueling Putin’s domestic political propaganda machine, by systematic actions that gave credence to Putin’s argument that the U.S. was humiliating a weakened Russia and using NATO to surround it. In many Russian eyes, the latter has been demonstrated by the extent of NATO enlargement to countries from the old Warsaw Pact, plus denying the requirement for overall European security that Ukraine must not be aligned militarily either with NATO or Russia — as, even long after the end of the Cold War, the United States continues isolating Cuba.
Further, the U.S. abrogated the 1972 U.S-Soviet Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, citing Russian violations in the latter case. It deployed anti-ballistic missiles in former Soviet satellite states. Worse still, a 2014 US Phone Call involving an assistant secretary of State, about countering Russian influence, was leaked a few weeks before Putin invaded Crimea that year; he cited a pending “U.S. coup” as his excuse.
Perhaps it was never possible to reach any practical agreement with Russia on the future of European security; perhaps Putin and other Russians who share his view of Russia’s destiny — maybe a majority of the population — could also never be reconciled to anything less than equal status with the United States. But that possibility may now be dead. Both sides share measures of responsibility, with the relative degree being debated by each side — though nothing can justify Putin’s invasion and the atrocities that have followed.
The United States now seems to have bought fully into the view that began to dominate in the late 1990s that Russia should (and could) be kept weak. But unless Russia develops in ways that are at odds with its history and inherent capacities, beginning with geography but extending to other abilities, confidence that Russia will be a long-term failure is more hope than analysis.
We need to recognize something else: that solidification on both sides of a new cold war — hopefully not an open hot war — will impose costs not just on Russia but also on the United States. This incipient cold war will usher in a new era of rigidities of thinking and politics that will be hard to move beyond in the future. It will require the United States to continue leading in the containment of Russia, with major U.S. force deployments in Europe. Among other things, that means fewer resources and less time and intellectual/political energy for the U.S. to deal with other challenges, notably the rise of China.
The better part of wisdom, therefore, is for the United States, beginning at the impending NATO summit in Vilnius in July, to start backing away from — or at least, clearly temporizing on — the commitment to bring Ukraine into NATO. We also should start discussing quietly with allies the post-war security aspirations for Europe — as the United States and others did during the Second World War — and to fashion, even if in pectore for now, negotiating possibilities for ending the Russia-Ukraine war. There is one possible model, the so-called Minsk II Agreement of 2015, in which Ukraine would regain sovereignty over all its territory, but areas of the country with predominantly Russian speakers and adherents of Russian culture would have a major measure of autonomy. Both Russia and Ukraine have violated the Minsk II Agreement.
An old saying is that “wars eventually end.” The Biden administration — and hence, NATO — must start thinking about what that could mean with regard to Ukraine, and particularly to Russia’s possible future role with regard to Europe. So far, there is no evidence that the administration is doing so; it appears to be betting instead that Russia will remain weak for many years to come.
In addition to pledging to bolster NATO defenses and agreeing to provide more weapons to Ukraine, the Vilnius summit can either be a start of thinking about the future, or the locking in of a new cold war. Either way, further steps toward Ukraine’s joining NATO would help foreclose possibilities for the future and make overall matters worse.
This article was first published in The Messenger on 8 June 2023 and is reprinted with their kind permission and that of the author Securing Ukraine’s Future: In NATO? - The Messenger