On December 3, the Washington Post reported that U.S. intelligence indicated that Russia was planning a potential military invasion of Ukraine as soon as early 2022. This intelligence report came after a buildup of Russian troops on its border with Ukraine over the past month. Relations between the Russia and the United States and its European allies continue to deteriorate because of Western concerns that Russia will invade Ukraine and Russian demands that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) not expand eastward.
Max Boot, in a recent Council on Foreign Relations op -ed, wrote that “the most powerful deterrent in the West’s arsenal is NATO membership.” In 2008, NATO stated that Ukraine would become a member. However, Ukraine is no closer to joining the alliance today than it was in 2008.
In The Past
Ukraine has long been a sticking point between Russia and the West. After independence in 1991, Ukraine attempted to forge its own independent path, separate from Russia and its Soviet past. As part of its independent path, Ukraine looked to the West, with goals of joining the European Union and, specifically, NATO. In 2008, NATO essentially promised membership to Ukraine and Georgia, another country that Russia wants to keep away from the West. Russia, which shares deep cultural, historic, and political ties to Ukraine, has done what it can over the past three decades to thwart Ukraine’s Western ambitions, as Russia sees Ukraine as “central to [its] identity” and feels threatened when Ukraine expressed interest in joining Western institutions.
In 2014, Russian invaded Ukraine, annexing Crimea, a province coveted as an important part of the Russian empire, and arming separatist in the Donbas region in southeastern Ukraine. Some analysts believe that it was NATO’s post-Cold War enlargement that pushed Russia to invade, fearing its former satellite might be the next candidate for membership. Others posit that the most significant factor behind Russia’s invasion was Putin’s apprehension of losing power domestically. Whatever the reason, Russia’s intervention raised the alarm in Washington and in capitals across Europe.
Russian leaders, including Mr. Putin, made no efforts to hide their disgust for NATO expansion into the former Soviet Union satellite states. In the 1990s, after the end of the Cold War, many of the former Soviet satellite states in Central and Eastern Europe were eager to join the West, viewing NATO as a way toward democratization, stability, and prosperity. In 1999, NATO welcomed three former Soviet states: Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic. A few short years later, seven other former Soviet states joined the alliance, including the three Baltic countries of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. The expansion drew Russia’s ire, cementing its hatred of future NATO expansion into the region Russia sees as its sphere of influence.
This frustration came to a head over the course of the past week. Mr. Putin demanded that the United States and the rest of its NATO allies guarantee that the that any further expansion will not include Ukraine or Georgia. For months, Mr. Putin has railed against U.S. and allied military activities in Ukraine, labeling them as crossing a red line. Mr. Putting went as far in trying to secure “legal guarantees” that the NATO alliance would not expand eastward.
NATO Says No Way
The United States reacted with strong rhetoric but also a degree of ambiguity. U.S. officials stress that Mr. Putin’s intentions are murky, and that an attack is not imminent. Yet, Secretary Blinken, who traveled to Latvia and Sweden for to attend NATO and Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) meetings promised “severe consequences” should Russia indeed invade.
Limiting the further expansion of NATO is a non-starter for the alliance. In response to Mr. Putin’s absurd request, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg confirmed that “Russia has no veto, Russia has no say…” He continued, “It’s only Ukraine and the 30 NATO allies that decide when Ukraine is ready to join NATO.” While the United States and its European allies within NATO continue to assert that it is up to Ukraine and NATO, not Russia, to decide if and when Ukraine joins NATO, the question then becomes whether it will actually happen?
Ukraine Is Not Likely to Join NATO Any Time Soon
In June, the NATO summit ended with the alliance signing a joint communique that reaffirmed Ukraine’s potential membership. Ukraine, however, wishes that its membership was in the near future. As a result of Russia’s recent military buildup along its border, Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky is pushing both the Biden administration and NATO to specify a timeline for membership. He has been met with tentative statements, which only further empowers Russia’s claims over Ukraine.
While accession in NATO is at the top of Zelensky’s political to do list, encouraged by NATO’s public but elusive promises of membership, Western officials admit that the likelihood of Ukraine joining NATO in the foreseeable future is quite improbable. For one, there is no consensus among alliance members about the severity of confrontation with Russia. Mr. Putin’s invasion of Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014 dampened any excitement of NATO members to welcome Ukraine into the fold, not wanting to admit a country already locked into a fight with Russia since they too would be drawn in.
Beyond NATO’s concerns about Russia, NATO members also agree that Ukraine is not ready to join. When asked over the summer about when Ukraine might expect to join NATO, President Biden noted that the former Soviet state still needed to root out corruption before it could become a full member. Ukraine is no closer to becoming a NATO member now than it was in 2008 and likely will not become a member any time soon.