Ukraine Is Unlikely To Become a NATO Member Any Time Soon

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 Demands

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.

Is American Really Back? That’s What America’s European Allies Would Like to Know

America is back,” claimed U.S. President Joe Biden in his first foreign policy speech after taking office after four tumultuous years of a Trump presidency. “We will repair our alliances and engage with the world once again,” he pledged in his inaugural address in January. Secretary of State Antony Blinken echoed these promises in a speech in March, noting that the United States was working tirelessly to “reconnect with our friends and allies, and to reinvent partnerships.” Based on rhetoric alone, the Biden administration’s intentions to repair the damaged relationships with its allies, particularly those in Europe, were unmistakable.

While the United States reasserts its return to diplomacy and reiterates the importance of its alliances, it is unclear whether these laudable yet ambitious pieces of rhetoric are actionable or only a pipe dream. In Europe’s eyes, the Biden administration got a lot right at the beginning of his presidency. Yet, in a year that seems to involve crisis after crisis in trans-Atlantic relations – including the messy U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and the inept handling of the AUKUS announcement –America’s European allies are questioning the United States’ sincerity. In the eyes of its European allies, is America indeed back? That still remains to be seen.

Is Europe Getting Left Behind?

The United States’ messy withdrawal from Afghanistan and the subsequent collapse of the Afghan government to the Taliban in August is one example of why Europe is questioning whether America is actually back. With little consultation or communication, the United States “dragged its NATO allies into an embarrassing mess that they had warned against,” one that likely could have been avoided. The withdrawal triggered an age-old insecurity for Europe – wondering whether the United States was leaving Europe behind. This has led Europe to ponder whether it should invoke a strategic autonomy tactic most often championed by France. Mr. Biden, who promised to reset relations with American allies, came close to squandering the excitement and relief felt by European allies after he won the 2020 election as Europe is now coming to terms with the fact that they may never truly be able to rely on the United States for its security.

Is Washington Retreating from Europe?

The United States blindsided its European allies with the announcement of a formal alliance between the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia in September. To the United States, this was simply about deepening relationships with allies in its effort to counter China, a lynchpin of the Biden administration’s foreign policy. The announcement of the nuclear submarine pact caused confusion and disappointment in Europe. This is particularly true for France, the one European nation most directly impacted by the pact as Australia cancelled a $66 million submarine deal with France. France, naturally, reacted in anger, temporarily withdrawing its ambassadors from both Washington and Canberra, and cancelling a gala in Washington to celebrate the friendship between the U.S. and France. While France and the United States have largely reconciled, the abrupt nature of the AUKUS deal – which President Biden acknowledged was “clumsy” – caused some concern for America’s European allies since the root of Europe’s disappointment about the AUKUS deal is the fear that the United States is retreating from Europe – the central focus of U.S. foreign policy during the Cold War – in favor for the Indo-Pacific region.

Great Power Rivalry Rears Its Ugly Head

The United States and its allies in Europe perceive the threats posed by China and Russia differently. President Biden has labeled China as the world’s “greatest geopolitical threat” of this century. As a result, he has re-shifted U.S. foreign policy toward the Indo-Pacific with the aim of countering China. The United States would prefer its European partners be part of its. Yet, Europe does not view China with the same level of alarm. Europe, as the French Finance Minister recently noted, wants to engage China as Europe is weary about of damaging the continent’s economic ties to the growing economic giant, though European sentiment may be changing.

Similarly, the United States and its European allies maintain disparate views on the threat posed by Russia as some in Europe – especially those in Central and Eastern Europe –believe the U.S. will not support its allies in the region in favor of improved relations with Russia. The United States’ decision not to sanction the German company overseeing the Russian-built Nord Stream 2 pipeline in favor of maintaining good relations with Germany only reinforced this fear. Just this week, Belarus, a Russian ally, weaponized migration by luring desperate Middle Eastern migrants to the Poland-Belarus border in an effort to force the EU to lift sanctions imposed against Belarus. Moreover, the recent buildup of Russian forces along its border with Ukraine has also alarmed the U.S. and its allies in Europe. To Europe, the United States’ myopic view to the threat posed by Russia is quite frustrating, though it seems that the United States may becoming more attuned to the threat.

Europe Is Right to Be Wary of the United States’ Reliability

The Biden administration came into office in January with promises to repair America’s relationships with its allies. However, several events as well as different threat perspectives are causing Europe to question the United States’ sincerity. Whether the U.S. is back remains to be seen, but the time has come for the Biden administration to review its policies toward Europe and assess whether the United States is doing what it can to reassure its European allies that the United States is back after four years of the turbulent Trump administration and an inconsistent first year in office.