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Benjamin H. Friedman is Policy Director at Defense Priorities. Christopher McCallion is a Senior Security Advisor.
At this week’s NATO summit in Vilnius, the alliance also veered off course by calling for Ukraine to join in the future, while refusing to join in the near future. Ukraine and its staunch allies, meanwhile, want the alliance to offer membership, or a clear path forward.
Conservative leaders, such as French President Emmanuel Macron, have provided giving Kyiv vaguer security guarantees instead – meaning some kind of promise to defend Ukraine if attacked. And even to say that Ukraine is not ready to be included in NATO, the President of the United States Joe Biden insists on keeping the door open for its membership in the future.
All these ideas are very wrong. The US should not offer Ukraine security guarantees of any kind – and not NATO membership – now or after the war.
The case for providing protection to Ukraine seems simple: Russia attacked Ukraine when it lacked alliance protection, and did not attack NATO. But simple as it is, this argument fails for several reasons.
First, it fails to consider that promises to protect Ukraine do not benefit America’s security, and can be disruptive. It also ignores how Washington’s lack of interest in protecting Ukraine – demonstrated by its refusal to participate in the current war – could make it difficult for Moscow to believe that the US will act in the future. And finally, it loses sight of how the West’s preoccupation with defending Ukraine contributed to Russia’s decision to attack in the first place.
Extending security guarantees to Ukraine would create the worst situation in the world: The country could think it has security when it lacks it, and could remain a target for Russia because of this false security. This could lead to a future war, putting both Ukraine and the US at risk
The simple reason why the US should not make security guarantees is that they are unnecessarily vulnerable. NATO membership, or US security guarantees, focuses on the risk of war with Russia instead of Ukraine. This means threatening to start a nuclear war that would be suicidal for all who are, in fact, interested in the environment – and in exchange for taking such a big risk, the US will gain nothing.
We are often told that protecting Ukraine is important for the security of the US or Europe, either because its defeat would increase Russian aggression, or because its defeat would undermine the culture of integrity – the sanctity of sovereignty – that keeps the country stable.
Nothing to say is remotely compelling.
The idea that Russia will use Ukraine to destroy Europe is often opposed by Europeans to strengthen their security – not the US.
The principle of regional integrity, meanwhile, is not so fragile that the US must protect Ukraine. Russia has been punished so severely for its aggression that few would be foolish enough to follow its example. Instead, it has issued something akin to a global service announcement about the dangers of violence.
The US and its NATO allies have so far refrained from fighting in Ukraine precisely because they are not interested in risking a nuclear war, and this makes it unlikely that the US will come to Ukraine’s defense in the future. As a result, there is little that the US and its NATO allies can do, or will do, to ensure its security – whatever they say. Such threats, even if presented as NATO membership, are not credible. And even if they give Russia a break, they will be unsatisfactory and will not act as a deterrent.
Realistic horrors of fighting and dying it is not created and pieces of paper or bluff. They are made up of the most important things and the ability to act.
Because the Cold War has remained cold, many seem to forget that the US pledged to protect European countries like West Germany – which was more important to its security than Ukraine – had credibility problems. Definite damage means asking the question whether the American president would really sell New York to Berlin. In the west analysts worked and various strategies and theories to answer this question without success. It was their self-control that prevented them from answering in the affirmative.
Today, it is impossible to see how Washington would commit such suicide in Ukraine. Furthermore, making empty threats would only remind Russia that US commitments, such as the Baltics, are also questionable.
What Ukraine wants from Vilnius is to receive real security guarantees, but what it can get is false, which would be worse than nothing. This will keep Ukraine a target. The war is proof of this, because it seems unlikely that this conflict would have happened without Russia’s belief that Ukraine was on the way to a security alliance with NATO, breaking the “bright lines,” as CIA Director Bill Burns said when the US. Ambassador to Ukraine.
Of course, saying this does not excuse Russia’s aggression, but it makes it possible to repeat it again and again – if the West repeats its policy of opening the door to attack Ukraine one day. Russia may not really believe that such protection will be real, but it may see it as a threat to its interests, especially if NATO troops or infrastructure are sent to Ukrainian territory.
In addition, the prospect of Ukraine joining NATO, or obtaining future assurances of some kind, would encourage Russia to continue the war. Instead, giving security guarantees now would be worse, forcing the US to renege on its commitments and disrupt another deal, or to go to war with Ukraine and start a nuclear crisis.
A more sustainable approach, instead, would be to make Ukraine a porcupine rather than a protectorate.
Despite its reluctance to fight in Ukraine, the US has shown great interest in having weapons. Washington should continue this military support while agreeing to withdraw Ukraine from NATO, making Ukraine neutral.
That would be the best way to address Kyiv’s security concerns for Moscow, as well as Moscow’s security concerns with NATO – all of which, like it or not, are necessary for a lasting peace. Ukraine has already demonstrated its ability to use Western military equipment and training to outspend the Russian military. Ukraine’s neutrality will remain among the most powerful military forces in Europe.
Having shown that it will not go to war in Ukraine, the US can no longer promise to do so – even through NATO. Therefore, instead of empty promises, which have not taken action in Ukraine, Washington should continue to provide the assistance that it has been providing generously. When it comes to confronting Russia, Ukraine has no choice but to defend itself, and it has already proven that it can do well without false assurances.