By VICTOR RUD
Why did the most powerful military alliance in world history fail to prevent Russia’s 2014 invasion of Ukraine, and the expansion of the war last year? NATO comprises 31 (soon to be 32) countries representing more than half the world’s economy, including three nuclear powers. Russia’s population is less than half of America’s, and its economy is the size of New York City’s.
Russia’s war against Ukraine is now in its ninth year, trashing the “rules-based international order” we so valiantly fought for in the last century and since. It’s not just a war against a country (a) that in World War II paid the highest price in human lives of any nation in the world for that “order”; (b) whose independence in 1991 ensured the dissolution of the USSR, making America “great again”; (c) that we forced into giving up the world’s third-largest nuclear arsenal to Russia (and whose conventional weaponry, MANPADS included, we helped destroy); and (d) that is battling the same Kremlin that curated Islamic terrorism against America and the West. It’s also a war that is genocidal in its stated purpose, the bookend to Stalin’s own genocidal starvation of Ukraine in 1932-33.
In the face of it all, how is that failure remotely possible? Compare fifty-one NATO and allied nations (including Ukraine) in Afghanistan, and 35 coalition countries liberating Kuwait. NATO stopped the slaughter in Serbia. Look to our fear of “war with Russia,” “World War III,” and “nukes.”
At its Vilnius summit, fear underpinned NATO’s rejection (largely at our insistence) of Ukraine’s membership until (meaninglessly) “allies agree and conditions are met” — read “until the war ends.” Refusal was also the decision at the 2008 Bucharest summit (tossing Georgia’s membership, as well).
The same fear explains the refusal of NATO to act in accordance with its “original strategic concept which was committed to stop conflicts and wars threatening the security and stability of its member states.” And fear led NATO to tiptoe away from the kind of humanitarian intervention in Ukraine that it practiced in the past in non-NATO countries.
Fear is also behind our pipette titrating of military assistance to Ukraine, restrictions on how weapons are used, the push for negotiations and a settlement agreement.
The same fear fuels a dread of Ukrainian victory and Russian collapse. The paralytic drumbeat of Soviet “disintegration” and “implosion” also panicked Washington in 1991, even though we recouped our global primacy (then promptly squandered it). It’s also hypocritical, because Ukraine’s victory would redeem the “rules-based international order” that we have somberly
intoned for years and with which we hope, foolishly, to constrain China. Victory would save Ukraine’s existence as a nation.
Conceptually, concern about WWIII and Russia going nuclear is facially prudent. But prudence is also dangerously seductive, and in this case massively provocative.
We give Putin predictability. Having taken off the table the one thing Putin would not risk confronting — NATO intervention at any level — Putin is not afraid to “escalate.”
Our fear also guts mutual deterrence and disassembles NATO’s credibility about “defending every inch” of territory. Why wouldn’t we be afraid of WWIII and nukes in defending, say, Luxembourg, but not the largest country in Europe? Why are we self-deterred, but not Putin? Ukraine is doing NATO’s job for it, holding Russia at bay, but we’re afraid to accept its membership?
Further, why do we assess the risk and danger of “war with Russia” as greater than the certainty and danger of that fear institutionalizing nuclear blackmail? Lest we need a reminder, Putin wrote in 2013: “If you have the bomb, no one will touch you.”
If Putin is in fact deterred by NATO, given that he has not attacked a NATO member, why the concern that admitting Ukraine will ipso facto invite a new world war? Why wouldn’t the certainty of Ukraine’s membership stop Putin? Why were we not afraid of “war with Russia” by having boots on the ground and direct military operations in Syria, a Russian client, but are self-deterred in Ukraine? Indeed, in 2018, our fight with Russia’s Wagner Group in its attack against one of our bases in Syria led to no such conflagration. Nor did Turkey’s (a NATO member) earlier downing of a Russian SU-24 with an American-provided F-16.
Even worse, conditioning Ukraine’s NATO membership upon an end to the war licenses Russia not to end the war. “Today, only one country decides whether Ukraine will join NATO. That is Russia,” chortled a Russian Air Force blogger.
And how can that precondition coexist with the simultaneous demand that Ukraine negotiate a settlement agreement? Since that would satisfy the precondition for NATO membership (which we contend is Putin’s paramount fear), there never will be any “settlement agreement.”
Fearing that Ukraine’s membership would provoke Russia means we accept the hologram that Russia sees NATO as a threat. That’s reality reversal. If Russia succeeds in absorbing Ukraine, it would border four additional NATO members.
Periodic hissy fits aside, Russia has a history of not objecting to NATO. Recently, it countered Finland’s admission with a murmur. Putin plays the nuke and guilt cards well. He is, however, manifestly afraid of confronting NATO. Ask Ukraine, or Poland or the Baltic nations. Do we have more experience than they?
From whatever angle, fear of “war with Russia” feeds a mutilated logic that dissolves deterrence credibility and institutionalizes nuclear blackmail. It apparently never dawned on Washington that Ukraine’s membership would stymie Putin and better ensure against global war.
Getting it backwards is a habit. Our strategic sagacity on this issue is of the same genus as our surrender of our nuclear primacy, which Ukraine’s independence recouped for us after the fall of the USSR. Or as the assessment, by then–Assistant Secretary of Defense Graham Allison, that “Ukraine’s security problem will be solved once Ukraine gives up its nuclear arsenal.” Our destruction of Ukraine’s conventional weaponry also was “for the safety of the Ukrainian people,” urged then-Sen. Barack Obama in 2005. Seriously.
NATO’s first rejection of Ukraine’s NATO membership in 2008 was a promissory note of disaster that came due in 2014. The second installment will be worse.
Victor Rud is the chair of the Committee on Foreign Relations of the Ukrainian American Bar Association and a Senior Advisor at the Centre for Eastern European Democracy.