NATO Should Be Honest With Kiev

NATO Should Be Honest With Kiev

Leading the Ukrainians down the garden path does nothing to foster peace in Eastern Europe.

France’s President Emmanuel Macron once preached about the dangers of humiliating Russia in its war in Ukraine. Now he’s trying to cement himself as Europe’s preeminent Russia hawk. During a recent 20-country meeting in Paris that aimed to consolidate the West’s support for Kiev, Macron generated headlines by suggesting that European troop deployments to Ukraine shouldn’t be ruled out. He doubled down about a week later, emphasizing that Ukraine’s allies in Ukraine couldn’t afford to be “cowardly” in the face of Russian aggression.    

Macron’s initial comments caused a firestorm in Europe. For many, the French president’s proposition was a non-starter. Poland’s prime minister, Donald Tusk, rejected the idea. Germany’s Chancellor Olaf Scholtz stated bluntly that “there will be no ground troops, no soldiers on Ukrainian soil” from NATO or the European Union. The Biden administration reiterated that there are no plans to deploy the U.S. military to Ukraine.

The aspiring leader of Europe wanted to send Russian President Vladimir Putin a message of strength: A Ukrainian victory is of such strategic importance that the West will do whatever is necessary to achieve it. But in reality, Macron and the pushback he received inadvertently delivered the opposite: Ukraine’s success isn’t so important to the West after all, particularly if it could bring the U.S. and Europe into a direct conflict with Russia, the world’s largest nuclear weapons power. The entire kerfuffle demonstrates just how hollow NATO’s perpetual open-door policy to Ukraine is, and why it’s far past time to bolt the door shut.

Ukraine has long viewed NATO membership as a top foreign policy priority. Even before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, the Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky pressed the matter with the Biden administration. Once the war kicked off, NATO membership was more urgent for the Ukrainians; in September 2022, Zelensky formally submitted an application to NATO, and the alliance agreed to accelerate what is typically a years-long review process. Kiev’s campaign has persisted ever since, a journey which has no doubt been frustrating for Zelensky. During the 2023 NATO heads-of-state summit, Zelensky went so far as to lash out at the Alliance’s reluctance in giving Ukraine a firm entry date.

It’s easy to see why Zelensky was upset. True or not, he remains convinced that Putin wouldn’t have dared launch his invasion if Ukraine had already been under the NATO umbrella, which includes a military superpower and three nuclear states. Zelensky also believes that NATO is Kiev’s best deterrent to another Russian attack in the future. You can’t fault the Ukrainian president for any of this. 

The United States and its NATO allies, however, can and should be faulted for keeping the possibility of membership on life support for so long. Washington and Brussels have treated Ukraine like a hamster on a wheel. The carrot of NATO membership has dangled in front of Kiev, seemingly in view but in reality out of reach. Instead of being honest with Ukraine—the West has no desire whatsoever to get into a war with Russia on Ukraine’s behalf—it chooses to keep Ukraine’s hopes alive through a combination of rhetorical gymnastics, hand-holding, and virtue signaling. 

While NATO members, both individually and through the alliance, are undoubtedly Ukraine’s biggest military backers, the last two years of war have shown that this support has strict limits. The Biden administration has reiterated on countless occasions that U.S. weapons sent to Ukraine must not be used against Russian targets on Russian soil; quickly dismissed calls for a No Fly Zone over Ukraine early on in the conflict, lest U.S. and Russian fighter pilots begin shooting at one another; stressed that a direct clash between U.S. and Russian forces will be avoided to the maximum extent; and modified the pace of weapons deliveries to Kyiv to decrease the probability of Russian escalation. Washington isn’t alone. Germany’s government continues to withhold the long-range Taurus cruise missile from Kiev over escalation concerns—a position backed by the Bundestag.

Ukraine, of course, isn’t a NATO member, so the Alliance has no obligation to defend it. But given NATO’s refusal to enter the war directly today, where combat with Russia would be deadly and immediate, it’s difficult to see why Putin would believe NATO would do so if Ukraine was brought into the alliance after the war was over. NATO membership entails serious, consequential commitments to those countries in the club, up to and including a willingness to escalate to the nuclear level—and fight a nuclear war—in order to defend the sovereignty and territorial integrity of its members. Can we say with enough certainty that the U.S., Germany, the United Kingdom, and France would risk their own national security to save Kiev? And knowing the lengths to which NATO has gone to avoid a clash with Russia, would Putin find such a threat credible in the first place?

Deterrence isn’t magic. It needs to be backed up by sufficient military capabilities, seriousness of purpose, and an assurance that NATO’s full weight will be brought to bear on an adversary if absolutely necessary. If any of these ingredients are missing, then deterrence will fail. Macron’s remarks, and the uproar it caused, only adds further doubt in Putin’s mind that any NATO defense guarantee to Ukraine would be credible.

If NATO is unwilling to fight for Ukraine today, it’s unlikely it will be willing to do so tomorrow. Putin knows that. Closing NATO’s open door will ensure that Ukraine does too. 

The post NATO Should Be Honest With Kiev appeared first on The American Conservative.

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