Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), in a letter to the Biden administration this week, made the case that the United States should renounce the possibility of Ukraine eventually joining NATO to avoid a confrontation with Russia. The commentary has predictably been attacked by the usual suspects, but Hawley’s basic insight — that Ukraine should not be part of NATO — is sound, even if he’s wrong about whether the United States should say so publicly.
Ukraine’s predicament tugs at the hearts of anyone who loves freedom. The nation is trying valiantly to remain out of the grips of an authoritarian ruler. Ukraine’s own history under Soviet rule is also relevant. It was conquered by Bolshevik forces during the Russian Civil War and lost millions of its own citizens under a Soviet-directed mass famine that Ukrainians call the Holodomor. Who doesn’t want to come to the aid of a plucky nation trying to remain free?
The problem with Ukraine joining NATO, however, is the flip side of its predicament. Russian President Vladimir Putin believes that allowing a large former Soviet republic to join the Western alliance would inspire human rights groups to organize in his own country, providing what he considers a pretext for calls for regime change. He has seen the other nations’ “color revolutions,” whereby citizens who yearn to be free are first funded and then tacitly supported by the West. The 2004 Orange Revolution in Ukraine, in which Western pressure forced a re-vote in that country’s election and brought a pro-Western president to office, may have faded from Western memories, but it remains vivid to Putin.
There’s also the deep historical intertwining of Ukraine and Russia that makes NATO expansion there much more provocative than in other formerly Soviet-controlled lands. The first major Russian state was actually Kievan Rus, a medieval federation ruled from Kiev, now Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine. The Orthodox Church was introduced to Russia by Kievan Rus, making Kiev the font of Russian Christianity.
The Mongol conquest severed this unity, along with Polish incursions in what is now western Ukraine. But Russian foreign policy since Moscow’s overthrow of Mongol rule in the 15th century has always included the reconquest of Ukraine as a primary objective. In that sense, when Putin characterizes Ukraine as an indissoluble part of a Russian state, he is acting as all Russian leaders have since that time.
Expanding NATO to include Ukraine, therefore, would essentially be a declaration of war on Russia, in Putin’s eyes. The Ukrainian people’s sentiments are irrelevant to this calculation.
The United States must ask itself whether such a risk is worth it, even if war would not immediately ensue. It is not. U.S. security depends on NATO remaining solid and preventing Russian domination of the European Union. Including Ukraine in what is, at heart, an anti-Russia alliance is not necessary to NATO’s success. In fact, it could make it weaker.
But this does not mean the United States should renounce NATO’s power to admit Ukraine if it sees fit. Doing so would establish a dangerous precedent. It would show Putin that NATO’s internal policies can be manipulated and changed by the threat of war, which Putin would no doubt push to its limits. That would likely include demands to remove NATO troops from member states that border Russia, as Putin has insisted. This would prevent U.S. troops from being stationed in Poland because of Russia’s ownership of a slice of the former East Prussia, now known as the Kaliningrad Oblast, which would surrender NATO’s ability to defend its new East European members from further Russian pressure.
This is why those members desperately want U.S. troops, even a tiny number, stationed on their borders. They know Russian history as well as Putin, and they know that Russia has always tried to conquer or dominate Eastern Europe once its position in Central Asia and Ukraine is secure. Their security depends on keeping Russia busy at home while securing NATO — and most importantly, American — backing.
The United States can withstand a resurgent Russia, even one allied with a surging China, so long as those nations remain bottled up on the central Eurasian continent. Preventing that expansion without war is the primary imperative of a modern U.S. foreign policy. The goal should be to keep Russia out of Ukraine without putting NATO in it or compromising NATO’s maneuverability over it.
This is the right tactic to pursue, difficult as it will be to pull off.