Russia Is Watching: Why NATO Must Welcome Ukraine and Georgia

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Anything short of full NATO membership for Georgia and Ukraine with immediate enforcement of the defense of these countries would only stimulate Russia to act even more aggressively against them.

Uncertainty over Ukraine’s long-term future undercuts the peace and stability of all Europe. The sooner and more confidently U.S. and European allies open a path to full Western integration for Kyiv, the sooner that doubt will be removed.  

On a recent visit to Ukraine, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said all the right things, telling Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky: “We stand strongly with you. [Our p]artners do as well. I heard the same thing when I was at NATO a couple of weeks ago. And we look to Russia to cease reckless and aggressive actions.”    

But how much do these words matter? Putin is a problem. He respects deeds, not words. The real issue is: what is America going to do? 

On April 22, Moscow announced a withdrawal of its forces from Crimea. In reality, only a small fraction of the troops left. Crimea remains a major military base for Moscow. The vast majority of the troops and most of the heavy equipment that Russia moved into Crimea and along Ukraine’s eastern border this spring remain there—a continuing threat of invasion. 

Ukraine needs Western help to increase its defensive capabilities. Kyiv would like Washington to sell it more weaponry, according to Politico. Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba told Reuters last month that this included anti-sniper technology, air defense systems and equipment to counter Russia’s capacity to jam Ukrainian communications. Training in territorial defense is also a priority. 

Discussions about shortening Ukraine’s path to NATO membership are underway. At a joint press conference with Ukrainian president Zelensky earlier this month, Polish President Andrzej Duda said: “At the NATO summit in June, it is planned to discuss a road map for Ukraine to take steps to join NATO.” Unfortunately, this approach is not shared by key Western members of the alliance, France and Germany. And it doesn’t look like the United States plans to push hard on this issue.   

But even if the United States were to convince other NATO members to grant a Membership Action Plan (MAP) to Ukraine (and Georgia, which has long been in line for this status), what would be the actual military-security meaning of this statement under the current circumstances of Russian pressure? Would it prevent another Russian military invasion when no commitment is made to defend these countries?  

Anything short of full NATO membership for Georgia and Ukraine with immediate enforcement of the defense of these countries would only stimulate Russia to act even more aggressively against them. Without full-fledged membership, any statement of NATO commitment, or even an upgrade of the status on the road to membership, will have no real security meaning for these countries. 

The unpleasant truth is that, at this stage, there is no realistic expectation of a meaningful decision to guarantee the security of Ukraine and Georgia under the umbrella of NATO, or under a bilateral pact with the United States.

Ukraine, as well as some other Eastern Europe countries, have long feared becoming a bargaining chip in a larger geopolitical re-arrangement between Russia and the West. It is symptomatic that, after Blinken’s visit, Ukrainian foreign minister Kuleba said publicly that he had been assured that nothing would be decided between Putin and Biden without taking Ukraine’s interests into account. 

The bottom line is that the United States and like-minded European allies need to do what they can, as soon as they can, to make Ukraine too tough a pill for Putin to swallow.  

We should share intelligence with Ukraine about the Russian military buildup. We should also make satellite imagery of the buildup available to the public.  

The United States should also greatly increase its naval presence in the Black Sea. Though the United States increased its presence soon after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2014, it has since been drastically reduced. That was a mistake. Furthermore, we should help Ukraine improve its maritime capabilities.  

The United States should also increase pressure to kill Nord Stream 2.  

But most importantly, the United States should treat Ukraine and Georgia as de-facto NATO members. That should translate immediately in providing assistance with training, military compatibility and joint exercises, weapons sales (with fewer restrictions), and cyber-security arrangements.

But the United States and the West, in general, should also make it clear that any further aggression against Ukraine or its independent-minded neighbors will be met with immediate sanctions designed to cripple the financing, as well as operational ability, of leading Russian state-owned or state-connected energy companies and critical industries.

This would make Putin pay a real price for his aggression. It’s something that should have been done immediately after Russia started reshaping the borders of Ukraine and Georgia.

While the future of Ukraine rests largely on Ukrainian shoulders, the West should not hesitate to do what it can to provide support for Ukraine.   

Mamuka Tsereteli is a senior fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council’s Central Asia-Caucasus Institute.  James Jay Carafano is a Heritage Foundation vice president, directing the think tank’s research on national security and foreign relations.  

Image: Reuters

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