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Anthony Blinken Is Playing a Dangerous Game with Ukraine

Antony Blinken, the US Secretary of State. 2021.

On April 4, speaking at a NATO Summit, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken stated that “Ukraine will become a member of NATO. Our purpose at the summit is to help build a bridge to that membership.” This is an exceedingly dangerous statement.This latest statement continues the trend of making promises to Ukraine that it may one day become a member of NATO without offering a concrete timeline. This is the worst of all possible worlds: such implicit promises provoke Russia, which has stated on multiple occasions that the prospect of NATO membership for Ukraine is a red line, while doing nothing to enhance Ukraine’s security.

At a NATO conference in Bucharest in 2008, President George W. Bush made the mistake of arguing for Georgia and Ukraine to be allowed to join NATO. France, Germany, and other NATO allies balked, and the conference ended by stating that Ukraine and Georgia would one day become NATO members but provided no clear pathway. Russia restated its opposition to NATO memberships for its immediate neighbors, and four months later, it invaded Georgia (Russian troops still occupy Abkhazia and South Ossetia). Six years later, Russia seized the Crimea from Ukraine, and then invaded Ukraine again in 2022. That war continues today in a bloody stalemate, though Russia has regained the momentum. This year, there is no more talk of a Ukrainian spring or summer offensive after last year’s disastrous showing. Prospects for Ukrainian success have vanished.

In July 2023, White House national security spokesman John Kirby said, “Of course, they [Ukraine] are at war right now. So, NATO membership in the immediate future isn’t likely because that would put NATO at war with Russia.” Kirby’s statement suggests that if Ukraine weren’t at war with Russia, it could become a member of NATO. This too is an exceedingly dangerous idea. If Russia believes that as soon as the current conflict is over, Ukraine will be granted NATO membership, it will be highly disincentivized to seek peace, the exact opposite of what the United States wants. We want Russia (and Ukraine) to find a peaceful means of resolving their conflict.

Even though most in the West are dismissive, Russia has security concerns about Ukraine, and NATO membership for Ukraine will only exacerbate those concerns. The United States would not have tolerated Canada or Mexico becoming a member of the Warsaw Pact during the Cold War, which would have meant the stationing of Soviet soldiers and military equipment just across the border. The United States has invaded both of its immediate neighbors on multiple occasions: in the case of Canada because of its status as a colony and client-state of Britain. Recall also that the Reagan administration invaded Grenada because of the pro-communist coup in 1983 and pursued covert action in El Salvador and Nicaragua for similar reasons. The Kennedy administration almost went to war over the Cuban Missile Crisis because the Soviet emplacement of nuclear weapons there shifted the strategic balance. Great powers do not like their neighbors joining military alliances with their rivals.

A Ukraine that is a member of NATO is likelier to behave in ways that would provoke Russia. The appropriate analogy here is that a little boy taunting a bigger bully while hiding behind his older brother. Eventually, the older brother is likely to get dragged into a fight he does not want.

We should fear Russia not because it is strong, but because it is weak. A strong great power would not have many security concerns. It could weather provocations like this one. It would be secure in the knowledge that it has the power to deter its enemies from attacking it or acting against its core interests, and the current regime would have strong domestic support. But Russia is not a strong great power, it is a weak one, and that is precisely why it is dangerous.

While many are concerned with China’s rise, militarily and economically, in relation to the United States, the trends for Russia are all heading in the opposite direction. As the recent 2024 annual threat assessment from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence stated, “Russia’s GDP is on a trajectory for modest growth in 2024 but its longer-term competitiveness has diminished in comparison to its pre-war outlook.” Even that is damning Russia with faint praise. Russia has vast fossil fuel reserves and has found many partners willing to buy energy from it, Russia has little else going for it. Demographically, Russia is a catastrophe, with declining health and population. It is expending its military resources in Ukraine as fast as new munitions and weapons systems can be built. It is sacrificing a generation of its (diminishing) young men in a grinding war of attrition that has produced more than 300,000 Russian casualties. The once-vaunted Russian military has been shown as a paper tiger, a force that cannot even seize significant territory from a much smaller, weaker neighbor. The Russian military will take a generation to reconstitute itself after the Ukraine debacle. Russia is certainly no threat to NATO.

But Russia has significantly increased its production of munitions, and has been willing to continue to expend as many Russian lives as necessary to eventually triumph in Ukraine. Russia is not strong enough to threaten NATO, but it is strong enough to eventually defeat Ukraine.

It is entirely rational for Ukraine to want NATO membership — why would it not seek Article 5 protection and a nuclear umbrella? — but it is unclear why NATO would want to extend membership to Ukraine. If Ukraine were a member of NATO, NATO would be at war with Russia. It is bad enough that NATO support of Ukraine means that the war between Ukraine and Russia is a de facto proxy war between Russia and NATO, with Ukraine supplying the warm bodies and NATO — mostly the United States — providing the weapons. Ukraine should not be welcomed into NATO because it brings nothing with it but security liabilities. Ukrainian membership in NATO would not enhance the security of the United States or any other current member of NATO, it would merely exacerbate Russian security concerns and increase the likelihood of a future war between NATO and Russia. In fact, the United States should announce that Ukraine will explicitly not be granted NATO membership. Alliances are about self-interest, not feelgood measures, or even rewarding heroic resistance to aggression.

Instead, the United States should encourage, explicitly, if behind closed doors, Ukraine to find a path to a ceasefire with Russia. A peace settlement will likely have to end with some territorial concessions by Ukraine, and a likely pledge that it will not join NATO for the foreseeable future. This outcome would be less than ideal from the Ukrainian perspective, but despite Ukraine’s resistance and the West’s aid, Ukraine has been unable to secure a victory on the battlefield. Its long-term prospects are grim. The Ukrainian economy is in shambles (GDP in 2024 is about 25 percent lower than prior to the invasion, with massive new trade deficits), as is its crumbling infrastructure, with at least a half trillion dollars in reconstruction needed. Casualties continue to mount and Ukraine has just been forced to lower its draft age. The status quo cannot persist indefinitely. Eventually, Russia’s superior numbers and military industrial production will prevail. There is no plausible scenario in which Ukraine can push all Russian forces out of the country. Better that Ukraine negotiate an end to the conflict now, while it still controls the bulk of its pre-war territory, than in another year or two, when it will control even less of its territory and when it will be in an even more precarious economic position. All wars eventually end, and it would be best for Ukraine if it can secure the best possible terms that it can.

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