Ukraine should adopt some form of non-alignment or neutrality as the basis for its foreign and defense policies. An essential step in this process is for the United States to formally put an end to the prospect of NATO membership for Ukraine. The sustained false hope of NATO membership discourages Ukraine from examining more pragmatic and necessary options.

Incorporation of Ukraine into NATO without a strong and geographically dispersed domestic backing could place unneeded stress on Ukrainian society. It would also go against NATO’s own standards requiring high internal support for joining the alliance as a criterion for membership.

Russia’s reaction to Ukrainian membership in NATO could take on a more concrete and hostile form, from an intensification of support for the Donbas insurgency to additional aggression against Ukrainian territory, through covert or overt means. The reality is that the window when Ukraine safely could have been admitted into NATO is now closed.

It would be negligent of the U.S. to admit Ukraine into NATO without a clear idea for how its 2,300 km border with Russia would be defended, short of total reliance on the threat of nuclear war—a dangerous and outdated strategy. This point can’t be emphasized enough: NATO would need to defend a frontier that’s roughly equal to the distance between Brussels and Istanbul.

Outside of Russia itself, Ukraine is the largest country in Europe by land area. Defending it against its immediate neighbor would almost certainly require basing some NATO forces permanently on Ukrainian territory. This is likely to be unacceptable to the majority of Ukrainians (including some who support alliance membership).

Moreover, the basing of U.S. or other foreign forces on Ukraine’s territory would also be anathema to Russia. The basic dilemma is this: It would be hard for NATO to adequately defend Ukraine without committing forces of such size and proximity that Russia itself would have to view them with intense concern for its own security. Adding Ukraine puts NATO’s main frontier within 500km of Moscow.

The final factor that makes Ukrainian NATO membership next to impossible is the disparity in interests between the West and Russia that colors all interactions over Ukraine. Ukraine is unlike any other territory that NATO could add. It is not only intimately tied up with Russian history—with many Russians regarding parts of the modern Ukrainian state as Russia proper—but it also sits astride the traditional routes invaders have exploited to attack Russia for centuries.

For Russia the incorporation of Ukraine into NATO is an existential threat. It’s reckless to suggest Russia would accept Ukrainian membership in the alliance without some kind of dangerous counter-reaction involving covert or overt use of force. Attempting to put Ukraine in the alliance might be the worst possible thing for it. Continued  public support for Ukrainian membership in the alliance serves no effective purpose; worse, it might close off avenues of strategic thought that could better support Ukrainian security interests long term.

For the United States, the absence of direct conflict with Russia over Ukraine should be the priority and not the “Ukrainian cause,” no matter how much empathy it might engender. Stabilizing Ukraine in a security arrangement that meets this goal should be the focus of U.S. policy rather than continuing support for an implausible membership in NATO.

Ukraine must recognize its choices with regard to its external security relationships may not always be entirely its own. It also needs to find a balance that satisfies those segments of its population with opposing views on where Ukraine’s orientation should lie, east or west. Just as there is a domestic constituency opposed to NATO membership, there also is a large segment that sees “non-alignment” as a codeword for default subjugation to Russia.

Removing the option of NATO membership could force a more constructive internal dialogue within Ukraine on what its status might look like under some concept of political and military non-alignment. So long as membership in the alliance is officially on the table, this debate is unlikely to occur as deeply and fully as it should.

The United States should speak frankly to Ukraine about its true prospects for NATO membership. Continuing to emptily support this aspiration is detrimental to the Ukrainians considering more realistic options. Fundamentally, America should not move to put Ukraine in NATO; it’s past time it said so explicitly.

The United States could try to negotiate directly with Russia on the matter, perhaps offering a binding assurance NATO will formally forego Ukrainian membership in exchange for positive action by Russia on other aspects of Ukrainian security. Foremost in this regard should be a cessation of Russian military support to the Donbas separatists and the use of Moscow’s leverage to end that destructive conflict.

Other concessions from Russia will be more difficult to extract. Return of Crimea is almost certainly a non-starter. Annexation of the peninsula was arguably the defining moment of Putin’s reign; returning it would be a heavy blow to his personal prestige and Russia’s national pride. Russia has already made major investments in the peninsula’s civilian and military infrastructure. Finally, there does not seem to be strong support among Crimeans themselves for returning to Ukraine. Crimea is now Russia’s.

The truth, though, remains that the United States has a weak hand in terms of what it can and cannot do to help Ukraine. With no vital U.S. interests at stake, the imbalance of interest with Russia is unavoidable. America shouldn’t engage in policies that would recklessly endanger its own security by inviting direct conflict with Russia—there is therefore only so much it can do to responsibly aid Ukraine. As emphasized above, seeking stability and mitigating conflict is the U.S. priority.

Encouraging the EU to take more responsibility for Ukraine could be another diplomatic approach. Increased integration with the EU could be the minimum necessary to assuage those Ukrainians who desire a genuine European identity. And, clearly, closer ties to the EU are not nearly as provocative for Moscow as NATO membership. A formal stance of non-alignment by Ukraine could additionally defuse any concerns on this score. It would serve to clarify Ukraine’s western-oriented policies were formally rooted in economic concerns, not hard security interests. Neutrality for Ukraine would also not rule out the prospect of it someday joining the European Union in full.

An essential starting point for crafting any Ukrainian policy of neutrality, though, begins with it abandoning false fantasies of salvation through NATO. For the United States to be a genuine friend to Kyiv, greater honesty on that issue would be of service.


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