The Trump administration has decided to authorize the sale of lethal military assistance to Ukraine, including sniper rifles. There are significant downsides to arming Ukraine in this way, particularly fracturing consensus within NATO and provoking escalation by Russia. To reduce the risk of these negative repercussions and take the sting out of this major policy shift, the United States ought to lead NATO in admitting it made a mistake when it prematurely declared in 2008 that Ukraine (and Georgia) would become members of the alliance. Tying these two policies together will avoid the downsides associated with opening up the arms trade spigot while simultaneously strengthening the West’s position vis-à-vis Moscow.
Much has been made of Moscow’s longstanding opposition to NATO enlargement into Eastern Europe. Some have even blamed this policy for Russia’s invasions of Georgia in 2008 and of Ukraine in 2014. The notion that Moscow is threatened by NATO membership for former Warsaw Pact countries — or, in the case of the Baltic States, former constituent republics of the Soviet Union — is at once understandable and ludicrous. On the one hand, Russian leaders have long equated space with security, given Russia’s unfavorable natural borders. The perceived “loss” of territory through the demise of the Warsaw Pact and the breakup of the Soviet Union is a source of legitimate anxiety within Russia as well as an instrument employed by the Kremlin to stoke nationalism and promote loyalty.
On the other hand, from 1990 until very recently, NATO was effectively defanged through bilateral or multilateral treaties, unilateral military cuts across the entire alliance, and a shift in emphasis toward lighter, more expeditionary professional military forces. For instance, through the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty, the West essentially eliminated any potential for a surprise conventional attack through the heart of central Europe. Meanwhile, unilateral decisions on the part of the most capable NATO allies — especially the United States — to cash in on the peace dividend resulted in dramatic military force structure cuts in Europe. Across the entire alliance, military capabilities and strength have had dropped dramatically over the last 25 years, to the point that calling NATO a “threat” to Russia is objectively laughable.
Nonetheless, when the alliance declared at the Bucharest Summit in April 2008 that Georgia and Ukraine “will become members of NATO” — even though the two countries were nowhere near ready for membership — it evidently went farther than Moscow was willing to tolerate. The prospect of losing some of its last remaining buffers against the West was too great of a risk for Russia, for reasons both international and domestic. The Kremlin’s preference for its own sphere of influence in Eastern Europe — and the domestic political imperatives shaping those preferences — ran headlong into the West’s commitment to sovereignty and self-determination.
Thanks at least in part to NATO’s premature membership commitment to Ukraine and Georgia — and knowing that NATO is very reluctant to admit new members that have unresolved territorial issues with neighboring countries —the Kremlin has been strongly incentivized to create frozen conflicts in those countries. The Russian invasions of Georgia and Ukraine — and its subsequent occupation of South Ossetia and Abkhazia in Georgia and Crimea and the Donbas in Ukraine — have been the logical result. By creating and now maintaining open-ended territorial conflicts with both Georgia and Ukraine, the Kremlin has cast a de facto veto over any attempt on the part of Tbilisi or Kyiv to join NATO.
Now, the West ought to admit it made a mistake and hence eliminate the inevitability of alliance membership for Georgia and Ukraine, while acknowledging that NATO’s door remains open. By declaring that these countries — or any other country — will inevitably become a member of the alliance, NATO has incentivized Moscow’s destabilizing behavior. Admitting that the 2008 declaration was premature won’t make Russia immediately withdraw its forces from Georgia and Ukraine, but it will achieve several other important objectives.
First, it will put the cart of alliance membership once again behind the horse of defense reform in Georgia and Ukraine. The Bucharest declaration fundamentally short-circuited the membership process, which requires prospective members to implement an array of military and political reforms through a Membership Action Plan. A promise of eventual membership lets Georgia and Ukraine off the hook too easily. Additionally, it paradoxically undermines the very self-determination that lies at the core of Western values by pulling countries into NATO that may lack a domestic political consensus about joining the alliance.
Second, NATO’s admission would undermine Kremlin rhetoric that the alliance is aggressively pulling Georgia and Ukraine in and that NATO seeks to encircle Russia through some reincarnated containment policy.
Finally, declaring the 2008 promise a mistake would remove a major thorn in relations between Russia and the alliance. Some in Moscow may only be satisfied with a NATO declaration that Eastern Europe constitutes a Russian sphere of influence, or at least a zone of permanently neutral states. NATO’s admission of its mistake won’t — and can’t — go that far, but it would nevertheless remove some of the tension surrounding this issue.
Satisfying Russia’s demands cannot be the primary rationale for such a move by NATO, and the alliance must be clear that even as it acknowledges its error, it will never allow 19th century great power politics to override sovereign self-determination in Europe. Pairing an admission of a mistake in 2008 with increased military aid and assistance would clearly indicate that the alliance is unwilling to let Russia carve out a sphere of influence. Increased military assistance from the United States is an unmistakable sign that the West is intent on ensuring Ukrainians can choose their own path.
Another benefit of this approach would be indicating to Kyiv and Tbilisi that while the West may be abandoning the inevitability of their membership in NATO, it is not abandoning them. Instead, it’s making a tangible, useful contribution to their continued sovereignty and independence in a way that’s far more impactful in the short run than a rhetorical commitment to a membership invitation that lacks the assurance of Article 5.
Moreover, the admission of an error in 2008 can help temper the damage that increased U.S. military assistance to Ukraine might to do to intra-alliance consensus. Allied agreement on the approach toward Russia’s invasion and dismemberment of Ukraine is critical, and any unilateral effort by Washington to provide more lethal aid to Kyiv is likely to challenge that consensus. Even though German Chancellor Angela Merkel may be more open to the idea of providing lethal defensive aid to Ukraine, her likely partners in a grand coalition — the Social Democrats — are probably unwilling to consider this. Many in Germany and elsewhere in Europe who continue to view Russia as a necessary part of European security are likely to see balance in an approach that ties more lethal aid for Ukraine to a loosening of NATO’s premature commitment to Ukrainian membership.
The 2008 declaration that Georgia and Ukraine would eventually become members of NATO may have inadvertently painted a bull’s eye on both countries as far as the Kremlin was concerned, and it’s become an albatross of strategic significance around the alliance’s neck. By providing lethal defensive arms to Ukraine while also saying NATO won’t pull Ukraine into the alliance as soon as the separatists are defeated, the West has the chance to get Ukraine at least back to where it was in the immediate wake of the Orange Revolution. That is, the West can help Ukraine return to being mostly free of Moscow’s yoke, largely able to determine its own destiny, and cordial toward the West, but without a free admission ticket to NATO.
Acknowledging that the Bucharest declaration was premature while simultaneously offering more lethal military assistance to Ukraine won’t result in an immediate rapprochement between Russia and West. However, linking these two policies is a sensible alternative to simply sending more weapons to Ukraine while continuing to ensure NATO’s door remains open.
Dr. John R. Deni is a research professor of security studies at the Strategic Studies Institute of the U.S. Army War College and an adjunct professor at the American University’s School of International Service. He’s the author of the recently published book NATO and Article 5. The views expressed are his alone.