Russia vs. NATO: Can Biden Thread the Needle on Ukraine?
A 2008 promise left Ukraine with the worst of both worlds.
In addition to COVID, inflation, and climate change, geopolitical instability in Eastern Europe is coming to the forefront of American minds. According to Google Trends, the search query "will Russia invade Ukraine" has risen to its highest level since 2014, when Russia actually invaded Ukraine. U.S. intelligence has revealed a large military buildup in Russia around Ukraine. U.S. President Joe Biden, in a bid to lower temperatures in the region, had a video call with Russian leader Vladimir Putin on December 7.
According to the Kremlin readout from the call, Russia's stated goal is to "obtain reliable, legally binding guarantees ruling out the eventuality of NATO’s eastward expansion and the deployment of offensive weapons systems in the countries neighboring Russia." To this end, it is willing to risk war. Nothing was settled on the call, but it started a dialogue between the United States, European countries, and Russia about NATO.
How did we get here? Revisiting the history of Ukraine and NATO's awkward relationship can shed light on this question. NATO was created in 1949 to defend against the U.S.S.R. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, it expanded eastward to include countries like Poland and the Czech Republic which had been in the Eastern Bloc. In 2008, that expansion had largely finished, leaving Ukraine and Georgia outside the alliance and wanting in. Giving them a Membership Action Plan (MAP) -- a roadmap of internal reforms to join the alliance -- was controversial. U.S. President George W. Bush lobbied hard for it, and Germany and France were staunchly against it, out of fears that it would antagonize Russia.
In the end, both sides reached a compromise that satisfied nobody. In the 2008 document, the alliance said that both countries "will" become members of NATO. It continued, "We will now begin a period of intensive engagement with both at a high political level to address the questions still outstanding pertaining to their MAP applications." To Russia, this was hostile. To Ukraine and Georgia, these promises were useless. By promising NATO membership, but not indicating when or how that would happen, Ukraine has had the worst of both worlds -- unprotected by NATO's core guarantee of mutual defense but assumed to be an eventual member by Russia.
Four months after the 2008 summit, Russia invaded Georgia, later withdrawing from most of the country, but keeping two small areas as Russian-backed territories. Save for a few harsh statements from Western governments, Russia did not suffer any consequences. Had Georgia been a member of NATO, Western allies would have been obligated by treaty to defend Georgia militarily against Russia. In 2014, Russia invaded Ukraine during a leadership vacuum after pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych was ousted. Russia subsequently annexed the province of Crimea. The West responded, this time, with an array of sanctions. In 2021, the United States is threatening further sanctions against Russia should they invade Ukraine again, but it's far from certain that those are enough to deter Putin.
Thirteen years after the 2008 summit, Ukraine is not a member of NATO, but its membership is still officially on the table -- a June 2021 document reiterated support for Ukraine's membership with no more specifics. Ukraine's government is once again angling for NATO membership, but there isn't much appetite among NATO members for it to join.
Russia, sensing that Ukraine is slipping slowly out of its orbit with a pro-Western government led by Volodymyr Zelensky, has decided to force the issue of NATO and Ukraine with a military buildup. It has succeeded already in starting a conversation about NATO's eastward expansion. However, its ultimate goal of a legally binding document ruling out further expansion is a nonstarter for NATO countries. The best potential way out of the standoff would be a comprehensive dialogue of Russian concerns about NATO's eastward expansion coupled with European concerns about Russia's military buildup in its West -- its abrogation of the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe Treaty, which had limited its troop levels.
Earlier this year, the Biden Administration pulled U.S. troops out of Afghanistan, ending a conflict that had begun with the Bush Administration's hopes of transforming that country into a functioning democracy. Similarly, admitting Ukraine into NATO was a rosy hope of the Bush Administration that seems distant now. The Afghanistan withdrawal itself -- even if it was necessary -- was a disaster for the United States. With respect to Ukraine, can the United States manage to rethink another unrealistic promise made in a different era, while keeping Ukraine as an ally and not actually giving Russia what it wants?