The pressing question for many in Washington’s foreign policy establishment is whether Russian President Vladimir Putin will attack Ukraine, and if he does attack, what actions should the U.S. and NATO take in response, given that the U.S. supports Ukraine’s aspirations to join NATO. However, a more fundamental question should be answered first: Why should the U.S. and NATO even consider extending an invitation to an unstable nation like Ukraine?
There is a common perception of Ukraine as a unified country at risk of invasion by an aggressive Russia, thus deserving Western protection. True, there is a genuine threat of an invasion by an aggressive Russia, as evidenced by the approximately 100,000 troops Mr. Putin has poised within striking distance of the Ukrainian border. But the picture within Ukraine is much more complex and should give the West pause before risking a potential war with Russia on behalf of Kyiv.
First, Ukraine is one of the most corrupt nations on earth, earning an abysmal ranking last year of being tied for 117th place globally. In fact, corruption was a driving cause of the 2014 rebellion in Kyiv that led to the collapse of the Ukrainian government and sparked the war, now in its eighth year. About one year from the beginning of the Maidan protests in Kyiv, Ernst & Young characterized Ukraine as one of the three most corrupt nations on earth.
Second, the biggest threat to Ukraine’s long-term viability as a nation isn’t the external threat of the Russian invasion but the internal threat represented by the de facto civil war currently dividing east and west Ukraine. The Kremlin supports separatists in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of eastern Ukraine. Still, it is painfully clear the division between the east and the west of the country has been a source of friction for decades, not just since 2014.
Ukrainians voted for independence from the Soviet Union in December 1991, but corruption and bad economic policies kept the nation in turmoil. There have always been disputes and disagreements between the pro-European western part of the country and the pro-Russian eastern half. Those tensions were among the primary causes of the 2004 “Orange Revolution,” which saw the election of the pro-European president, Viktor Yushchenko. However, he was completely unable to effectively govern and lost the 2010 election to his pro-Russian rival, Viktor Yanukovych.
After four tumultuous years, Mr. Yanukovych proved just as corrupt and unable to govern as his predecessor and was eventually forced from office in 2014 amidst massive protests in Kyiv. In the aftermath of Mr. Yanukovych’s expulsion, Ukrainian citizens of Russian ancestry in Donetsk and Luhansk — where Mr. Yanukovych had his greatest support — seized governmental offices, eventually declaring themselves independent nations. The animosity between the east and west in Ukraine has only intensified since.
Third, the obvious: Russia has amassed upward of 100,000 troops on the Ukraine border and poses a serious threat to invade. For years, Mr. Putin has been warning that Ukraine entering NATO was a red line that he would not allow the West to cross without severe penalty. Based on his limited military actions against Georgia in 2008 and the annexation of Crimea in 2014, the chance he eventually uses force on Ukraine in the present is uncomfortably real.
All three of these issues have great relevance for NATO and the United States’ stated willingness to consider extending NATO membership to Ukraine. NATO requirements for countries wishing to join the Western alliance stipulate those aspirant countries “which have (internal) ethnic disputes or external territorial disputes, including irredentist claims, or internal jurisdictional disputes must settle those disputes” before being allowed to join.
As detailed above, Ukraine has been riven with governmental corruption and suffered multiple and significant political upheavals since leaving the Soviet Union in 1991. Nothing has been done to solve the territorial disputes with Russia. Before any further consideration of extending NATO membership to Ukraine, Washington must come to grips with reality on two fundamental facts.
First, there are no vital national security interests of the United States at stake in the disputes between Moscow and Kyiv. We have our preferences for how they resolve those disputes, but our security won’t be harmed or placed at increased risk no matter how the issue is eventually settled.
Second, it is outright against American interests to even consider, much less extend, NATO membership to Ukraine. No nation should ever be brought into a mutual defense treaty with the United States unless that nation is politically stable, economically prosperous and whose inclusion would improve U.S. national security.
Inviting Ukraine into NATO — whether now or even years into the future — would weaken the alliance, burden the U.S. by making Ukraine’s problems our problems and perpetually put America at unnecessary risk of going to war with Russia. The best thing Washington could do to assure American national security — and even reduce the chance that Russia attacks Ukraine — is to shelve all talk of NATO expansion to NATO.
• Daniel L. Davis is a senior fellow for Defense Priorities and a former Lt. Col. in the U.S. Army who deployed into combat zones four times. He is the author of “The Eleventh Hour in 2020 America.” Follow him @DanielLDavis1.
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