Shut the Door on NATO Expansion

Encouraging Ukraine and Georgia to believe that NATO membership is still in the cards for them is a serious mistake.

The Washington Times reports rather melodramatically about Lloyd Austin’s scheduled visits to Ukraine and Georgia this week:

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin will stress this week that there is an “open door to NATO” for Ukraine and Georgia, the two nations on the front lines of Russian aggression, Pentagon officials said over the weekend.

Mr. Austin will visit those two countries and Romania in the coming days before traveling to Brussels for a meeting of NATO defense ministers. Pentagon officials cast the trip as a clear signal to Moscow that the U.S. and its NATO allies stand firmly behind Ukrainian and Georgian sovereignty in the face of Russian provocations and military expansion over the past decade.

Encouraging Ukraine and Georgia to believe that NATO membership is still in the cards for them is a serious mistake. It is not surprising that the Biden administration is maintaining the status quo on this issue, but it is a missed opportunity to reverse some of the damage that was done back in 2008 when this dangerous promise was first made to these aspirant states. Keeping the “door” open to NATO expansion antagonizes Russia, and it strings Ukraine and Georgia along for no good reason. Many European allies will not support bringing these states into the alliance, and there is no compelling reason to add them. Both countries would be extremely difficult if not impossible to defend in the event of a conflict, and they already have Russian or Russian-backed forces on their territory. Even if they were model democracies, which they most certainly are not, they would be poor candidates for the alliance.

As we know, the August 2008 war was a direct result of the foolish promise that Georgia would one day become a NATO member, because it was this promise and other signals of support from Washington that led Saakashvili to believe that he could escalate the conflict in South Ossetia and then rely on the United States to bail him out if he got into trouble. Things didn’t work out that way, and even the Bush administration was not quite so stupid as to risk a shooting war with Russia. The U.S. has already proved that it won’t fight for Georgia, and it makes even less sense to make that commitment in the future. The U.S. proved the same thing in 2014 when Russia intervened in Ukraine. Trying to bring Ukraine into NATO would be a huge provocation that Moscow wouldn’t be able to ignore. The U.S. has no vital interests in Ukraine and Georgia that would require committing to defend them, and our government should put an end to this charade that suggests otherwise.

The current Ukrainian government has been insistent in recent months that it should receive a Membership Action Plan (MAP) in the near future. They may have calculated that Biden would be inclined to give them what they seek because of his record of backing Ukraine’s membership, but if so they guessed wrong. The Biden administration has not supported doing this so far, but by continuing to leave the “door” open to future membership Biden guarantees that the agitation for a MAP will only grow louder as time goes on. Shutting the door on further NATO expansion isn’t a panacea, but it would go a long way to reassuring Moscow that the alliance has finally stopped moving east. Taking alliance membership off the table will allow the Ukrainian and Georgian governments to focus on more pressing domestic issues and it will free them from chasing after something that was never going to happen. It will also finally put to rest one of the more reckless delusions of the Bush era, and that can only be a good thing for U.S. foreign policy.