Ukraine Keeps Chasing the NATO Will-o'-the-Wisp

The reasons why Ukraine should not be given a MAP are many and they are still quite compelling.

Earlier this week, the Ukrainian president expressed surprise and disappointment about the Biden administration’s decision not to sanction the Germany company involved in the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, and he complained again about the lack of movement on Ukraine’s membership in NATO. Zelensky’s public criticism of Biden (mixed with bizarre comparisons to Michael Jordan) led to a phone call between the two presidents on Monday. During that call, Biden invited Zelensky to come to the White House after the Geneva summit with Putin. The Ukrainians then misrepresented the content of the call by claiming that Biden had also endorsed a NATO Membership Action Plan (MAP) for Ukraine during the conversation when he had never talked about it:

Ukraine's government initially reported on its official website that Biden had "highlighted... the importance of providing the Ukrainian state with a NATO Membership Action Plan," which would put Ukraine on course for membership in the alliance. The White House denied Biden expressed support for such a step on the call.

"The Ukrainians mischaracterized the statement and corrected the record," a National Security Council spokesperson told Axios.

By Monday evening, the Ukrainian government's readout had been changed to remove the reference to NATO membership for Ukraine.

The Ukrainian government has become fixated on this idea of speeding up its entry into the alliance, and now they are just making things up on official readouts of presidential calls to create the illusion that they have more support for this than they really do. The reasons why Ukraine should not be given a MAP are many and they are still quite compelling. Henrik Larsen recently laid out these reasons at length in an article for War on the Rocks. In short, the U.S. and NATO aren’t able to defend Ukraine effectively, the political will to bring them into the alliance is lacking in many member states, the country is still plagued by corruption, Ukraine does not even control all of its own territory, and there is significant Ukrainian domestic opposition to joining the alliance. The question should not be why Ukraine hasn’t been admitted yet. The right question to ask is why Ukraine was ever considered suitable to be invited to the alliance in the first place. We are still dealing with the aftermath of that Bush-era blunder.

Biden has supported NATO expansion that includes Ukraine in the past, but it does not appear to be a priority for his administration and the alliance as a whole is no more inclined to bring Ukraine in now than it was before. Larsen opposes offering Ukraine a MAP, but he thinks the alliance shouldn’t renege on its original promise that Ukraine and Georgia will one day be allowed to join. As I have argued before, this just strings these states along with the hope of something that will never happen. More to the point, we know that it will never happen, and when we keep pretending that the alliance door is still open to them we are deceiving them. It would be wiser to clarify that the promise made at Bucharest in 2008 was a mistake. Until the U.S. and NATO clear this up, Russia will continue to assume the worst about alliance intentions, and Ukraine and Georgia will continue hoping for an invitation that’s never coming. This is a reminder that the alliance shouldn’t make commitments that it isn’t truly prepared to keep, because sooner or later their bluff will be called.

Zelensky insisted in his interview, “The issue should be resolved immediately.” On this point, I think he’s right. It does need to be resolved without further delay. Keeping Ukraine in this limbo between future alliance member and non-ally is not doing them or anyone else any favors. The alliance should have the integrity to tell Ukraine (and Georgia) that they are not going to be admitted now or at any point in the future. It was a mistake to raise their hopes of being brought into the alliance, and it does real harm to them to keep them chasing after an unreachable goal.