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The Risk of Letting Ukraine into NATO

By Ivan Eland
May 21, 2009

Editor’s Note: President Barack Obama remains under political pressure to show how tough he can be in foreign policy, getting baited by Republicans and the neocons at any reversal. So, he will surely be pushed toward pursuing George W. Bush’s goal of admitting Ukraine and Georgia into NATO.

In this guest essay, the Independent Institute’s Ivan Eland says especially letting Ukraine into NATO would be a dangerous and unnecessary provocation of Russia:

Of all the countries lining up to get under the United States’ protective shield in the NATO alliance, the Ukraine is the most important for the United States and Russia.

During Soviet times, the Ukraine was the breadbasket of the nation and also housed important industries within its borders. In addition, the Ukraine has strong cultural ties to Russia.

Right on Russia’s border, Ukraine’s admission to a hostile alliance could permanently cripple U.S. relations with Russia.
Although the Bush administration aggressively pushed its reluctant NATO allies to induct the Ukraine and Georgia into the alliance, France, Germany, and others — worried about an extremely hostile Russian reaction — put their entry on hold.

During his campaign, Barack Obama regrettably endorsed bringing these two countries under the United States’ NATO umbrella.

But the admission of Ukraine is not in the interests of Russia, the United States, or, surprisingly, even the Ukraine. Along with the U.S. grab for influence over Caspian Sea oil and gas pipelines and the proposed installation of missile defense facilities in Poland and the Czech Republic, the admission of the Ukraine would naturally make Russia feel encircled.

Even for the United States, however, pledging to defend Ukraine under Article V of the NATO Treaty is a really bad idea.

First, Ukraine’s bid for NATO membership should be put in the wider context of whether it improves or undermines U.S. security. (Alliances are not ends in themselves.) Just continuing to push the informal U.S. Empire east while the Russian bear is weak doesn’t address this important issue.

Of all U.S. bilateral relations with nations of the world, in terms of U.S. security, U.S.-Russian relations remain the most important.

In U.S. history, the only threat to the existence of the United States has been the thousands of nuclear weapons of the Soviet Union/Russia. Other countries, such as China or North Korea, have too few warheads to incinerate the entire United States.

Thus, President Obama’s laudable initiative to negotiate with Russia to further reduce U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals should be an extremely high priority in U.S. national security policy.

Abandoning the U.S. push for Ukraine’s NATO admission and an unneeded, and perhaps ineffective, missile defense system might allow the U.S. to get better results in the much more important bilateral U.S.-Russian talks on the reduction of nuclear weapons.

In any honest assessment of U.S. security goals, the faraway Ukraine is not strategic to the United States. To Russia, given its history of being invaded by foreign powers, the Ukraine, a large neighboring country, is much more strategic than even its small Baltic neighbors.

For the United States, any showdown with Russia over the NATO-inducted Ukraine ultimately could go nuclear, thus endangering the American homeland.

Furthermore, as the Russian-Georgian war in August of 2008 showed, the faraway United States likely would be largely impotent against Russia, even when it uses only conventional forces in its backyard. For the United States, Ukraine’s admission would mean a nearly impossible obligation to defend a country far forward in return for adding only scant military capabilities to the alliance.

For the Ukraine, induction into NATO would mean only a dangerous false sense of security under a paper security guarantee. The Ukraine would only find out that NATO was a paper guarantee when a crisis broke out and Russia was brandishing conventional or nuclear weapons.

Furthermore, despite the severe strain on the U.S. military induced by two small wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and an economic meltdown that has exacerbated the overextension of an already stretched American Empire, the U.S. policy elite hasn’t gotten those messages and is still pushing to expand the empire further.

The push for continued NATO expansion comes from U.S. defense companies, European-American ethnic interest groups, and ideological support from muscular liberals and neo-conservatives.

Even before the economic meltdown, the U.S. accounted for 43 percent of the world’s military spending but only 20 percent of its GDP — illustrating the vast overextension of the U.S. Empire. The United States spends on defense what the next 14 highest nations combined spend on security.

These nations — for example, China, India, Russia, Japan, South Korea, and members of the European Union (EU) — are the United States’ prime economic competitors. Most of these countries—spending less on defense as a percentage of GDP than the United States — experience less drag on their economies and can plough that money into generating economic growth.

Small differentials among nations in economic growth rates can, over time, reorder the standing of great powers. In the case of the European Union, the United States is actually subsidizing economic competitors by providing for their ultimate security.

Already, the EU has a greater population and GDP than the United States, but spends only half of what the U.S. does on defense. Also, the EU has 12 times the GDP and 8 times the defense spending of Russia, the only potential threat in the area. The United States should withdraw from NATO and let its rich allies defend themselves.

Although for the time being, the alliance has refused to allow the Ukraine to have a Membership Action Plan, it says that the Ukraine can still eventually join the alliance. The Ukraine ought to think twice about such a move.

Relying on the paper security guarantee of NATO membership, it would be human nature for the Ukraine to be feistier in its relations with Russia over issues such as Crimea, natural gas, etc. But if a reckless leader took power in the Ukraine, such as Georgia’s President Mikheil Saakashvili, he or she might take advantage of the NATO shield to push the Ukraine into a war with a much stronger Russia.

This leader would discover only too late that the Ukraine is much more strategic to nearby Russia than it is to the distant U.S. and that the U.S. is unwilling to risk nuclear war to defend the Ukraine.

Instead of opting for this false sense of security, the Ukraine should try to join the EU for the economic benefits and be more realistic by simply trying to get along better with Russia. Good relations will be much easier if the Ukraine is not in an alliance hostile to Russia.

In addition, as a member of NATO, the Ukraine’s foreign policy would be tied to that of the United States. At the U.S. behest, NATO has not only expanded its territory in the post-Cold War era, but has violated its defensive charter by expanding its mission to one of offensive warfare outside the treaty area.

It has been involved in places as far flung as Bosnia, Kosovo, and Afghanistan. The Ukraine, which is working on economic development, might not want to see its resources drained away in military quagmires that don’t affect its vital interests.

Polls indicate that the vast majority of Ukrainians are already well aware of the many pitfalls of joining NATO. Only 20 to 30 percent of them approve of doing so.

The Ukrainian government would be smart to heed public sentiment and reconsider its bid to join the alliance.

Ivan Eland is Director of the Center on Peace & Liberty at The Independent Institute. Dr. Eland has spent 15 years working for Congress on national security issues, including stints as an investigator for the House Foreign Affairs Committee and Principal Defense Analyst at the Congressional Budget Office. His books include The Empire Has No Clothes: U.S. Foreign Policy Exposed, and Putting “Defense” Back into U.S. Defense Policy.

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