Prof. Schultz: US Remains Adamant that NATO Membership for Ukraine is Not Immediate - MRU

14 July, 2023
Prof. Schultz: US Remains Adamant that NATO Membership for Ukraine is Not Immediate

Mykolas Romeris University (MRU) Justice LAB member and US Hamline University Political Science Prof. David Schultz in his article attempts to explain the US position on Ukraine's possible NATO membership in the future. He writes that the NATO Summit in Vilnius held July 11th -12th showed the gap between the US and the rest of NATO members, when it came to whether Ukraine should be allowed in now or in the foreseeable future. 

The recently concluded NATO conference in Vilnius was notable for many reasons.  Perhaps one of the more significant results was the gap between the USA and the rest of the NATO members when it came to the question of whether Ukraine should be allowed in now or in the foreseeable future.  The US remains adamant that NATO membership for Ukraine is not immediate.

This difference of opinion or perspective is not the only one separating the US from the other NATO members or Europe in general.  Despite more than 500 days of war, there are still differences in how the US foreign policy establishment views European security issues.  What are some of those differences and how does the US view the Russian-Ukrainian war?

 Russia as a regional Geo-political threat.    Back in the 1990s and early 2000s there was a belief that Russia was not a security threat to the US or the rest of Europe. The breakup of the USSR was seen by many in the US foreign policy establishment that the US had won the cold war and that Russia would soon join the ranks of the West as it democratized.  Francis Fukuyama’s famous The End of History and the Last Man captured that American belief.  At one point there was talk of offering NATO membership to Russia.

 It was not until 2014 when Russia invaded Crimea and other parts of Ukraine that US President Barak Obama declared that at best Russia was a “regional power” posing no threat to  the US or to Europe's security.  Largely ignored were arguments by officials in Lithuania and other neighbors of Russia that it remained a threat that did not subside when the Soviet Union collapsed.  Moreover, it was not even clear that the US viewed Ukraine as part of Europe, again perhaps no more than a satellite within the Russian orbit.

The 2022 Russian has changed the American perspective somewhat. Ukraine is now viewed as part of the West. Russia is a growing threat to European stability.  Russia is not a direct but indirect threat to US security.  The US still does not fully appreciate the threat that Russia poses to either European or American security.  It is viewed still mostly as a regional power, although one that does need to be contained.

 Slow escalation of US aid to Ukraine is necessary to avoid war with Russia. Joe Biden does not want the US to go to war against Russia.  At every stage in the war he has moved slowly in aid or weapons out of fear that the next step could provoke a direct war.  In effect, the Russian threat of nuclear retaliation has scared off the US.

 What the US fails to realize is that Putin’ Russia responds to strength and not weakness. The slow escalation has done little to hasten the end of the war or deter Russia. Instead this is viewed as a sign of weakness with a Russian belief that at some point the US will tire of supporting Ukraine and either give up (especially if Trump is re-elected in 2024) or push Ukraine into land concessions and negotiations.

The US favors a slow war without clear objectives.  The US has never made clear what its goals are or what the end game for the war is.  Officially America has refused to say what victory in Ukraine looks like. Is it returning to the 1991 borders?  Is it returning to the 2014 borders?  Is it a Ukraine in NATO or the EU?

Moreover, there seems to be a sense among much of the foreign policy establishment that a slow protracted war is a way to deplete Russian resources.    The aim appears to be to degrade Russian military and economic capabilities but without directly saying how this impacts the war in the short term or Russia longer term.

 The war ends with a Korean solution. The US does not appear to want a Ukraine military victory over Russia.  Fear of a Russian regime collapse and belief in its destabilizing impact may be driving this thinking.  But additionally, the foreign policy establishment is coming to see a negotiated settlement to end the  war, offering the Korean solution.  The Korean War never officially ended.  The agreement was for a ceasefire and division between North and South Korea at a negotiated border.  This too is being discussed where, in effect, there is so to speak East and West Ukraine, with the former including Crimea and whatever lands in Eastern Ukraine that Russia continues to hold at a specific negotiated date.

NATO Membership for Ukraine comes after the war ends with a divided county. A divided Ukraine along the lines of Korea sets up NATO membership along the lines of the East and West Germany model. Two Ukraine emerge, with one offered membership in NATO and the EU, the other outside of it.   Issues of reunification of Ukraine are effectively pushed into the future.

 A Two-Ukraine policy deters China.  The US looks at the Russian invasion of Ukraine as a potential preclude to a Chinese invasion of Taiwan.   The US views China as its main global threat. One of the mainstays of US China relations is a dispute over Taiwan.  China insists on eventual reunification, the US does not support it, although it does not presently recognize or have a two-China policy.  Supporting or encouraging an end to the war with a divided-Ukraine that depletes Russian resources without pulling the US into direct conflict preserves American resources for its conflict with China while also establishing a precedent for a divided China-Taiwan.

 The Ukrainian War is a dividing point for US partisan politics.  The US has national elections in 2024. At present US public opinion supports sending supplies to Ukraine and it views Russia unfavorably. But it does not support direct engagement between the US and Russia.    However, with the possibility of Trump being the Republican nominee for president, the war will be an issue and factor in terms of how the Biden administration thus far and into 2024 acts and what it sees as its goals and timelines.