Placing Ukraine on the path to NATO membership is currently promoted by Kiev and some forces in the West, who believe in getting tough with Russia.
There are plenty of reasons why the West wants to rein Russia in. The war with Georgia in August 2008, the recent annexation of Crimea and the hybrid war in Ukraine are all evidence of expansionist behavior that concerns Europe and the United States. Some see arming Ukraine, and making it a NATO member, as the best way of achieving stability. This, however, is a dangerous idea.
There are reasons to believe that the move will provoke Russia, a country that already feels threatened by the West’s growing influence in Eastern Europe ever since the collapse of communism.
To Russian foreign policy experts, NATO remains one of the most tangible threats to the country. That is no surprise, given that it was created as a Western alliance against the Soviet Union.
In 2008, the United States first started openly pushing for Georgia and Ukraine’s membership in the alliance. At the time, Russia responded with alarm. As early as June 2006, Russia’s foreign minister said that Ukraine or Georgia joining NATO could lead to a colossal shift in global geopolitics. Fearful of the consequences of admitting the countries into the alliance, France and Germany managed to block membership at the NATO Summit in April 2008, which was held in Bucharest.
It is not just NATO that has Russia on edge. The United States and other leading Western nations like France, Britain and Germany, endorsed the “color revolutions” in former Soviet countries like Georgia, Kyrgyzstan and Ukraine, which were seen as highly destabilizing by Russia.
Then, in February 2014, Western governments supported the Maidan protests in Kiev, which the Kremlin feared could be a prelude to revolution in Russia itself. As President Vladimir Putin put it in his Crimea speech, “with Ukraine, our Western partners have crossed the line, playing the bear and acting irresponsibly and unprofessionally.”
The tense stand-off that followed between the West and Russia resulted in an ever-worsening situation in Ukraine and the widest-ranging sanctions against Russia since the end of the Cold War. Relations keep hitting new lows, and will only deteriorate further if NATO membership for Ukraine remains on the Western agenda.
Is the West prepared for an aggressive response by Putin to the perceived NATO threat?
Putin has boldly tested the West’s will on numerous occasions. The European Leadership Initiative Network recently issued a report in which it documented about 40 dangerous incidents between Russia and NATO planes since March 2014. The incidents included “violations of national airspace, emergency scrambles, narrowly avoided mid-air collisions, close encounters at sea, simulated attack runs and other dangerous happenings,” according to the report.
Among the routine skirmishes taking place, there have been 11 “serious” incidents, such Russian planes flying unusually close to Western warships. More worryingly still, three incidents last year ran a high risk of leading to either casualties or direct military intervention. The ‘submarine hunt’ in Swedish waters in October, the Russian abduction of a veteran Estonian intelligence officer in September, and a near-collision of a Russian surveillance plane with an SAS flight from Copenhagen, Denmark, to Rome in March: all of these incidents could have led to unintended escalation.
Meanwhile, the West seems unwilling to respond to Russia with resolve. Russia seized the Estonian officer a mere two days after President Barack Obama visited Tallinn and promised Estonia full military support. NATO and the European Union called for a strong response to the incident, but so far no such response followed, indicating the lack of will to engage with an aggressive Russia.
In Russia, support for robust actions only grows stronger by the day. Due to the economic sanctions and domestic propaganda campaign, the overwhelming majority of Russians now view the Western nations as enemies seeking to destroy Russia and its leaders. If need be, the Kremlin will have no serious difficulty finding public support for an outright military intervention in Ukraine.
The solution to this is not NATO membership for Ukraine. Such a move will only contribute to turning Russia from an angry but manageable power into a real enemy and, possibly, starting a wider war in Europe.
Stability hinges on the West agreeing not to pull Ukraine into NATO or the EU. For the time being, it is beneficial to have Russia as a co-provider of Ukraine’s security and development, together with the West.
In a longer run, a new conference on European security must be called to formally end the post-Cold War era and establish a security system with Russia and Ukraine as key players.
Andrei Tsygankov is a professor of International Relations and Political Science at San Francisco State University. His latest book, The Strong State in Russia, was published by OUP.