Defusing the crisis in Europe: A better idea Ukraine than NATO membership

This week, American officials are expected to hold a series of meetings with other NATO states and Russia to discuss the security crisis in Europe. With Russia deploying some 100,000 troops near Ukraine’s borders — plenty to cause lots of mischief and conduct limited land grabs, even if not enough to seize the country — the issue is acute. If things get out of hand, we quickly could find ourselves at our most dangerous moment in world politics since the Cold War ended. 

Russia demands that, to defuse the crisis, the United States and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s other 29 members must promise not to include Ukraine or other former Soviet republics such as Georgia in the alliance in the future. Russia also insists that we promise not to station weapons in existing NATO member states in Eastern Europe, such as Poland and the Baltic states, that have joined the alliance since the Cold War ended.  

NATO cannot give in to Russian bullying or allow Russia a sphere of influence over its formerly subjugated neighbors. So any deal on Russian President Vladimir PutinVladimir Vladimirovich PutinRussia: Nothing less than NATO expansion ban is acceptable Biden huddles with group of senators on Ukraine-Russia tensions US providing Ukraine with additional 0M in military aid amid tensions with Russia MORE’s proposed terms would be unacceptable.

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But we need to change the conversation at its fundamental level and develop new concepts for European security. Ukraine and Georgia should not be in NATO — even if Moscow should not be allowed to decide that for them. 

At present, we arguably have created the worst of all worlds. At its 2008 summit, NATO promised eventual membership to Ukraine and Georgia, but it did so without offering any specificity as to when or how that might happen. For now, these countries, as well as other Eastern European neutral states, get no military protection from NATO members. Knowing of our eventual interest in bringing these nations into an alliance that he sees as adversarial, Putin has every incentive to keep them weak and unstable so they will not become eligible for NATO membership. That fact, plus Russia’s desire to dominate its neighbors, are at the root of this crisis, and also help explain why Russia has destabilized both Georgia and Ukraine over the past 14 years.

It is time that Western nations begin to envision a new security architecture for those neutral countries in Eastern Europe today. The conversation should begin within NATO, and then include those countries themselves before we actually negotiate any arrangement with Moscow.  But the conversation can begin at a more philosophical and general level with Russia, too, in the meetings this week. 

The core concept for future security in Eastern Europe would be one of permanent neutrality for former Soviet republics that are not now in NATO — Ukraine and Moldova and Belarus, as well as Georgia and Armenia and Azerbaijan. 

The new security architecture would require that Russia, like NATO, commit to help uphold the security of Ukraine, Georgia and other states in the region. Russia would have to withdraw its troops from those countries in a verifiable manner (though the Crimea issue would have to be finessed, since Moscow almost certainly will not give that strategic peninsula on the Black Sea back to Ukraine, after giving it to Ukraine in the 1950s and then grabbing it back with its “little green men” in 2014). 

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After that has occurred, corresponding sanctions imposed on Russia because of its aggressions against neighbors would be lifted, though “snapback” provisions would remain in case Russia subsequently violated its promises to keep its hands off those fully sovereign and independent nations.

The neutral countries would retain their rights to participate in multilateral security operations on a scale comparable to what has been the case in the past, even those operations that might be led by NATO. They could think of themselves and describe themselves as Western states (or anything else, for that matter). They would have complete sovereignty and self-determination in every sense of the word; someday, if invited, they could join the European Union. But they would not be American allies in any formal sense; we would not promise to defend them as if they were U.S. territory, which is ultimately what it means to be a part of NATO.

Ukraine and Georgia are wonderful, but faraway, countries that are hard to defend and much less central to American security than to Russia’s sense of its place in the world — and, yes, to its sense of its own security. The fact that a strongman such as Putin is the one making demands about them, and doing so in unreasonable terms, does not mean we should ignore Russia’s concerns.  

These countries should not be in NATO — at least, not until the entire European security order has been transformed in such a way that NATO membership would mean something entirely different than it does today. We are overdue for a serious discussion about security orders for Eastern Europe and that conversation should begin now.

Michael O'Hanlon is a senior fellow and director of research in the foreign policy studies program at the Brookings Institution, where he holds the Philip H. Knight Chair in Defense and Strategy. He is the author of the 2017 book, “Beyond NATO: A New Security Architecture for Eastern Europe.” Follow him on Twitter @MichaelEOHanlon.