News from Ukraine: Ukraine not joining NATO, so why is Putin worried?

At the heart of the Ukraine crisis lies a conundrum: why would Russian President Vladimir Putin push Europe to the brink of war to demand that the West not do something he has no intention of doing? do anyway?

Russia says NATO, the US-led alliance that has the biggest European crisis in its hands in decades, must never offer membership to Ukraine, which gained independence when the he Soviet Union broke up about 30 years ago. Ukraine has long aspired to join NATO, but the alliance is not about to offer an invitation, in part because of Ukraine’s official corruption, shortcomings in its defense system and its lack of control over its international borders.

Putin’s demands go beyond the question of Ukraine’s association with NATO, but that connection is at the heart of his complaint that the West has pushed him to the limits of his patience by closing in Russian borders. He claims that the expansion of NATO years ago enhanced its security at the expense of Russia’s.

The Russians are demanding a legal guarantee that Ukraine will be denied NATO membership, knowing that NATO, as a matter of principle, has never ruled out the potential membership of any European country _ even Russia _ but has no plans to launch Ukraine on the path to membership in the foreseeable future. The principle cited by NATO is that all nations should be free to choose with whom they align themselves.

Why, then, is Moscow questioning Ukraine’s relations with NATO now? The answer is complicated.

WHY IS PUTIN WORRIED ABOUT UKRAINE’S NATO MEMBERSHIP?

The reason given is that a further eastward expansion of NATO would pose a security threat to Russia. Washington and its allies deny this is a valid concern, as no NATO country is threatening to use force against Russia.

More broadly, Putin wants NATO to withdraw its existing military presence in Eastern Europe, which includes a series of regularly rotating exercises in Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, all former Soviet states. There are no US troops permanently based in these three Baltic countries; currently there are about 100 on a rotating tour in Lithuania and about 60 in Estonia and Latvia combined, according to the Pentagon.

Putin also opposes NATO’s missile defense presence in Romania, a former Soviet satellite state, and a similar base being developed in Poland, saying they could be converted into offensive weapons capable of threatening the Russia. President Joe Biden this week approved sending 2,700 additional US troops to Eastern Europe — 1,700 to Poland and 1,000 to Romania — plus 300 to Germany.

Ukraine has deep historical and cultural ties with Russia, and Putin has repeatedly asserted that Russians and Ukrainians are “one people”. He said large parts of Ukrainian territory are historical parts of Russia that were arbitrarily granted to Ukraine by communist leaders. under the Soviet Union.

Putin recently outlined his concern about Ukraine more specifically. He outlined a scenario in which Ukraine could use military force to reclaim the Crimean peninsula, which Russia seized from Ukraine in 2014, or to retake areas of eastern Ukraine that are now effectively controlled by Russian-backed separatists.

“Imagine Ukraine becoming a member of NATO and launching these military operations,” Putin said. ‘Should we then fight NATO? Has anyone thought of that?’

Indeed, some NATO members have been thinking about the prospect of an expanded war with Russia inside Ukraine. It’s a reminder of what NATO membership means – an attack on one is an attack on all, which in the theoretical case of Russia attacking Ukraine would mean a legal commitment of each member of NATO to defend it.

WHAT ARE UKRAINE’S PROSPECTS FOR JOINING NATO?

The outlook is extremely unlikely for the foreseeable future.

Although Ukraine has no offer of NATO membership, it has grown closer to the alliance over time, beginning with the establishment in 1997 of a NATO-Ukraine charter to further develop Cooperation.

NATO heads of government publicly declared in 2008 that Ukraine, and its former Soviet republic of Georgia, “will become members of NATO”. They didn’t say when or how, but the statement could be seen as explaining Moscow’s concern that it will eventually join the alliance.

On the other hand, the United States and other NATO leaders who signed the 2008 declaration on Ukraine and Georgia decided not to give them what is called an action plan for membership – a pathway to eventual membership. Germany and France strongly opposed Ukraine’s move towards membership and the broader view within NATO was that Ukraine should carry out far-reaching government reforms before to become a candidate for membership.

This apparent contradiction has never been resolved, which means that as long as NATO’s door is open, Ukraine will not pass any time soon.

HOW IS PUTIN PUTTING PRESSURE ON UKRAINE?

Moscow says it has no intention of invading Ukraine, but over the past few months it has amassed a strong network of combat forces along Ukraine’s borders and hinted that he would take action if his demands of Washington and NATO are not met. The Biden administration says Russia is now capable of a wide range of actions, including a full-scale invasion to capture Kiev.

Putin says NATO has gone too far not only by providing Ukraine with weapons and military training, but also by stationing forces in other Eastern European countries that compromise Russian security.

It is also true that the increase in US and NATO military presence in Eastern Europe over the past decade has been triggered by Russia’s annexation of the Crimean peninsula and its incursion into eastern Ukraine in 2014. These Russian actions prompted NATO to redouble its attention to collective security. In September 2014, NATO leaders established a new rapid reaction force capable of deploying within days, and reaffirmed their commitment to increase defense spending.

Christi C. Elwood