The NATO Trap that Ukraine Can Help Defuse
Alexander J. Motyl 14 February 2022

Before taking into account the current threat of invasion of Ukraine by Russian forces, we should be reminded that a real conflict has already been going on for the past eight years – in the Donbas. Over 14.000 dead, 400.000 veterans, many of them wounded and traumatized, over 1,5 million refugees. This is a war with which Russia denies having anything to do, in the same way as it denied that it invaded and occupied Crimea.

So, what room for compromise is there? Well, my short answer would be: none within the framework of the Minsk agreements, there is no solution. Because the demands that Russia and the separatists make would simply undermine and destroy Ukraine, and the demands that Ukraine makes, which would consolidate its statehood, are simply unacceptable to Russia and the separatists. So, I see no solution, other than one that might be forced upon Ukrainians or forced upon the Russians. And of course, if one talks about force, then it’s more likely that Ukraine would be forced to accept some solution. But at this point in time, I just see no solution. So rather than invasions and things like that, I imagine that this will be a protracted, more or less frozen conflict for years to come.

In any case, Ukraine sees its salvation in NATO. That is a crucial point because it directly contravenes the Russian demand that the expansion of NATO be halted. So, let’s look a little more closely at NATO. When it enlarged some 20 years ago, I was opposed, for four main reasons. First, and least important, was that it would annoy the Russians – and as you know, it did annoy the Russians. Second was that NATO enlargement extended security guarantees to countries such as the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary that were under no imaginable security threats. There’s just nobody who can attack them – I can’t see Romania attacking Hungary, it’s just not going to happen. Third, it extended security guarantees to the Baltic states, which are intrinsically indefensible. The preponderance of weaponry that Russia could bring to Estonia would simply outclass anything that NATO could do in any short period of time. And it’s highly unlikely that any NATO member would want to risk World War Three for the sake of Narva.

And fourth, and most important, by expanding NATO as well as by expanding the European Union – and essentially, they’re coterminous – what NATO and the European Union did was to create an impossible security dilemma for Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova. Suddenly these three countries were caught in a security no man’s land between two fronts. And they still are. On the one hand, the Europeans obviously weren’t interested: if they had been interested, they might have expanded. So, they essentially snubbed Ukraine and Belarus. On the other hand, Russia, as Frank Sysyn has pointed out, had its neo-imperial designs and held out its arms. So that created an impossible situation. The approach adopted both by Belarus and Ukraine was a two-vector foreign policy, which was the only rational response to being in this no man’s land. That eventually came to be abandoned in Ukraine in 2014, with the Maidan revolution and invasion by Russia of Crimea and the Donbas. Belarus resolved it in a different fashion: after the mass demonstrations of one year ago, Lukashenko decided to turn eastwards. So, Ukraine turns westwards, Belarus turns eastwards.

Ukraine wants salvation within NATO, but if one looks a little more closely at NATO, a few important things leap to one’s attention. One is that NATO has no army. It’s the individual armies of individual member states that would or would not be called to help Ukraine. As you know, the vast majority of European armies are underfunded, neglected and in terrible shape. Those of the United Kingdom and Poland are the exceptions. So even if Ukraine were to join tomorrow, in some miraculous fashion, it’s not at all clear to me that the Europeans would be able to defend it. Then there’s the question of desire and willingness. Can you seriously imagine Germans marching into Poltava? I can’t. Can you seriously imagine the French or the Italians or the Dutch marching into Kyiv or Kharkiv? I can’t. I could see 50 advisors, but I can’t see any genuine military involvement.

Finally, there’s that famous article 5, which supposedly obligates all the member countries to respond to an attack on one of them as an attack on all. And everybody stops reading article 5 at that point, but that article continues, and it says very explicitly that they will then respond according to their own designs. So, they have the right to respond any way they like! That means one country might send in troops – I can’t imagine which country that would be – and others could do other things. I would bet that the Germans would organize a peace conference, the French would have a march down the Champs-Elysées, and so on. That would be the response – and they would be acting in accordance with article 5!

In sum, it’s not clear at all to me that NATO could in fact defend Ukraine or would want to defend Ukraine or could actually pull it off. There are just too many imponderables. Now, that’s not to say that Ukraine should change its Constitution, because it contains a point about joining NATO; it’s not to say that Ukraine shouldn’t try to emulate NATO, be like NATO, become closer to NATO, work and cooperate with NATO and everybody else. But we shouldn’t have any illusions about NATO’s capacity or willingness to intervene and help Ukraine.

That brings me to the final point. The Russians, as you know, essentially made three demands: one is that rocketry and missiles be in some ways redeployed; two is that NATO troops be redeployed – and of course these issues don’t concern Ukraine directly. And third, the point that they make continually is that Ukraine should not be in NATO. Now the Russians explicitly say that Ukraine will not be in NATO for the next 20 years. NATO says, and each of the member countries of NATO also says, that Ukraine won’t be a member of NATO for the next 20 years. And if you listen to Ukrainian policy-makers and analysts, they too agree that Ukraine will not be in NATO for the next 20 years. This is an artificial fight. And there’s a danger that this particular artificial fight could actually lead to a war over a non-issue! It’s as if they were arguing over whether Ukraine should become the 51st state of the United States, with America saying, “Well, of course the door is always open”, and Ukraine saying, “Yes, we need to become the 51st state”, and the Russians saying, “No, that will never happen”. Even though of course everybody understands that will never happen!

So, what’s the solution? Ukraine can make a very important contribution to defusing the tensions and attaining compromise by taking the initiative and stating what everybody knows; that it will not be a NATO member in 20 years. In other words, Ukraine should declare a moratorium, obviously in consultation with the partners and allies in the West. But I am sure that the United States and Europe would be relieved if Ukraine made that point, because then they wouldn’t have to continue lying that the door is always open, even though everybody knows that the door is completely shut! And at the same time, the Russians wouldn’t be able to claim as Putin recently did that if Ukraine ever becomes a member of NATO it would move to attack Crimea, which is totally stupid, but again reflective of the artificiality of many of the issues being discussed.

So, to conclude on a potentially positive note. I find people arguing this point in Ukraine as well as in the West – that Ukraine could declare a moratorium, that this would probably be acceptable to Russia as well as the West. And then the rest, the other issues regarding the placement of rockets as well as troops, those can be discussed one-on-one between the United States and Russia, possibly including the Europeans.


Alexander J. Motyl is professor of political science at Rutgers University-Newark. 


Cover Photo: Dursun Aydemir (Anadolu Agency via AFP).

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