If Ukraine isn’t joining NATO, what is Putin doing?

Some of the assumptions that many of us probably made as the tensions surrounding Russia and Ukraine mounted may have turned out to be incorrect, or at least overinflated. That seems to be the premise being put forward by Robert Burns in an Associated Press “explainer” this week. Chief among the demands made by Vladimir Putin is his insistence that NATO and the United States formally sign off on an agreement that Ukraine will never be offered membership in the treaty organization. If he’s moved more than 100,000 troops near Ukraine’s borders, one might assume that such a membership deal was in the offing, right? But Burns argues that not only is Ukraine not currently in the process of seeking membership, but NATO is unlikely to approve such an application in the foreseeable future, if ever. But is that really true?

At the core of the Ukraine crisis is a puzzle: Why would Russian President Vladimir Putin push Europe to the brink of war to demand the West not do something that it has no plan to do anyway?

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

Putin’s demands go beyond the question of Ukraine’s association with NATO, but that link is central to his complaint that the West has pushed him to the limits of his patience by edging closer to Russian borders.

Burns claims that NATO would be unlikely to offer Ukraine membership. Their reasons, according to this explanation, center on the country’s “official corruption” and “lack of control over its international borders.”

That must have been a rather painful analysis for the AP to publish. Any mention of “official corruption” in Ukraine immediately summons up visions of Hunter Biden and, potentially, his famous father. Mind you, I’m not arguing against the idea that the Ukrainian government is mired in corruption. They’re infamous for it. But it’s just been an unpopular topic for the media to tackle ever since Joe Biden launched his presidential campaign.

And as far as the idea of Ukraine not having control of its borders goes, Russia is the primary cause of that problem. But looking over the ongoing Biden border crisis along the southwestern edge of our own nation, we might ask if NATO is starting to rethink America’s membership as well.

Are the claims about NATO’s supposed reticence regarding Ukrainian membership accurate? Well… there might be something to that. We are reminded that NATO did release an official statement back in 2008 declaring that both Ukraine and Georgie “will become members of NATO.” (Likely starting Putin’s line of thinking about this.) But the statement offered no suggestion as to when that might happen or what barriers would stand in the way of approving such an application. Also, both Germany and France issued their own statements at the time expressing strong opposition to seeing Ukraine move towards gaining membership.

Further, while it’s true that the current President of Ukraine has spoken optimistically about his nation joining the alliance, NATO still has yet to offer them an official “Membership Action Plan,” the usual first step in the process. Such a plan would outline what conditions would need to be met prior to any approval of their application.

Still, the 2008 declaration could be seen as explaining Moscow’s concern that Kyiv eventually will join the alliance. But if such a plan were put forward, NATO would almost certainly require sweeping reforms to the way Ukraine’s government operates, delivering more transparency and new safeguards against official corruption. (They might not go so far as to ban Hunter Biden from entering the country, though.)

Considering all of those factors, it does seem unlikely that Ukraine will be gaining a seat at the NATO table in the foreseeable future. But Putin’s demands go much further than that. He wants NATO troops and military hardware to be withdrawn from Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. He’s also complaining about missile defense installations in Romania and Poland. It seems unlikely that NATO is going to agree to any changes along those lines. But if I can play devil’s advocate here for a moment, Putin’s position isn’t entirely crazy. While others have made this argument before, it’s worth repeating. If China suddenly announced a new economic and military agreement with Mexico and began massing troops and missile systems in Tijuana, how would the United States react?

All NATO has been saying thus far is that every nation in Europe has the right to pick its own allies and even apply for membership if they wish. They have not assured that everyone would get in. Perhaps if they could clarify that a bit it might give Putin an opening to deescalate the situation with Ukraine and still save face in the process.

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