The Pentagon recently announced that at the request of the Polish government more U.S. troops would be deployed to Poland and at the request of Ukraine’s government more military assistance would be rendered to Ukraine, including missiles, radar equipment as well as more joint military exercises. All of these are positive steps in the European and U.S. relationship. What is missing in these recent announcements by the currently rudderless Pentagon has been in fact on the table since the Bucharest Summit in 2008.
During his most recent visit to the United Kingdom, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy raised this issue once again. Ukraine needs a Membership Action Plan (MAP) for NATO. In 2008 the U.S. under President George W. Bush was prepared to make that happen. It was stymied by France and Germany, two historically Russia-friendly states. Eight months later in Brussels the issue was a mere mention in the final communique. Since then there has been an unnerving quiet.
A good portion of the blame lies with Ukraine itself, which was ruled from February 2010 to February 2014 by a Russian surrogate. NATO MAP was a non-issue. For the remaining two years of U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration the matter lay dormant. Ukraine was digging itself out from the Russian quagmire of influence under former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych and the ensuing active hostilities between the two countries. Mr. Obama decided to lay low without direct involvement in the conflict except through sanctions. U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration was at best lost time for Ukraine.
What does Ukrainian membership in NATO offer the alliance? Firepower! Of the 29 NATO member states, only the following seven have more firepower: U.S., France, U.K., Turkey, Germany, Italy and Poland. Ukraine is considered the 27th most powerful state in the world with a standing military of more than a quarter million soldiers. Of NATO countries, only the United States, Turkey and France have a larger military. Ukraine’s deficiencies are economic, which is understandable given its Soviet legacy. NATO’s lack of firepower during the halcyon relationship period with the Trump administration was a genuine cause for concern. European members of NATO began forging a strictly European defense alliance. This period of uncertainty and relative distrust not only emphasized the importance of American leadership, but the role that Europe would need to assume under exigent circumstances.
What does NATO offer Ukraine? It is not an absolute defense, but rather the appearance of security and, certainly, a game changer for Ukraine in its worrisome relationship with a historic enemy. There are hurdles such as defense modernization and ending the current conflict, but a MAP for Ukraine would be a tangible step in the right direction. U.S. President-elect Joe Biden stressed his desire to engage in the peace process. He also stated that Russia is the number one adversary of the United States. Russia is also the number one adversary of Ukraine. America and Ukraine are natural allies. Furthermore, America’s involvement in the Russia-Ukraine conflict would lend credence to NATO’s mission as a peacekeeping alliance, keeping Europe safe from Russian aggression.
Similarly to Mr. Zelenskyy’s inquiry on MAP in London, Ukraine needs to send a message to America’s new leadership as soon as possible that Ukraine wants America at the peace table, whether it be in Minsk or, preferably, elsewhere and that it depends upon America’s sponsorship of its Membership Action Plan in NATO. Mr. Zelenskyy has commenced the dialogue by congratulating Mr. Biden on his electoral victory. The Ukrainian-American community could be helpful in this, but at the present time it lacks leadership. Nonetheless, America under Mr. Biden, who recognizes both Russia as an adversary and Ukraine as America’s strategic ally, would assume the mantle required both by American and Ukrainian interests.
In essence, these are short term goals which can be addressed in the very near future. The message will be very clear to Russia and America’s allies that America is back as the unquestioned leader of the democratic world community. Ukraine would have an ally it can trust.
Askold S. Lozynskyj is an attorney at law based in New York City who served as president of the Ukrainian World Congress in 1998-2008.