Blinken’s response to Russia NATO demand is frankly disturbing
Yesterday the U.S. State Department submitted written responses to Russian negotiating positions in the ongoing U.S.-Russia negotiations over the Ukraine crisis. The exact text and details of the responses are confidential. However, Secretary of State Blinken’s statement regarding the content of the U.S. response is disturbing. At a press briefing, Blinken reaffirmed the U.S. refusal to engage with the core Russian position that the Ukraine should not be permitted to enter NATO, adding that in the written response “we make clear that there are core principles that we are committed to uphold and defend — including Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and the right of states to choose their own security arrangements and alliances.”
This is problematic from several perspectives. At the most basic level, it indicates that the U.S. is refusing to seek compromise regarding what Russia believes to be a core national security interest, namely that the U.S. should not make an alliance commitment to the military defense of Ukraine. Russia views Ukraine as a strategically critical nation due to its location directly on the Russian border and deep historical and cultural ties to Eastern Ukraine.
As Secretary Blinken must understand, NATO membership is not a decision made by Ukraine alone, and his claim that NATO membership is simply a matter of the Ukraine’s “right to choose” its own security arrangements is deeply misleading. NATO membership involves a two-way commitment, not simply the free choices of the entering member. Current alliance members must commit to mutual defense of the new member. Since the U.S. has by far the largest and most effective military forces in NATO, the most vital element of NATO membership is the American commitment to defend member borders. So Russia’s negotiating position is directed at a potential American commitment to defend Ukraine. Rather than engage honestly with the question of whether such an American military commitment really makes sense, Blinken deflects and reframes it as a matter of “core principles” around Ukraine’s choices and sovereignty.
In the long term, this indicates an unwillingness to grapple with the question of how to align American military commitments and resources with our long-term strategic interests, and whether Ukraine represents a core interest which justifies the placement of many tens or even hundreds of thousands of new troops in Europe and risking a major war with another nuclear power.
More importantly in the short term, it digs the U.S. into a position “on principle” that no compromise whatsoever is available on the critical question of Ukrainian membership in NATO. This is particularly confusing because the Biden Administration has been clear that it is currently unwilling to directly commit the U.S. military to the defense of Ukraine – which is precisely what would be immediately required if Ukraine became a NATO member. A credible defense for Ukraine would require a massive increase in U.S. forces in Europe, possibly approaching Cold War level ground and air forces. It is hard to see any domestic appetite for expending this level of resources, and internationally an immediate beneficiary would be China.