Ukraine NATO Membership: Why US, EU Won't Test Russia's 'Red Lines' Despite Pentagon Chief's Bravado
US Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin claimed on 19 October that Russia had no right to veto NATO's membership decisions when it comes to Ukraine. What's behind the Pentagon's renewed rhetoric about Ukraine's admission to NATO?
Pentagon chief Lloyd Austin has kicked off a three-leg visit to Georgia, Ukraine, and Romania before attending the NATO Defence Ministerial in Brussels in a bid to "reassure allies and partners of America's commitment to their sovereignty in the face of Russian aggression".
Both Georgia and Ukraine are seeking membership in the transatlantic military alliance. However, under NATO rules, countries with territorial conflicts and disputes cannot join the bloc.
Will Washington Walk the Talk?
Although Ukraine's admission to NATO is blocked by the alliance's own rules, Washington is pinning the blame on Moscow: according to Austin, it's Russia who has "occupied" Crimea and is "perpetuating the war in Eastern Ukraine". Meanwhile, Moscow resolutely denies having Russian troops in Donbass and cites the legitimacy of the Crimean referendum.
While Washington is encouraging Kiev to implement reforms in the defence sector to become eligible for NATO membership, Moscow has warned the US that any expansion of NATO military installations in Ukraine would cross its "red lines".
"Austin has been visiting various European countries to consolidate the adherence to US interests following the split of NATO de facto creating an Eastern NATO focused on Russian containment and a Western NATO focused on neighbourhood and Indo-Pacific", says Paolo Raffone, a strategic analyst and director of the CIPI Foundation in Brussels.
According to the scholar, the potential NATO membership of Ukraine or Georgia is "evidently a US card in the chessboard with Russia": "Ukraine and Georgia are necessary stakes for the US policy in Europe", he says.
Other addressees of Austin's message are Washington's European allies "that must operate within the established balance of power guaranteed by NATO", Raffone points out.
However, not all European countries are in favour of Ukraine or Georgia joining NATO, remarks Eurasia Centre Vice President Earl Rasmussen.
The debate over their NATO membership has been going on for 13 years. Still, neither of the countries has ever been granted membership plans. The problem is that NATO allies do not seem willing to get involved in territorial disputes simmering in the two Eastern European states or risk confrontation with Russia.
27 September 2021, 13:03 GMT
Furthermore, neither Georgia nor Ukraine has "a global strategic relevance", highlights Raffone. This raises the question whether their admission would make any sense for NATO in the long term perspective. In light of this, Austin's pledges look like mere rhetoric, according to the Brussels-based strategic analyst.
"I do not think that the US will engage in crossing the 'red lines', but it needs to show, domestically and to the allies, that it moves hands-free", Raffone says. "Should anybody in Washington think to expand NATO further to the East in the current situation, it would have unpredictable consequences on the already fragile cohesion of the EU".
The prospect of Ukraine's membership in NATO
is "very distant, perhaps even more distant than the prospect of EU membership", echoes Nicolai N. Petro, a professor of political science at the University of Rhode Island, specialising in Ukraine and Russia.
20 October 2021, 13:00 GMT
What's Behind Washington's Anti-Russia Rhetoric?
Meanwhile, Austin's bravado resembles nothing as much as being part of the Biden administration's attempts to divert US public attention from snowballing domestic issues, according to Earl Rasmussen. The US has made repeated attempts "to bully China and Russia" and even irritated many of its traditional allies, he notes, citing the AUKUS deal, which saw the expulsion of French defence contractors from a lucrative submarine deal with Australia.
The latest effort to revive the Trump-Russia "collusion" saga
with ex-MI6 agent Christopher Steele repeating already debunked allegations on US mainstream channels is also part of this game, according to the Eurasia Centre vice president.
Behind this game is the fact that the US is now nine months into the Biden-Harris Administration and "things do not look good", Rasmussen underscores.
"We have essentially an open border to the South with over 200,000 illegal refugees a month, many of which are testing positive for COVID-19 as well", the scholar says. "Inflation is running at near 30 year highs and some are predicting a major recession next year. We are spending like crazy and have little to show for it".
Meanwhile, Joe Biden's approval rating is continuing to plummet. A new Quinnipiac University poll
shows that 52% of American respondents disapprove of the way Biden is handling his job as president. In addition, 50% also hold unfavourable opinions of the incumbent president.
To complicate matters further, Biden has yet to pass his milestone $3.5 trillion social spending bill, which is seen by many of his allies as the way to improve his poll numbers. The argument with the GOP over raising the debt ceiling is adding fuel to the fire.
Under these circumstances, obviously Washington needs a distraction and of course Russia seems to be the ever present boogeyman, Rasmussen concludes.