Vice President Kamala Harris, fresh off a diplomatic mission to Poland and Romania, is risking to ignite further diplomatic tensions between NATO and Russia with her problematic assertions that defending Ukraine is a responsibility of the NATO alliance.
“The United States stands firmly with the Ukrainian people in defense of the NATO alliance,” Harris said. “The ocean that separates us will not leave us untouched by this aggression.”
Harris made the remarks at a gathering of the Democratic National Committee in Washington D.C. on Saturday. She recently made a similar statement while with the Polish President Andrzej Duda at a much-pilloried press appearance.
“I am here, standing here on the northern flank — on the eastern flank talking about what we have in terms of the eastern flank and our NATO Allies and what is at stake at this very moment,” Harris said. “What is at stake this very moment are some of the guiding principles around the NATO Alliance and, in particular, the issue and the importance of defending sovereignty and territorial integrity, in this case, of Ukraine.”
Ukraine is not a NATO member state. One of the primary sources of Russian-Ukrainian tensions leading to Putin’s invasion was the insistence that Ukraine join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization instead of remaining a historic neutral buffer state with Western Europe.
Russia’s peace terms with Ukraine are insistent on neutrality in the Ukrainian constitution, as well as recognizing Crimea as Russian, and recognizing two separatist regions as independent. Harris’s statements fly in the face of the first condition, and will only fan the flames of Russian-U.S. tensions.
In 2008, prior to the Russian invasion of Georgia, NATO issued a Bucharest declaration declaring its intention to eventually make Georgia and Ukraine member states. The debate over the issue, as provided by the Congressional Research Service, is illustrative:
“A contentious discussion at Bucharest occurred over whether to admit Georgia and Ukraine to the MAP. U.S. State Department officials have contended that only Germany opposed the MAP for the two governments because Berlin was concerned about a negative reaction in Moscow to putting two neighboring countries on the road to membership. However, interviews of representatives of allied governments indicate a more complicated discussion, and broader opposition. NATO makes decisions on the basis of consensus, and a vote is sometimes not taken on an issue that cannot be fully resolved. That was the case in this instance. According to CRS interviews, in addition to Germany, representatives of France and at least two other governments indicated that they wish the MAP process to go more slowly; they opposed Georgia’s and Ukraine’s entry into the MAP at this time. Several other governments also opposed the MAP for Georgia and Ukraine but would not have blocked consensus had it been within reach, which it was not. While some governments indicated a desire not to antagonize Russia, they said that larger issues were also considered.
A majority of Ukraine’s population opposes NATO membership; some allies believe that Kiev must persuade its population of the value of membership before the MAP process can begin. Some allies also believe that Georgia must first stage its parliamentary elections in May and achieve acceptable international standards, and that it must make progress on resolving its two “frozen” conflicts within its territory. Some allies also raised another subject, not directly related to the two countries’ qualifications. These allies believe that progress must be made to ensure greater energy security in countries vulnerable to a Russian cut-off of their energy resources.”
The allies agreed in the communiqué nonetheless that: “We agreed today that these countries [Georgia and Ukraine] will become members of NATO.”
“The allies apparently wished to signal their confidence in the ability of the two countries’ governments to make the necessary reforms to qualify for membership,” the CRS added. “The statement was also an obvious message to Moscow that it may not determine which governments enter NATO. The allies did not provide a time frame for eventual membership.”
That apparently isn’t working out so well.
Victoria Nuland, the Undersecretary of State and a former U.S. representative to NATO, Ukraine, and Europe, has pushed for futher NATO expansion during her decades-long tenure. She even went so far as to suggest bringing Russia into NATO in the mid-1990s during a PBS “Frontline” interview in 2017.
John Mearsheimer, a prominent foreign relations scholar at the University of Chicago, wrote in the Council of Foreign Affairs in 2014 about how “Why the Ukraine Crisis is the West’s fault.”
“According to the prevailing wisdom in the West, the Ukraine crisis can be blamed almost entirely on Russian aggression… But this account is wrong: the United States and its European allies share most of the responsibility for the crisis.” Mearsheimer writes. “The taproot of the trouble is NATO enlargement, the central element of a larger strategy to move Ukraine out of Russia’s orbit and integrate it into the West.”
“At the same time, the EU’s expansion eastward and the West’s backing of the pro-democracy movement in Ukraine—beginning with the Orange Revolution in 2004—were critical elements, too,” he adds. “Since the mid-1990s, Russian leaders have adamantly opposed NATO enlargement and in recent years, they have made it clear that they would not stand by while their strategically important neighbor turned into a Western bastion.”
“For Putin, the illegal overthrow of Ukraine’s democratically elected and pro-Russian president—which he rightly labeled a ‘coup’—was the final straw,” he continued. “He responded by taking Crimea, a peninsula he feared would host a NATO naval base, and working to destabilize Ukraine until it abandoned its efforts to join the West.”
It appears that U.S. leaders like Kamala Harris are exacerbating the conflict in Russia and Ukraine with arguments that imply that defending Ukraine’s territorial integrity is a responsibility of the NATO Alliance.
Whether or not one believes that defending the country is the right thing to do — even if it means risking World War III — Ukraine is not a member of NATO. It is reckless to imply as much during a period of tense diplomatic negotiations with millions of lives at stake.