Ukraine is ready for Nato membership now and its accession would enhance the West’s security, US defence expert Andrew Michta told bne IntelliNews in an interview at the Aspen-GMF Bucharest Forum last week.
“Ukraine is ready, it’s the alliance that’s not ready to invite them,” says Michta, director of the Scowcroft Strategy Initiative at the Atlantic Council think-tank, speaking in a personal capacity.
“The reason I’m supporting Nato membership for Ukraine is that it is not only the most effective but also the most economical way of securing Europe,” he argues.
He says Ukraine – together with Poland, Romania and Finland – are vital for the defence of Nato’s Eastern Flank and the US should push for its early accession.
“If the US does not take leadership in this case, then other countries that are also reluctant [over Ukraine membership] will hide behind [it],” he adds.
Michta argues that disallowing Ukraine’s membership because of the Russian occupation of Crimea and large parts of the east of the country would just play into the hands of Russian dictator Vladimir Putin.
"Putin is operating on the assumption – like with Georgia – you grab a portion of a country’s territory and then you are presenting Nato with a dilemma: If you bring it into Nato you are effectively voting for going to war with Russia,” Michta says. “That doesn’t have to be the case. We extend Article 5 [security guarantee] to territory the country controls.”
He says Nato missed an opportunity at its Vilnius summit in July to make an explicit offer of membership to Ukraine. “The biggest disappointment for me was the no clear path to Nato for Ukraine.” He adds: “We communicated to Putin ‘keep fighting’.”
He also points out that it is vital that Ukraine is not defeated because a Russian victory would bring its battle-hardened military forces right up to Nato’s Eastern Flank.
He criticises Western leaders for “strategic myopia”. Even though Russia’s land forces are “pretty badly damaged” from the war, they can be rebuilt in “two, maximum three years”.
“This is going to be a very different [Russian] force that comes out from this,” he says.
Michta downplays the risk of nuclear war if Ukraine is allowed to join Nato at a time when it is still in a hot or cold war with Russia.
“Putin is playing that card because we are communicating that is what we are afraid of,” he says, dismissing the risk of nuclear escalation as “relatively low”.
He therefore counsels against pressure on Ukraine President Volodomyr Zelinskiy to make peace now.
“If we find ourselves in a situation where Ukraine is cut off financially and runs out of resources, if we force Ukraine into some sort of frozen conflict or armistice, that is a victory for Putin.”
Michta says Nato’s Eastern Flank countries get this, but many Western European countries still don’t.
The Vilnius Summit made a show of the alliance’s unity, clearly marked Russia an “adversary” and agreed regional defence plans, but more work is needed.
“The alliance emerged politically unified, even if when it comes to Ukraine that unity does not translate into the same risk perceptions, or the same intensity of risk perceptions. There is a different capacity for risk taking as you move away from the flank. In the east there is a clear sense this is about Russia; as you move further west this sense of urgency declines.”
“We have a regionalised security optics across Europe and that is something that requires a lot of work.”
This is most visible in defence spending, as well as the building up of defence industries, where Western Europe is still behind the pace.
“The larger point is that if Nato does not step up on rearmament … it will become a hollowed out organisation. While the flank countries are stepping up, the western countries are shrinking their armies. There needs to be a sense of urgency, that I see lacking on the continent,” he argues.
“Europe has disarmed to the extent it would take a decade for countries like Germany to come back.”
At the same time, the huge ongoing military build-up in Poland will “completely transform the hard power picture on the flank”.
Michta argues this will require a shift in the US force structure from Germany towards the Eastern Flank, so that in the future one Nato brigade is stationed permanently in Finland or the Baltic states, two in Poland and potentially one in Romania.