As the threat of military conflict builds in Eastern Europe, Ukraine has asked NATO for help.
Specifically, Ukraine wants the military alliance to "look at using all possibilities for protecting the territorial integrity and sovereignty" of the country. Although NATO is not obligated to defend Ukraine because it's not a member country, alliance officials have called an emergency meeting with Russia on Wednesday to address its escalating military movements in Crimea, a sovereign territory of Ukraine.
Some people have suggested fast-tracking Ukraine's acceptance to NATO—and the European Union, while they're at it—so that the West could intervene in the crisis.
That is exactly the last thing Russian President Vladimir Putin wants to happen.
For Putin, a Ukraine fully integrated into the West means a Ukraine outside of Russia's "sphere of influence." Ukraine has been a weak link in Russia's buffer against Western influence since the end of the Cold War. If Ukraine enters the European fold, other former Soviet nations could eventually follow suit, splintering the empire that Russian leaders have desperately tried to hold together, at least unofficially, since the breakup of the Soviet Union. For Putin, an eastward NATO expansion means Moscow could lose its firm grasp on its neighboring, young countries and, by extension, its global standing.
"Russia was, is, and will be an empire with an eternal appetite for expansion," Julia Ioffe sums up at The New Republic. "And it will gather whatever spurious reasons it needs to insulate itself territorially from what it still perceives to be a large and growing NATO threat."
In 2008, Ukraine became a candidate for the NATO Membership Action Plan, a process by which current NATO members review the applications of nations wishing to join. This was, unsurprisingly, met with hostility in Russia. But the process was halted in 2010 when Kremlin-backed Viktor Yanukovych, now ousted, became president. Yanukovych was fulfilling a campaign promise to keep Ukraine out of the alliance, one that was, at the time, not without public support. A 2009 Pew Research poll on global attitudes found that 51 percent of Ukrainians opposed NATO membership, while only 28 percent favored it.
Last November, E.U. officials said that Ukraine could sign an association agreement, a treaty that makes way for cooperation between the organization and a non-member country, whenever Ukraine chose. The Yanukovych administration stalled on agreeing to the pact in favor of closer ties with Russia, prompting the protests in Kiev that eventually led to the president's overthrow.
Now, the leaders within the newly formed Ukrainian government are eager to align their national interests with Europe rather than Russia. Before he became Ukraine's prime minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk said last month that "somebody" was looking to squash democracy in the region. Yatsenyuk declined to name that person, but dropped a few big hints at Russia. "You guess who," he said. "A number of countries in this world have their own vision of democracy and their own style of democracy, and they want to enlarge this space and to have another Berlin Wall." A request to restart membership talks with NATO and the E.U. won't come as a surprise.
And the West seems willing to negotiate if Ukraine seeks formal recognition. The E.U. announced Wednesday that the group is planning to offer a $15 billion aid package to Ukraine over the next two years. The head of NATO, meanwhile, has said that the door for membership remains open. Across the pond, members of Congress, such as Sen. John McCain, are calling for NATO membership for Ukraine's neighbors, Georgia and Moldova. Those former Soviet republics still remain under Moscow's thumb.
But extending NATO and E.U. membership to any of these countries—now or in the future—would be a nonstarter for Putin. Such a gesture could even prove dangerous.
"Expanding NATO further into post-Soviet space is a red line with Russia, and the U.S. is frankly not in a position to challenge it without running a huge risk," explains Greg Scoblete at RealClearWorld. "Put bluntly, Russia will be able to invade eastern Ukraine faster than the West could admit Ukraine into NATO to deter Russian aggression."
What's more, Scoblete writes, "making vague promises about NATO membership to Ukraine may actually provoke Russia to move beyond Crimea and expose Western bluffs."
Scoblete's prediction stems from a similar situation in Georgia in 2008. Back then, the country's bid to join NATO had divided the alliance. The United States had pushed hard on behalf of Georgia and Ukraine in order to help protect the countries from Russian military aggression, but France, Germany, and several others weren't sold. NATO leaders chose not to put the two Eastern Europe countries on a formal path to membership, agreeing instead that they "will become members" eventually. It was the issue of membership, Dmitri Trenin, the director of the foreign-policy think tank Carnegie Moscow Center, wrote in The Guardian on Sunday, that "materially contributed" to the war between Russia and Georgia that year.
For Putin, maintaining the cultural, economic, and political buffer between East and West is crucial. That means securing the parts of Ukraine that would cost his country the most, such as pro-Russia Crimea. To the Western world leaders welcoming Ukraine with open arms, Russia has one message: Stay out of our backyard.
During his visit to Kiev on Tuesday, Secretary of State John Kerry said he has a "deep personal sense of how deeply linked Ukrainians are to Americans and the rest of the world." Putin would prefer to sever those links for good.