NATO's flirtation with adding 2 more members runs the risk of starting a war the US can't afford to fight

Lloyd Austin, the Defense Secretary of NATO, made it clear this month that Georgia and Ukraine may still be joining NATO.
The Ukraine and Georgia share many things in common with NATO members, including a rivalry against Russia.

However, offering them membership is dangerous and counterproductive. It doesn't serve the national interest of the United States.

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The US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin will be visiting Europe this week. He stated that Ukraine and Georgia have an open door to NATO and that no third country can veto NATO's membership decisions.

Both countries have suffered from Russian aggression. It is normal to feel sympathy for Georgia and Ukraine. However, offering NATO membership to them is a dangerous and counterproductive move that is not in the national interest of the United States.

Expanding NATO does not increase security for the American people as one would expect US defence policy to. It increases the likelihood that the United States will be drawn into a conflict with Russia. The United States could risk igniting a major NATO/Russia conflict by moving forward with the offer of NATO membership to Georgia or Ukraine.

NATO's Article 5 would require the United States to intervene militarily if an attack occurs following the formal acceptance of Georgia or Ukraine into the alliance. This scenario could rapidly escalate to nuclear levels, so it is important that all possible consequences of NATO enlargement be honestly evaluated.

Austin's remarks are the latest example of US policymakers refusing to accept eastern Europe's geopolitical reality.

Russian troops at a checkpoint near the region of South Ossetia in a village, approximately 62 miles from Tbilisi (Georgia), August 5, 2008 Irakli Gedenidze/Reuters

The 2008 Bucharest NATO Summit marked a turning point in European security. It was announced at the summit that Georgia and Ukraine would become allies in the future.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov responded to reporters, saying "We will do everything we can to stop Ukraine's and Georgian accession to NATO and to avoid an inexorable exacerbation our relations with both NATO and our neighbours."

Top officials from Russia went even further with one general stating that Russia would take clear action to protect its borders. These will include military actions, but also steps with a different nature. Moscow stated that any country entering the alliance would have to respect a red line. Russia was prepared to use every conceivable power to enforce this red line.

Russia kept its word. It fought a five day war with Georgia in 2008 and took de facto control over the abject regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 and provided military support for pro-Russian separatists living in eastern Ukraine.

Moscow created buffer zones in both countries to protect Russia's borders and Western-backed governments. Both conflicts have been effectively frozen by Moscow, who cleverly used the threat of further escalation to stop NATO accession.

Ukrainian soldiers practice with tanks in Donetsk, Ukraine, April 24, 2021. Armed Forces of Ukraine/Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

To understand why Russia behaved in this way, Americans only need to look at their own history. In the 1800s, the United States created the Monroe Doctrine. It stated that any intervention of European powers in the western part of the hemisphere would be considered hostile to the United States.

The United States was the regional hegemon in the New World by the end of 19th century. It had already defeated all other great powers. The world was on the verge of nuclear Armageddon when the Soviet Union challenged America's 1962 position by sending military assets 90 miles offshore of Florida.

Why would the Biden administration think that Russia will view NATO expansion and the presence of US troops at Russia's borders as benign if the United States doesn't tolerate such behavior?

Tbilisi and Kyiv are given hope that NATO will help them. This creates a moral risk problem. Instead of making the necessary political concessions to end their respective conflicts they are encouraged by the US to place more security burden on them.

This increases tensions between the US and Russia and is not good for average Ukrainians or Georgians who will likely be the brunt in any new conflict.

Moscow sees the denial of NATO membership to Ukraine and Georgia as a strategic priority. Russia will therefore go to great lengths in order to attain this goal. The Biden administration must conclude that it's not worth risking World War III for two countries of little geopolitical importance.

The United States is shifting its attention to China's larger strategic threat and would be well advised to seek out dtente with Russia. This would begin by removing Georgian and Ukrainian NATO membership from the table.

Sascha Glaeser works as a research associate for Defense Priorities. He is a research associate at Defense Priorities and focuses on US grand strategies, international security, transatlantic relations, and other issues. He is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Madison with a master's degree in international public affairs.