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NATO Membership a Brass Ring for Countries Fearing Putin’s Grasp

Ukraine and other nations once ruled by the old Soviet Union are desperate for NATO approval.

Hungary has agreed to Sweden joining NATO. But what about other former nations of the old Soviet Union? Ukraine has been clamoring to join since it was put on the shortlist for the alliance at the 2008 Bucharest Summit. And, just as in Ukraine, Russia’s threatening rhetoric is prompting more enthusiasm and urgency among former Soviet-aligned nations that want the benefits of NATO’s mutual security status.

The carrot of NATO membership was held out to Ukraine at last summer’s NATO summit, but Kyiv was disappointed in the lukewarm reaction to its potential membership. The sticking point then, as now, is that a member cannot be engaged in an ongoing international dispute. However, in the meantime, former Soviet Union bloc countries Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia are now members while Ukraine is not.

Nonetheless, recent comments by retiring NATO General Secretary Jens Stoltenberg strongly indicate that Ukraine is on the cusp of joining. “Ukraine will join NATO. It is not a question of if, but of when,” Stoltenberg said recently in a televised statement on the two-year anniversary of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. However, some NATO members are talking about providing troops sooner to assist Kyiv in its struggle.

Boots on the Ground?

“French President Emmanuel Macron said Monday [Feb. 26] that sending Western troops on the ground in Ukraine is not ‘ruled out’ in the future after the issue was debated at a gathering of European leaders in Paris, as Russia’s full-scale invasion grinds into a third year,” Sylvie Corbet reported for the Associated Press. “Macron cited the need to solidify security to head off any Russian attacks on additional countries in the future.” Though the Baltics and Poland have been considered likely targets for further Russian aggression, the more probable victims of a Moscow land grab are Moldova and Georgia.

New Banner Military AffairsAt that same 2008 NATO Bucharest Summit, Georgia also got the promise of NATO membership, and it is still waiting. Additionally, in August 2023, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken issued a statement commemorating the 15th anniversary of “Russia’s Invasion and Occupation of Georgia.” Blinken explained that Russia’s illegal subjugation of 20% of Georgia’s territory, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia regions had resulted in “malign disinformation campaigns … and mass displacement [that] still cause untold hardships.” Russian troops today stand ready to take possession of the remainder of Georgia, looking for any pretense of a provocation.

In recent weeks, Moldova, nestled between Romania and Ukraine, has been the focus of speculation on how soon Russia will attempt to annex the small country with a population only slightly bigger than Houston, TX. The Kremlin fears Moldova will be the next former Soviet vassal to move into Western Europe’s geopolitical and economic orbit. Within the borders of Moldova, Moscow influences a sliver of territory in the east, bordering Ukraine, called Transnistria. Made up of pro-Russia Moldovans, Transnistria has declared itself independent. The state is not recognized internationally as sovereign.

Because there are signs that Moldovan President Maia Sandu is inclined to favor a closer relationship with the West, possibly joining the European Union for economic stability and NATO for security, Moldova has become a bright speck on Russia’s radar. As Fox News reported:

“Of greatest concern to Moldova and the West, in the Transnistrian breakaway region, is the contingent of 1,500 Russian soldiers. Their larger purpose, in addition to ensuring pro-Russian orientation of the government, is to guard the Cobasna weapons depot, which contains an estimated 20,000 tons of Soviet-era war equipment.”

Though Russia has its hands full in Ukraine, a large cadre of Russian troops is already in striking distance of the Moldovan capital, Chisinau, making the smaller country easy pickings. The dilemma for the United States and NATO is how to create a bulwark protecting West-leaning countries like Georgia and Moldova while not creating the excuse for a Russian annexation.

Lessons to Learn

Russia has made clear its desire to reconstitute the Cold War-era Soviet empire. The war raging inside Ukraine could be the opportunity for the United States and NATO to demonstrate to Russia’s President Vladimir Putin the folly of that ambition. Impressing Putin that he can’t win in Ukraine by sustained and predictable military support for Ukraine may persuade Russia’s leader to forgo his grand scheme of rebuilding a greater Mother Russia.

The ten-year mutual security agreements signed by Ukraine, United Kingdom, France, and Germany will bolster military support to the beleaguered Ukrainian fighters. The commitment of more European countries to reinforce Ukraine’s military capability and the strengthening of ties between the West and Moldova and Georgia could constitute enough of an impediment to Putin’s adventurism to convince the Kremlin’s strong man to back off.

The views expressed are those of the author and not of any other affiliation.

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