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Stephen Walt and a ‘realist’ take on NATO membership for Ukraine

What NATO could do for Ukraine is more clear than the vice versa.

It's true that if Ukraine was added to NATO, Russian President Vladimir Putin would be much less likely to send troops into Eastern Ukraine, knowing that it would tantamount to declaring war on NATO.
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Writing for the journal Foreign Policy, international relations scholar Stephen Walt of Harvard lays out the way “realists” should look at the idea of adding Ukraine to NATO.

In my own previous post on the Crimea portion of the Russia/Ukraine problem, I argued that it would not be worth risking a U.S.-Russia war over the Crimea, especially considering that most residents of Crimea preferred to be under Russian sovereignty. But I also mentioned in passing the idea, which was already coming under discussion, of whether Ukraine should be brought into the NATO alliance, which would require the United States and its European allies to come to the aide of Ukraine if Russia committed future acts of aggression.

Realists are a school of relatively unsentimental foreign-policy thinkers who reduce most questions to power and interests. Nations are inherently more concerned about their interests, especially economic and military, and use their power to advance their concrete interests much more than they care about abstractions like spreading democracy or promoting peace or international law. Much of what reaches the general public about international relations suggests that it is a morality play about good and evil. Realists do not.

Walt delivers a realist appraisal of the idea of adding Ukraine to NATO. It includes this hard-headed paragraph:

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When the United States supports letting another state into NATO, therefore, it is saying that it is willing to send its citizens to fight and possibly die to defend that foreign country. Any commitment of that sort should immediately make one stop and think carefully. Just because a country’s leaders or its people want an alliance with the United States does not mean it is in the U.S. interest to let them have it.

It’s true, on the one hand, that if Ukraine was added to NATO, Russian President Vladimir Putin would be much less likely to send troops into Eastern Ukraine, knowing that it would tantamount to declaring war on NATO. But Walt wants Americans to think carefully because while providing a disincentive to Putin, such a change in NATO membership also provides one more, and an especially dangerous way, to get into a war with Russia.