By Victoria Garcia Labari Contributing Writer November 24, 2014

On August 24th 1991, Ukraine became an independent country and joined the international system as a sovereign state—no longer tied to Mother Russia. Twenty-three years later, the Cold War chains seem to have pulled Ukraine back. As former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger recently opined in the Washington Post, “The West must understand that, to Russia, Ukraine can never be just a foreign country.” Though Kissinger concludes that Ukraine should have a balancing role between both sides, Kiev should move to integrate into NATO as soon as possible to secure the country’s territorial integrity.

What was once an internal crisis in Ukraine has developed into a major international conflict involving two old adversaries: the United States and its European allies against a resurgent Russia. In March, Russia illegally annexed Crimea under the pretext of protecting Russian-speaking Ukrainians and subsequently launched a referendum in a vain attempt to legitimize its actions. Next, conflict erupted between Ukrainian military forces and pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine, where the regions of Donetsk and Luhansk have also demanded a referendum to declare their independence, casting into doubt the viability of Ukraine’s joining NATO.

Recently, another Russian cross-border incursion took place, violating the uncertain ceasefire reached by the parties. This time, the episode was also confirmed by NATO’s top commander. Signs continue to suggest that Moscow intends to undermine Ukrainian stability and continue to interfere in the Kiev’s internal affairs.

The international community must recognize the crucial interests at stake in this conflict and take action to solve the dispute. Russia’s annexation of Crimea was a violation of international law, and neither the United States nor Europe can permit this type of purely acquisitive aggression that ignores the concept of sovereignty. If this new concept of “19th-century mindset with 21st-century methods” is not firmly condemned and punished, the model will gradually become more common in different parts of the globe, thus undermining the existing international order.

Given the situation, NATO needs to evaluate its role in this conflict—or whether it actually intends to have one. At its inception, NATO’s main purpose was to protect its members against Soviet aggression by establishing a collective security agreement. Those days were believed to be left behind after the Cold War ended: scholar Kenneth Waltz wrote, “in an interim period, the continuation of NATO makes sense. In the long run, it does not.”1 Yet 25 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall the alliance currently has missions in Afghanistan, Kosovo, and the Horn of Africa. NATO has evolved and re-adapted to fit its creators’ interests in other parts of the world. Is Ukraine not one of them?

During the recent NATO summit in Wales, leaders including U.S. President Obama recognized Russian violations of Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity, but only agreed on “sending a strong message to Russia” and strengthening economic and financial sanctions. The absence of direct NATO military involvement is a clear consequence of Ukraine’s non-member status, which leaves the country outside Article 5’s umbrella of collective defense. Although Washington still refuses to provide Kiev with lethal military assistance, Tony Blinken stated last week that “[the option] remains on the table.”

NATO needs to come home. The alliance must refocus on Europe to address current regional threats and put an end to Russia’s renewed external ambitions. The alliance’s involvement in Ukraine’s conflict serves the interests of both parties. NATO must act in Ukraine to prove that it still functions as a military alliance. To do so, NATO must simultaneously reassure members and embark on concrete actions to help Ukraine modernize its military forces.

To reach that objective, NATO member countries need to increase their economic commitment to the alliance. Alliance members should at least meet the military spending requirement of 2% of gross domestic product (GDP), seeing as spending levels dropped to 1.6 percent in 2013. Efforts to reverse the trend of declining military spending have recently been initiated, but long-term meaningful commitments must happen.

Given Europe’s current economic situation, this effort will not bear fruit without the support of the United States, which currently provides 22% of the total NATO budget. Yet NATO cannot be a solely American-led effort. Quite the opposite: European countries must take responsibility for providing their own regional security and thereby make the military alliance a consensus endeavor. For example, the United Kingdom will supply 25% of the troops for NATO’s rapid reaction force to ensure Eastern European security.

For Kiev, it is crucial to take the necessary steps toward fulfilling NATO’s membership require-ments. First of all, the government will have to introduce a bill to parliament to nullify the country’s nonalignment status. In 2008, Ukraine applied to join the NATO Membership Action Plan (MAP)—ignoring Russia’s warnings—but the organization stated that reforms needed to be implemented be-fore this could be effective. Second, Ukrainians will have to support joining NATO by vote. If achieved, the country would be backed up by a collective security agreement that will more than likely deter future aggressions.

Ukraine’s prospects for membership have been viewed with skepticism as a result of its political instability and geographical location. Nevertheless, given that new members’ entrance need to be agreed by consensus, Kiev should aim to fulfill NATO membership requirements, even if it does not join it formally. Following Georgia’s example of cooperation with the alliance could be a start. At the end of the day, there seems to be some light at the end of the tunnel, with President Barack Obama affirming that “…the door to NATO membership remains open to nations that can meet our high standards.” Ukraine should take this opportunity to play its cards.

1. Kenneth N. Waltz, “The Emerging Structure of International Politics,” International Security 18/2 (Fall 1993), p. 75.

Victoria Garcia Labari is a second-year Master’s candidate in International Affairs at Universidad Torcuato Di Tella (Buenos Aires, Argentina). She is currently studying at the George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs on an exchange basis.