MUNICH — Defense leaders from Europe and the United States expressed optimism about the prospect of Ukraine becoming a NATO member, with Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina arguing that relations with Moscow may be beyond salvageable anyway.

Ukraine president Petro Poroschenko raged against Russia during a speech at the Munich Security Conference, accusing its neighbor to the east of waging what he described as a hybrid war, and asking NATO allies to stand with the embattled country against an increasingly threatening adversary.

“My message to you is that it is in our joint interest to resist Russians attempt to break our unity and ruin our democracy throughout Europe or throughout the world…. to prove Europe is a continent of stability, peace and cooperation,” Poroschenko said. “Dear friends, these values are our greatest assets against the Russian threat.”

Interestingly, the plea came after a dialogue among global defense leaders at the conference about whether Ukraine might ever become a NATO member. That prospect of Ukraine acceptance into NATO has been something of a quagmire for allies — reasonable on its face, but also bringing with it political ramifications that could ultimately erupt in a political disaster if not managed with great care.

Ten years ago the post Soviet state was denied consideration for membership at the Bucharest Summit, in part due to fear of heightening tensions with Moscow.

But a lot can change in a decade, said Rose Gottemoeller, NATO deputy secretary general. She pointed to the alliance’s “open door policy,” while also acknowledging that Ukraine has not as a matter of policy sought NATO membership as of yet. (The Ukrainian parliament did vote in 2017 to restore NATO membership as the country’s strategic foreign policy objective, however.)

Sen. Graham, R-S.C., was far more candid, not only in his support of Ukraine, but in his disgust with Russia for aggressive tactics in Europe and election tampering in the United States.

“To our friends in the Ukraine, I want it to be your decision [to join NATO] not Russia’s decision,” Graham said. It’s worth NATO allies considering that “the Ukrainians gave up a nuclear weapons arsenal, with the understanding that ‘if I do this I’m good to go.’ We signed up and everybody else did. And our friends in Russia step all over that.

“The rule of law means nothing to Russia,” Graham continued. “Does it mean anything to us? I’d be glad to have a better relationship with Russia but it’s difficult. I used to worry about antagonizing Russia. I won’t worry about that anymore. You’re going to get what you deserve if you keep this up. And to our friends in Georgia and Ukraine, be patient. Hopefully the rest of us will get a backbone and push back against aggression that I feel is unwarranted.”

Advocacy is in fact critical to NATO membership, argued Estonia Defence Minister Jüri Luik. He credited President George W. Bush and his cordial relationship with Russia President Vladimir Putin as a major factor in Estonia becoming a NATO member in 2004.

“I believe Ukraine will be in NATO, Luik said. “I cannot predict the time, but I’ve always said to my Ukrainian and Georgian colleagues, be patient, work for it, be ready. When we joined, President Putin said only one thing: ‘Well we don’t like it but we certainly won’t start a war [over] it.’ It was a windmill.”

Jill Aitoro is editor of Defense News. She is also executive editor of Sightline Media's Business-to-Government group, including Defense News, C4ISRNET, Federal Times and Fifth Domain. She brings over 15 years’ experience in editing and reporting on defense and federal programs, policy, procurement, and technology.

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