Poroshenko, star attraction in Wales.  Photographer: Leon Neal/AFP/Getty Images
Poroshenko, star attraction in Wales.  Photographer: Leon Neal/AFP/Getty Images

There was something surreal about Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko’s arrival today to meet with leaders of NATO at a bucolic golfing resort in Wales. Back home, pro-Russian forces were beginning an assault on the vital port city of Mariupol.

The expressions of support Poroshenko receives in Wales won’t help Mariupol. Even the “trust funds” the North Atlantic Treaty Organization announced to support Ukraine’s military and the bilateral arrangements Poroshenko hinted at to provide non-lethal and lethal equipment -- “including high-precision weapons” -- will be too little, too late.

Yet NATO risks being a genuine liability in this conflict if recent talk in Kiev of a push for membership in the alliance is serious. Highlighting the prospect of NATO expansion right now would play into the hands of Russian President Vladimir Putin and would be dangerous to Ukrainians.

The great irony of the alliance summit is that a Ukrainian president was the starring attraction. A year ago, his country’s participation would have been a polite charade. Ukrainians had no interest in joining NATO and, at least since 2008, NATO felt the same. In the wake of Putin's efforts to dismember the country, citing what had been a non-existent threat of NATO expansion, more than half the population wants to join, and the government is beginning to push for it.

That could be a solution for Ukraine, if NATO were reckless enough to risk war with a nuclear superpower over eastern Ukraine. But it isn’t.

One of the offers Poroshenko should be ready to make in any peace deal is a written commitment not to join any military alliance, contingent on Russia’s respect for Ukraine’s borders. His predecessor, Viktor Yanukovych, passed just such a law when he came to power in 2010. A guarantee to Putin that the commitment will remain would take the NATO casus belli off the table.

This shouldn't be done because the prospect of NATO expansion would “provoke” Putin. He doesn’t need provoking, and his ambitions for controlling Ukraine go far beyond keeping it out of NATO. Ukraine should offer military neutrality because it is the minimum Putin will demand to end the war, and the longer the fighting continues, the more territory Ukraine will lose.

So it was encouraging that when Ukrainian journalists asked Poroshenko about a timeline for joining NATO, he talked instead about first focusing on reforming Ukrainian society to meet the criteria that both NATO and the European Union ask of their members, pushing the question into the future. Behind the scenes, one hopes, NATO leaders were candid with him on Ukraine’s poor chances of success and the limits of their support.

I’m sympathetic to the dilemma these leaders face. They won’t and shouldn’t go to war with Russia over Ukraine, and yet they can’t and shouldn’t simply abandon a country that is under attack for wanting precisely the kind of society -- democratic, with a free media and rule of law -- that NATO was devised to promote and protect.

NATO Secretary General Anders Rasmussen opened the meeting with Poroshenko by saying that the alliance stands by the principle that “every nation should be able to choose its own future.” That’s a good principle to honor. The decision on NATO must be Ukraine’s, yet the alliance is a club the country should know it cannot afford to join.

To contact the author: Marc Champion at mchampion7@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Lisa Beyer at lbeyer3@bloomberg.net.