Sukhoi fighter jets fly over a World War II monument in the Crimean port city of Sevastopol on May 9, 2020, the 75th anniversary of Russia's Victory Day. Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, leading to deteriorated relations with the West. Photo; AFP

Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin just completed a trip to Kyiv, Ukraine, where he met with Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky. Zelensky said that the US is Ukraine’s “chief partner in security and defense.”

Austin emphasized US support for Ukraine. “We will continue to do everything we can to support Ukraine’s efforts to develop the capability to defend itself,” he declared.

In parallel to his visit to Kyiv Austin went to Tbilisi, where he signed an extension of the US-Georgia security pact for six years.

Austin, talking about Kyiv and NATO, said that no third country (meaning Russia) “has a veto over NATO’s membership decisions.”

The Russians have called Ukraine’s membership in NATO a red line that could provoke a military response.  Austin’s visit is part of a campaign to encourage Ukraine’s membership in NATO.

At the present time, there is no consensus among NATO members for Ukraine joining NATO. Hungary, for one, has made clear its opposition to Ukraine’s accession to NATO, and there may be opposition elsewhere in NATO.

Even Germany may not want to tickle the dragon’s tail, given its dependency on Russian gas deliveries and winter approaching.

Moreover there is much that is disquieting about US behavior regarding Ukraine and US military operations in the Black Sea.

Russia has challenged the US moves. Their timing seems quite strange, given the recent US pullout from Afghanistan and given Chinese challenges in and around Japan and Taiwan.

For eastern Europe, trouble in Ukraine – meaning anything that increases the chances of a Russian intervention in response to US actions – is seen as having the potential to trigger off a wider war.

The Russians are not fools and, if the US pushes them, the Russian military may opt for attacks elsewhere, for example in the Baltics or Poland.

There is also trouble in NATO at its headquarters in Brussels.  In early October NATO expelled 8 Russian diplomats from NATO headquarters, accusing them of being undercover intelligence agents.

NATO also reduced the size of the Russian delegation to 10.

Zelensky and Austin in Kyiv. Photo: CNN

In response, while Austin was in Kyiv, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov announced that Russia was suspending its participation at NATO headquarters in Brussels and closing down the NATO mission in Moscow.

As a follow-up the Russian Foreign Ministry said, “The alliance’s line towards our country is becoming more and more aggressive.”

On the same day as Lavrov’s announcement, Russian Su-30 fighters confronted two US B-1 bombers flying in the Black Sea (along with two refueling tankers) “near” Russian territory and were chased away, according to the Russians.

Oddly enough, US challenges to Russia came after an allegedly positive meeting during Under Secretary of State (for policy) Victoria Nuland‘s visit to Russia. As part of her dialog with her counterparts, an agreement was apparently reached that the conflict in eastern Ukraine should be negotiated under the aegis of the Minsk Protocols.

The Minsk agreements call for a ceasefire, for elections in eastern Ukraine, and for some kind of semi-autonomous status for the region – although the US, Ukraine and Russia differ on what this entails, particularly if it overrides the application of Ukrainian laws in the breakaway Donbass areas that are presently styled as independent republics (Lugansk and Donetsk People’s Republics, both of which are recognized by Russia).

Austin’s remarks would seem to undermine directly the Nuland-Moscow outcome where the objective was to push forward with negotiations on the eastern Ukraine issue, something that has been resisted by Kyiv. Austin also demanded Russia return Crimea to Ukraine, a demand unlikely to be met now or in the future.

Raising tensions with Russia seems counterproductive to long-term US policy – which should favor stabilization in eastern Europe, thereby freeing the US to focus more intensely on China.

It also raises the specter of a European war coming about over Ukraine, a non-NATO player of dubious strategic significance to Europe’s future. The Biden administration, from the Russian perspective, speaks out of both sides of the mouth – thoroughly confusing the Russians, who often see US intentions as aggressive and hostile and still harbor strong anti-Western xenophobia.

Meanwhile, Europe is already seeking ways to develop an independent defense policy rather than rely on NATO. While enthusiasm for this approach in Europe has been muted, recent US behavior, starting in Afghanistan and now in Ukraine, may be enough to make the independent approach more credible, at least for some European countries such as France, Germany, Belgium and Italy.

It isn’t clear why Washington is pushing an aggressive approach to Ukraine.  Could the US be trying to deflect attention from China?  Or are the Americans trying to recover from the Afghanistan debacle by looking tough to Moscow?

In any case, US Ukraine policy, as it appears, could divide and even wreck the NATO alliance should the US go further promoting Ukraine in NATO. This would seem to be a mistake Washington must avoid.

Stephen Bryen is a Senior Fellow with the Center for Security Policy.