With all its obvious expeditionary limits she demonstrates daily in AFG, NATO is a great political/military alliance of the polyglot but otherwise progressive West. Membership in NATO has proven to give a leg up to the best aspects inside those nations who join.
Victor Basiuk in the WashTimes makes a strong point that for the West, the correct long-term risk mitigation strategy is to reach through the window and bring Ukraine in - from there, positive momentum will do the rest. I agree.
First of all though, we need to have a clear understanding of the 800lb bear hanging out in the corner of the Slavic room.
Russia ... is laced with a historical baggage: hundred of years of autocracy. Many Russians feel more comfortable when decisions are made for them, when there is a "batyushka" (father) to give them order and security. Autocracy almost has become a part of the value system of many Russians, just as historical expansionism has become a part of mentality of many in the Russian elite. Russian society, thus, needs more external help than others....and here is the sales pitch.
The West must develop policies to unleash the craving for freedom among the Russians. Such policies might include greater efforts to increase personal contacts of the Russians with Westerners. Travel and educational exchanges could be increased. Activities that would, directly and indirectly, stimulate the development of civil society in Russia need to be supported since such a society creates a fertile ground for freedom.
Only when strong preconditions for democracy develop in society and become compelling would the Russian authoritarian government move in the direction of reforms.
The principal reason Russia is strenuously opposed to Ukraine's joining NATO is not national security but the concern of Russia that, if Ukraine becomes a member of NATO, Russia will lose forever the chance that Ukraine, with its very substantial economic and technological resources, will become its vassal, if not a full-fledged member of the Russian Federation. Moreover, there are strong socio-political reasons for such objections.
For hundreds of years, Russian children have been taught in schools that "Kiev is the mother of Russian cities." It is difficult for their parents to explain why Kiev is abroad and is not even connected with Russia. It is equally difficult for many patriotic Russians to accept that Russia's history starts in 14th century, with the then barbaric principality of Muscovy, and not with Kiev, which three centuries earlier, under Prince Yaroslav the Wise, was already the capital of a major, economically and culturally flourishing European country.
The influence of Russia in Ukraine is strong, and Ukraine is in a precarious position politically. At present, the Party of the Regions, headed by the pro-Russian former Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, is the largest party in Ukraine and holds a plurality in the Ukrainian Parliament. The present democratic government of Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko is barely surviving.Risky, but worth it. Lets call the last para COA-1. COA-2 is that Russia responds by taking the Crimea and pushing the "ethnic" Russians throughout Ukraine to emulate their Ossetian and Abkhazian counterparts. COA-3 is that Ukraine securely folds into the West and Russia stews in its own juices for awhile until it accepts the new reality.
It would be in the best interest of America's national security to expedite the process of Ukraine's becoming a member of NATO, not to postpone it. As things stand, it will take Ukraine years to join the Alliance. If the process is shortened, it will reduce the period of time that Ukraine is a bone of contention and a source of friction between the West and Russia.
As a member of NATO, Ukraine will be more free of the influence of pro-Russian forces and will develop more rapidly into a mature, vibrant democracy. Given historical, economic and close cultural ties with Russia, Ukraine could become an important catalyst in the evolution of democracy in Russia.
COA-3 is most likely (though the time line is in question if we take the advice of Henry - and therefor is in danger). COA-2 is most dangerous. COA-1 is best case with a little wishful thinking thrown in.
Be the strong horse. When an Islamic Russia gets itchy in 200, the West will need the Strategic Depth of Ukraine.