- The promise of membership to Ukraine and Georgia raised fears in the Kremlin of the encirclement and loss of strategic depth that had historically allowed Russia to defend itself against invaders
- The announcement of membership did not increase the security of Ukraine and Georgia, because Moscow fears a threat from NATO, even if it claims to be a defensive alliance
- When Russia attacked Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014, NATO did not offer them any military support
- Western countries individually – and NATO itself – however, help Kiev strengthen its defenses in order to contain Russian aggression
- Taylor suggests that the EU should go beyond its declarations of concern towards Moscow and say what economic sanctions it would impose in the event of Russia’s military action in Ukraine
Original article on POLITICO.eu website
At the 2008 NATO summit in Bucharest, under the influence of intense lobbying by then-US President George W. Bush, NATO leaders disregarded Moscow’s historic interests and reawakened illusions of Western security in Kiev and Tbilisi, which shattered within a few months.
Despite resistance from France and Germany, the Allies made a promise that they could not keep but from which they cannot back down without a devastating loss of face.
The decision taken at the Bucharest summit perhaps marked the culmination of the “unipolar moment” when the US believed it could shape the world like the West, ignoring the warnings of leaders such as former French president Jacques Chirac that “Russia should not be humiliated” and German Chancellor Angela Merkel that Moscow’s “legitimate security interests” must be taken into account.
As a result, the Kremlin’s fears of encirclement and the loss of the strategic depth that had allowed Russia to defeat Western invaders twice in two centuries – Napoleon in 1812 and Hitler in 1941-1945 were heightened.
Georgia and Ukraine have not been able to increase their security at the same time – Moscow will not be reassured by any assurances that NATO does not pose a threat to Russia, that its goal is purely defensive, or that none of its weapons will be used, except in response to an attack.
So, after Russian troops defeated the Georgian army in 2008, after the then president of Georgia, Mikheil Saakashvili, recklessly attempted to recapture the rebel-controlled region of Ossetia by force, neither America nor NATO came to his aid.
Similarly, when Russia seized and annexed Crimea in 2014, in response to the overthrow of the pro-Russian president of Ukraine by pro-European demonstrators – and sparked an armed revolt by separatists in the Donbas region – the West limited itself to imposing sanctions without offering Kiev any military support.
The lesson was clear: neither the United States nor European allies are ready to risk a war with Russia over Ukraine or Georgia. Admitting it is not a concession, but realism. To pretend otherwise is a cruel deception.
Following the same lead, when US President Joe Biden attended his first NATO summit in June, he seemed to be signaling that any move to bring Ukraine into the alliance remains in a deep freeze.
– There are no discussions on this issue now. It remains to be seen, ‘he said when asked for an answer about Kiev’s chances of joining the alliance. Instead, he recalled the necessity to meet the criteria, including cleansing oneself of corruption.
There is no doubt that Biden is determined to focus US strategic attention on the Chinese challenge and not get drawn into more serious military commitments in Europe or the Middle East.
However, this does not mean that Ukraine will be handed over to Putin, with his appetite for restoring Russian hegemony.
But the West is doing something
The Western countries individually, and NATO together, can continue to help Kiev strengthen its defenses to contain aggression and build society’s resilience. They can provide training, conduct joint exercises, provide equipment and share intelligence.
The United States, Great Britain and Turkey are already helping Ukraine to increase its military capabilities. France and Germany, which warned Moscow against military action this week, can also contribute.
The EU and NATO can also jointly help Ukraine to strengthen its resilience to hybrid threats, including disinformation, political destabilization and paralyzing cyberattacks.
NATO has rightly increased its rotating navy presence and air patrols in the Black Sea since Russia illegally annexed and militarized Crimea, but Allies should avoid provocative actions that increase the risk of incidents due to an accident or miscalculation – such as a destroyer sails along with a television crew through the territorial waters of Crimea in June.
They should also discourage Ukraine from using newly acquired capabilities – such as armed drones provided by Turkey – to try to change the unsatisfactory status quo by force.
Need for the Union to join
For its part, the European Union should finally go beyond the declarations of concern and verbal warnings against Moscow and begin to define what further economic sanctions it would impose if Russia commenced new military operations in Ukraine.
For example, the future German government should be prepared to discuss the future of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline – completed but not yet released for operation.
Brussels may also provide Kiev with more financial aid, market access and support for institution building. Perhaps it should also do more to integrate the Black Sea Basin into the trans-European transport and digital networks.
It should also increase high-level political commitment with the three Eastern Partnership members who have chosen the pro-European course: Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova.
Like other candidates willing to be useful, Ukraine and Georgia took part in NATO missions in Afghanistan and Iraq. However, it has never been clear how the admission of countries that do not have full control of their territory could contribute to the security of the North Atlantic area.
Western Europe’s current opposition to further enlargement – even for the Western Balkan countries promised as early as 2003 – means that these Eastern European countries have no real prospect of accession in the near future.
However, they can achieve gradual Europeanization through economic integration and regulatory alignment if they succeed in cleansing corruption, overcoming political polarization and increasing their attractiveness to foreign investors.
NATO membership is, and will remain, a bridge too far.
Editing: Michał Broniatowski