BRUSSELS – Ukraine poses a dilemma for NATO that has been brewing for many years – a dilemma that the alliance itself has helped to create.
In 2008, NATO – a US-led alliance explicitly created to counter the Soviet Union – promised membership in two former Soviet republics, Ukraine and Georgia, but without specifying when or how.
Russia saw the offer as a potential threat to its borders and an encroachment on its core sphere of influence, the most serious in a series of affronts and humiliations by the West since the fall of Russia. Soviet Union. From the outset, some NATO countries questioned whether the offer to join was a wise move, and it is not clear that the promise will ever be fulfilled, but as expected, it has fueled a lasting conflict with President Vladimir V. Putin.
As Ukraine is a NATO partner but not a member, it does not benefit from NATO’s fundamental principle of commitment to collective defense, although Ukraine has sent troops to fight in the missions. of NATO in Iraq and Afghanistan.
So, while thousands of Russian troops mass at Ukraine’s borders, NATO is not bound by a treaty to protect Ukraine militarily, and is not likely to try, but it has a compelling interest in trying to both deter Russia and avoid provoking an invasion.
“It is important to distinguish between NATO allies and partner Ukraine”, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said last week. “NATO allies, over there, we provide collective defense guarantees”, while “Ukraine is a partner, a much appreciated partner”.
But what does NATO owe to such a valued partner?
“The fundamental question facing NATO is how it maintains the credibility of the alliance,” said Ivo Daalder, former US Ambassador to NATO and Chairman of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. Despite its closeness to NATO, he said, Ukraine is not a member, so “how do you still guarantee its independence and sovereignty?” “
Marta Dassu, former Italian Deputy Foreign Minister and Advisor for Europe to the Aspen Institute, said: âYou cannot explicitly accept Putin’s proposal to exclude NATO membership. resorting only to more economical sanctions, and that is probably not enough.
The Biden administration recently sounded the alarm about a possible Russian invasion of Ukraine and warned Moscow that severe economic sanctions would follow. President Biden and Mr. Putin held a two-hour video conference on the situation on Wednesday.
After the meeting, Mr Putin reiterated his assertion that NATO’s enlargement to include Ukraine would pose a serious threat to Russia and that “it would be criminal negligence on our part” not to seek to Stop.
“Russia pursues a peaceful foreign policy, but it has the right to ensure its own security,” Putin said at a press conference in Sochi. “We assume that this time, at least, our concerns will be heard.”
He spoke of discussion, not invasion. Russia will present proposals to Washington for a security dialogue next week, he said, adding: âWe have the opportunity to continue this dialogue. I believe this is the most important thing.
Over the past generation, a dozen countries that were once part of the Soviet bloc joined NATO, moving its borders hundreds of miles east – expansions Moscow saw as aggressive steps by a potential enemy.
In view of the membership promise, Mr Putin sees an “encirclement” and a still expansionist NATO which has undertaken to wrest Ukraine from the Russian zone of influence. It is a particularly hard blow for a man who saw the break-up of the Soviet Union as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the last century and who focused on rebuilding and reaffirming Russian power.
Mr Putin regards Ukraine, where the medieval Russian state was born, as a bogus country and an “inalienable part of Russia”. He set out his views in a long essay in July, “On the historical unity of Russians and Ukrainians”.
Rightly or wrongly, he “increasingly sees Ukraine as a western aircraft carrier stationed just in front of Rostov Oblast in southern Russia”, wrote Eugene Rumer and Andrew S. Weiss of the Carnegie Endowment, noting that Ukraine is now one of the main recipients of US military aid.
So far, Mr. Putin’s attempts to restore Russian control over Ukraine have turned against him. In 2014, after a Ukrainian revolt that drove away its pro-Russian president, Viktor F. Yanukovych, Mr. Putin invaded and annexed Crimea and contributed to a separatist war in eastern Ukraine that continues in this day.
âPutin is not provoked by NATO, he is provoked by the independence of Ukraine,â Daalder said. “But he made it less likely that Ukraine would ever do what it wants because of its actions. Ukraine is more pro-Western and more Ukrainian, and less Russian, as a result of what Putin did in 2014. “
Understanding the escalating tensions over Ukraine
In Ukraine’s 2019 elections, pro-Russian candidates were crushed. Mr Putin runs the risk that invading Ukraine, rather than producing the submissive neighbor he wants, would simply reinforce, as many believe, Ukraine’s desire to remain independent.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact, some in the West also suggested the dissolution of NATO. Instead, it spread and once it started, “it was hard to know when to stop,” said Lawrence Freedman, professor emeritus of war studies at King’s College London and author of “Ukraine and the art of strategy”. Of course, he noted, the expansion was a response to the wishes of the countries of the former Soviet bloc.
It would have been better, Freedman suggested, if NATO had “found other ways to support Georgia and Ukraine” and not pledged membership. It is very likely that Ukraine will never be integrated into NATO, he said, “but we cannot put this in a treaty”, as demanded by Mr Putin.
Still, it may be easier to give Mr Putin the discussion he says he wants about the future of European security if that allays Russian fears, Freedman said. âAlright, let’s have a big conference, it could go on for years. Talking to Putin is no concession. ”
But NATO’s ‘deadly sin’, as Mr Daalder put it, was the indefinite promise made to Ukraine and Georgia. in Bucharest in April 2008, the result of a late-night compromise reached by former President George W. Bush when other NATO members, such as Germany and France, rejected his proposal to offer the two countries a concrete and immediate roadmap towards membership.
“The Bucharest compromise was the worst of both worlds,” said Carl Bildt, the former Swedish prime minister and foreign minister. âIt has created expectations that have gone unfulfilled and fears that are grossly exaggerated. It was a short-term opportunity with long-term consequences that we’ve seen since then ” – in Georgia, which lost a swift and wicked war against Russia four months later in 2008, and in the Russian effort to destabilize and even reaffirm control over Ukraine.
Fiona Hill, a Russian expert at the Brookings Institution, was at the Bucharest summit as a US national intelligence officer. She said the intelligence community advised against offering Ukraine and Georgia a membership route because much of NATO was against it, but that was canceled by Bush.
The compromise was negotiated by the British, she said, but “it was the worst of all possible outcomes”. Mr. Putin, she said, âhas been trying to close that door ever since. “
Anton Troianovsky contributed to reporting from Moscow.