The writer is former special US envoy to Ukraine and former US ambassador to Nato
It is sometimes difficult to appreciate the significance of major global changes while they are happening. Our analyses, instincts and actions are rooted in what we already know, not fully appreciating the new environment in which we find ourselves. We focus on the past when what we should really do is focus urgently on the future.
This is perhaps the best explanation of what took place this week at the Nato Summit in Vilnius, Lithuania. The alliance did very well at what it already knows how to do. It reiterated its “ironclad” commitment to defend every inch of its territory, reaffirmed Nato’s nuclear strategy, adopted defence plans for all regions of the alliance, committed yet again that each member state would spend at least 2 per cent of GDP on defence and addressed a wide range of security challenges.
Finland was welcomed as a new member; Sweden’s ratification process should be completed soon. Nato members also pledged to strengthen their eastern flank in response to Russian aggression.
Perhaps the most positive and under-reported development from the past week is Turkey’s realignment with the rest of its allies on some critical issues. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan relented on his objections to ratification of Swedish Nato membership, spoke in favour of Ukraine being admitted, approved of further Bayraktar drone shipments to Ukraine, and has worked out a deal with the US on the acquisition of F-16s for Turkey.
All these developments show a Nato that is more unified and capable of defending its member states than it has been for years. These are the positive outcomes. But as much as members criticised Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and continue to provide Kyiv with arms to defend itself, they do not seem to have grasped what Moscow’s invasion means for European security. In fact, it has changed everything.
Until now, Nato could afford to keep aspiring members in a holding pattern for years at a time, insisting on reforms and weighing the geopolitical ramifications of each enlargement decision. With relative peace in Europe, it was safe to assume that the same security strategy used in the past would work in the future.
But under Vladimir Putin, the Kremlin has explicitly adopted a policy of territorial expansion aimed at reconstituting a Russian empire. It has launched a major war in Europe that has affected every country on the continent — and many beyond it. The war has already forced millions of Ukrainian refugees into neighbouring European countries, caused massive inflation (in part because of energy disruptions), disrupted global food supplies and Black Sea shipping, caused further economic dislocations because of sanctions policies and the need to support Ukraine’s state budget, and stretched European defence resources.
If Putin is not defeated in Ukraine, it will get worse. In his quest to rebuild the Empire, he would next turn his gaze to Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and even Finland — all EU and Nato member states which were formerly part of the Russian empire, and which the alliance is obliged to protect. If the war stops in Ukraine, Russia will simply regroup and prepare to attack again. With an authoritarian, imperialist Russia on its doorstep, no one in Europe is safe. This is, after all, what convinced Finland and Sweden to seek membership of Nato in the past year.
Yet at the summit, Nato offered no assurances beyond what it said in 2008 when it affirmed that Ukraine would become a member one day. There is no actual process to achieve that goal. Indeed, the Vilnius language can be seen as weaker, stressing that an invitation will be offered only when “all allies agree” (meaning they currently do not), and when “conditions are met” (meaning there are conditions yet to be fulfilled). The exact nature of these conditions remains vague.
This is not just a missed opportunity. It reflects a failure to understand that the nature of European security has changed. Ukraine is currently doing Nato’s job for it — fighting to defend the frontier of a free Europe. It is more capable militarily than most allies, and defending the values on which Nato is founded. Russia is attacking Ukraine because it seeks to defeat those values: Kyiv remaining stuck in the Nato waiting room is a green light for Putin to attack again.
For Ukraine’s part, it must, of course, first win the war, which it is gradually doing. It must also continue to press the case for Nato membership and accelerate its adoption of the EU acquis necessary for accession. There is no future for Ukraine outside these blocs.
There is now a fundamental contradiction between Nato’s commitment to the security of the alliance and its refusal to give Ukraine a clear pathway to membership. With a nuclear-armed, imperialist Russia laying claim to swaths of territory that belong to other countries — and foisting a proxy war on the entire continent — it is hard to see how Nato can accomplish its mission of defending Europe without accepting Ukraine as a member. This is the contradiction that needs to be addressed urgently, so that a firm invitation can be extended when the allies meet again next year.