Ukraine: NATO’s original sin

Paul Taylor, a contributing editor at POLITICO, writes the “Europe At Large” column

For the second time this year, Russia has amassed an estimated 100,000 troops around Ukraine, prompting increasingly frantic “hands off” warnings to President Vladimir Putin from Washington and Brussels. 

Yet by promising Ukraine and Georgia that they would become NATO members back in 2008, without specifying how or when, the Western alliance actually bears its share of the blame for casting this region of eastern Europe — long a part of the Soviet Union and the Russian empire — into a state of prolonged crisis. But we can still make up for it. 

At NATO’s 2008 Bucharest summit, under intense lobbying from then United States President George W. Bush, NATO leaders disregarded Moscow’s historic interests and kindled illusions of Western protection in Kyiv and Tbilisi, which were shattered within months. Despite resistance from France and Germany, the allies made a promise that they could not keep but cannot withdraw from without a devastating loss of face. 

This Bucharest summit decision perhaps marked the culmination of the “unipolar moment,” when the U.S. believed it could reshape the world along Western lines, ignoring warnings by leaders like former French President Jacques Chirac, that “Russia should not be humiliated,” and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, that Moscow’s “legitimate security interests” should be taken into account. 

The result heightened Kremlin’s fears of encirclement and of losing the strategic depth that enabled Russia to prevail over Western invaders twice in two centuries — Napoleon in 1812 and Hitler from 1941 to 1945. 

It also failed to enhance the security of Georgia or Ukraine — no amount of assurances that NATO is not a threat to Russia, that its purpose is purely defensive or that none of its weapons would ever be used except in response to an attack could assuage Moscow. 

So when Russian troops crushed the Georgian army later that same year, after then Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili unwisely tried to retake the rebel-held region of South Ossetia by force, neither America nor NATO came to his aid.  

Likewise, when Russia seized and annexed Crimea in 2014, in response to the toppling of Ukraine’s pro-Russian president by pro-European demonstrators, and stoked an armed revolt by separatists in the eastern Donbas region, the West merely imposed sanctions, offering Kyiv no military support. 

The lesson was clear: Neither the U.S. nor European allies are prepared to risk war with Russia over Ukraine or Georgia. To acknowledge this is not appeasement but realism. To pretend otherwise is a cruel deception. 

Following the same lead, when U.S. President Joe Biden attended his first NATO summit in June, he appeared to signal that any move to bring Ukraine into the alliance was in deep freeze. “School’s out on that question. It remains to be seen,” he said, when pressed for an answer to Kyiv’s chances of joining. Instead, he cited the need to meet criteria, including cleaning up corruption. 

Clearly, Biden is determined to refocus U.S. strategic attention on the challenge from China and not get sucked back into heavier military commitments in Europe or the Middle East. However, that doesn’t mean abandoning Ukraine to Putin’s appetite for restoring Russian hegemony. 

Western countries individually, and NATO collectively, can still help Kyiv strengthen its own defense forces to deter aggression and build its society’s resilience. They can provide training, conduct joint exercises, supply equipment and share intelligence. The U.S., Britain and Turkey are already helping Ukraine become more militarily capable. France and Germany, which warned Moscow against military action this week, should contribute to this effort. 

The EU and NATO together can also help Ukraine strengthen its response to hybrid threats, including disinformation, political destabilization efforts and crippling cyberattacks. 

NATO has rightly increased its rotating naval presence and air patrols in the Black Sea since Russia illegally annexed and militarized Crimea, but allies should still avoid provocative actions that increase the risk of incidents due to accident or miscalculation — such as when the U.K. sailed a destroyer carrying a multimedia crew through Crimean territorial waters in June. 

They should also discourage Ukraine from using its newly acquired capabilities — such as armed drones supplied by Turkey — to try to change an unsatisfactory status quo by force. 

The EU, for its part, should finally move beyond statements of concern and verbal warnings to Moscow, and start to define what further economic sanctions it would impose if Russia were to launch new military action in Ukraine. The incoming German government, for example, should be prepared to put the future of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline — completed but not yet authorized for operation — on the table. 

Brussels can also provide Kyiv with more financial assistance, market access and support for institution building. It can and should do more to incorporate the Black Sea basin in its trans-European transportation and digital networks. It should also step up high-level political engagement with the three members of its Eastern Partnership that have chosen a pro-European course: Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova. 

Of course, nothing justifies Russia’s use of force to change international borders. Like other aspirants eager to make themselves useful, Ukraine and Georgia have contributed to NATO missions in Afghanistan and Iraq. Yet it has never been clear how admitting 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 EU enlargement — even for Western Balkans countries that were promised membership way back in 2003 — means that these eastern European countries have no realistic prospect of accession for the foreseeable future. But they can achieve a gradual Europeanization through economic integration and regulatory alignment, if they can clean up corruption, overcome political polarization and make themselves more attractive to foreign investors. 

NATO membership, however, is, and will remain, a bridge too far.  

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