Anatol Lieven: Why the NATO summit in Vilnius matters

The “ironclad” commitment to Ukraine joining Nato makes peace talks with Russia harder.

Anatol Lieven is Director of the Eurasia Program at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. He is the author of ‘Pakistan: A Hard Country’.

Cross-posted from Common Dreams

Picture by Stenbocki maja

On the eve of the NATO summit in Vilnius, the strong indication was that the U.S., German, and French governments would lead NATO in continuing a somewhat intensified version of existing policy towards Ukraine: promising Kyiv NATO membership at some indefinite point in the future, while committing NATO to even greater, and permanent, arms supplies to Ukraine.

This has been called the “Israel option”—Ukraine as a heavily armed and intensely nationalist military state capable of beating Russia on its own, but without formal alliance with the West.

As President Joe Biden has stated:

“I don’t think there is unanimity in NATO about whether or not to bring Ukraine into the NATO family now, at this moment, in the middle of a war. For example, if you did that, then, you know—and I mean what I say—we’re determined to commit every inch of territory that is NATO territory. It’s a commitment that we’ve all made no matter what. If the war is going on, then we’re all in war. We’re at war with Russia, if that were the case.”

However, he added,

“I think we have to lay out a rational path for Ukraine to be able to qualify to be able to get into NATO…. But I think it’s premature to say, to call for a vote… because there’s other qualifications that need to be met, including democratization and some of those issues.”

This would not be the summit’s worst outcome. The worst outcome would be immediate NATO membership for Ukraine, committing NATO to fight for Ukraine in its borders of 2013 and therefore drawing NATO into a direct war with Russia, with the high probability of this turning into a nuclear war. Since the Biden administration and all major NATO governments have stated repeatedly that they have no intention of deliberately going to war with Russia now or in future, and since majorities of most NATO publics also reject this course, it is hard to see why NATO membership now or in future is even on the table. 

What after all does NATO membership mean, if not a commitment to fight to defend other members?

This however has been the disastrous hypocrisy of NATO policy and rhetoric since the George W. Bush administration (with enthusiastic support from Britain, Poland, and the NATO Secretariat) first demanded an immediate NATO Membership Action Plan for Ukraine and Georgia before the Bucharest summit in April 2008. This was despite repeated warnings by diplomats and experts (including then U.S. Ambassador to Moscow and now CIA Director William Burns) that this was very likely to lead to conflict with Russia.

At that time, I pointed out repeatedly to U.S. and British officials that Russian peacekeepers were protecting the separatist Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which nationalist Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili had vowed to recover at all costs. This meant that NATO membership with Georgia would involve NATO directly in something that it had always made a principle not to embroil itself with, local territorial disputes.

Moreover, if Georgia used NATO membership as a cover to try to recover these territories by force, NATO would be faced with a choice of standing aside and watching as a NATO member was crushed, or intervening on Georgia’s side. That would have led to war with Russia, which might escalate towards nuclear war—over the issue of who had sovereignty over North Ossetia. Seriously?

At a meeting of British officers and diplomats to discuss the U.K.’s new National Security Strategy in the spring of 2008, I asked the audience about these prospects, and what Britain should do in this event. The response was rather remarkable. They looked at the floor. They looked at the ceiling. They looked out of the window. They didn’t look at me, and above all they didn’t look at each other. The silence dragged on and on. Eventually, the chairman coughed and changed the subject.

One reason for this (on top of the blind commitment of the British security establishment to subordinate alliance with the United States at whatever cost to Britain) was summed up for me a few years later by an officer who had served in the NATO Secretariat in 2007-2008. I asked him what contingency plan NATO had drawn up for the possibility of a war between Russia and Georgia. He replied that not merely had there not been one, there had been no proposal or discussion of such a plan. I asked him how this could possibly be, given the obvious risk of war.

He replied that it was very simple. NATO expansion had always been sold to Western parliaments and publics on the premise that this would involve no additional sacrifices or dangers. Therefore, if any member of the NATO staff had raised the possibility of such sacrifices and dangers, they would in effect have declared themselves opponents of NATO membership for Georgia, after the United States and the NATO Secretary General had declared themselves in favor, “and you would have been sent back to your own national defense ministry with a big black mark against your name, and your career would have been ruined.” 

I remarked that this was a very strange way to run what is supposed to be a military alliance. “Yes indeed,” he replied. In August 2008, Georgia did attack South Ossetia and the Russian peacekeepers there, Russia responded with overwhelming force, and the United States and NATO stood aside.

At the Bucharest summit, the French and German began a policy that in essence they have followed ever since. Having actually bothered to listen to the warnings of the Russians and their own diplomats and experts, they opposed NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia. However, under U.S. pressure, and out of fear of “dividing the alliance” (not something that has ever worried Poland), they did not dare to veto membership and end the issue for good. Instead, they agreed to a compromise whereby Ukraine and Georgia were promised membership at some undefined point in future but without any time frame or clear path to membership.

This informed Russia that NATO would arm and train Ukraine and Georgia, and that at some point in the future Russia would be expelled from its naval base at Sevastopol as well as from the Georgia separatist territories, but that in the intervening years or decades NATO would not in fact defend Ukraine and Georgia. At a symposium that I am currently attending in Armenia, one of the participants summed this up as “pulling the bear’s tail and then running away”—running away from Ukraine, that is. It antagonized and frightened Russia and emboldened radical nationalists in Ukraine without offering Ukraine any protection. Incidentally, the attempt to bring Ukraine into NATO also defied the willof a large majority of the Ukrainian population, which in every opinion poll on the subject before 2014 opposed Ukraine seeking to join NATO, precisely on the grounds that this would turn Russia into an enemy.

Given that Ukraine’s NATO membership will once again be deferred indefinitely, does the NATO summit in Vilnius even matter very much? Yes, for two reasons. 

First, the repeated, “ironclad” commitment to future NATO membership makes it far more difficult for the West or Ukraine to pursue one path to a diplomatic solution to the Ukraine War, namely a Ukrainian treaty of neutrality with strong security guarantees—something by the way that President Volodymyr Zelensky himself proposed as part of a peace settlement in March 2022. By giving Russia the appearance of success on one of its key demands, this could play a crucial role in enabling a Russian government to make concessions on other issues as part of a settlement.

The second issue is more long term. Implicit in the expansion of NATO and the EU from the very beginning was the fact that the mantra of “Europe Whole and Free” meant the exclusion of Russia from any say in European security—something that no Russian government could possibly accept. Attempts to obscure this through meaningless institutions like the NATO-Russia Council proved empty.

Attempts by Russia to propose new security architectures, as by President Dmitri Medvedev in 2009, were rejected by the West without discussion. One way of understanding the background to the invasion of Ukraine is that Russia, having been excluded from European security, attempted to shoot its way back in. This was a criminal and disastrous move by Russia; it was also one that sensible people had been predicting for many years partly as a result of Western policies.

It should be obvious therefore that there can be no truly stable and successful long-term security architecture in Europe that includes security for Ukraine and does not also include Russia in some form and take account of Russia’s security concerns. Otherwise, the West will be committed to an endless strategy of arming and financing Ukraine against Russia, while praying that the United States remains fully committed to this and is not drawn away by more important domestic and international threats. 

For if America ever does pull back, NATO’s European members may find that the only thing more stupid than pulling a bear’s tail and running away is pulling its tail when you can’t run away.

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