NATO and Ukraine

16 April, 02:27 PM

Part of the conventional wisdom on the Russo-Ukraine war is that a crisis that began with Putin looking for ways to weaken NATO and cast doubt on its resolve has ended up strengthening the alliance.

The US has shown leadership and kept the alliance together. Countries that have lagged behind on their defense spending are urgently reviewing their budgets.  

Additional forces are being deployed to the front-line states bordering Russia. Finland and Sweden are now seriously considering joining the alliance. While Ukraine has been made painfully aware that it would have been better off if it had been a member of NATO, as it would then have got the benefit of more direct military intervention, at least the alliance refused to countenance Russian demands that the door is closed on membership forever. After a slow start, vital military assistance is now flowing into Ukraine.

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The Ukrainian assessment might be less sanguine. As far as they are concerned it is now eight years since this war began with the annexation of Crimea and over that period key European states, notably Germany, have failed to wean themselves away from their dependence on Russian oil and gas, with the result that they now continue to provide the revenues that enable Russia to fund its war. While some NATO states have been active and generous in their supplies of military equipment and materiel, others have been slow and grudging, even after the full horrors of the Russian campaign have been revealed. They are standing up for Western values against a Russian onslaught. Putin still claims that Ukraine is only acting as an agent of the US and its allies and that they are supporting its every move. President Zelensky can only wish that were so.

Distinctive Approaches

In practice it is the alliance’s prime role as providing collective defence to its member states that has been performed successfully up to now. There has been a vital unanimity on key principles, notably respecting Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and right to make its own security arrangements. Where the performance is needed now, however, is in making sure that Ukraine holds on to this sovereignty and territorial integrity and pushes back the Russian invasion.

On this question of how best to support Ukraine in its fight for survival there has been less of a unified response and instead distinctive nationals approaches. The Baltic States and Poland, for example, have been in a ‘told-you-so’ mode, reminding of the many warnings they had given of Putin’s untrustworthiness and predatory nature. Viktor Orban in Hungary, Putin’s only friend in NATO and the EU, was unable to avoid condemning the Russian aggression but has pushed back against proposals for more severe economic measures. For most member states it is through the EU (which also includes non-NATO members) that they can agree sanctions.

Meanwhile, the UK has been to the fore in getting military supplies to Ukraine. The supplies of anti-tank weapons and basic equipment a few weeks before the start of hostilities may stand out as one of the more significant geopolitical moves made by the UK for some time. The UK was also active, with the US, in warning of the risk of war, including revealing what was known about Russian plans for gaining control of the Ukrainian government after an invasion. By contrast the French and Germans expressed their doubts about what they considered to be alarmist assessments (recalling those of two decades earlier which led to the Iraq War) and insisted that they had a special responsibility to keep open the lines of communication to Putin because of the role they had played in the Minsk agreements of 2104 and 2015. They hoped to revive this forum as the best available means of deflecting the threat of war.

The US made the key decision to share what was know about Russian plans and capabilities before the invasion, and even accurately reported when the invasion was imminent. Prior to that the State Department had engaged with the Russian Foreign Ministry to see if there was a diplomatic solution that would not involve abandoning key principles. While some marginal areas of compromise were identified it could never offer concessions to satisfy Moscow’s expansive demands. Because much of Russia’s pre-war diplomacy was a distraction technique it is not surprising that these and other conversations between NATO countries and Russia yielded so little. Yet the American diplomatic effort was still important in the NATO context.

The alliance had a near-death experience when Donald Trump was President. Trump disliked alliances in general and NATO in particular. He saw it as an institution which allowed rich European countries to take advantage of American generosity. He had little time for other western leaders and barely hid his admiration for autocrats such as Putin and Xi Jinping who had managed to make themselves presidents for life, an achievement which he hoped to emulate. Nonetheless the first year of Biden’s presidency had not been wholly reassuring. His main priority was to contain China which appeared to require paying less attention to Europe, and he had badly mishandled his first crisis over the withdrawal from Afghanistan, failing to consult his allies about his plans. There was therefore some relief that the Biden administration demonstrated a much surer touch as the crisis over Ukraine developed, consulting widely, taking diplomacy seriously, and providing a clear, and accurate, warning of the dangers to come.

Anticipating a Russian Victory

During the first hours and even days of the war European thoughts raced ahead to the implications of a Russian victory. It was hard to believe that the Ukrainians would hold out for long. Their forces would eventually be crushed by the Russian military steamroller. One much discussed scenario involved Russia taking the main cities as Zelensky escaped to form a government in exile. (It was in response to an American offer to take him to safety two days after the invasion began that he remarked ‘I need ammunition not a ride’).

Despite the pessimism about Ukraine’s ability to defend itself in a conventional war, it was recognised that the population would be unlikely to accept a Quisling regime should one be imposed. Popular resistance was only to be expected, and this might lead to a full-blown insurgency. Should that happen other scenarios became possible, including efforts by Russia to prevent weapons and volunteers moving from Poland and Slovakia into Ukraine, potentially leading to clashes in and around their borders. If Russia was able to pacify Ukraine an even more alarming prospect came into view. Along with Belarus, it would be incorporated into a revitalised Greater Russia. Having objected to NATO trying to move closer to the Russian homeland, Putin would now be moving Russia closer to the edge of NATO

There were four immediate consequences for Western countries of the invasion. First, there was need to cope with the humanitarian demands of vast numbers of refugees seeking to escape the fighting. Second, they had to make good on pre-war warnings and demonstrate disapproval by imposing new economic sanctions on Russia and Belarus. Third, they had to think hard about their own security.

If successful Putin would be even more confident in armed force as a dependable instrument of policy.  This meant that over the short-term the defences of those NATO allies close to Russia had to be boosted while preparations had to be made for long-term tension. This would require an all-round strengthening of the alliance and increased defence expenditures. In a striking reversal of past German policy Chancellor Scholtz announced that defence expenditure would rise to the 2 percent NATO norm, a target to which it had given no more than a rhetorical commitment up to this point.

The fourth policy issue was how much to help Ukraine militarily. The initial gloomy assessments led to hesitation about helping out Ukraine with yet more military supplies. What would be the point of handing over equipment that would arrive too late to be useful and might soon be captured by the Russian army?

The Tide Turns

In the event, of course, the gloomier assessments were wrong. As the Ukrainians held back the advance of Russian forces and inflicted heavy blows upon them, assessments began to shift. Ukrainian success created its own quandaries. With President Zelensky emerging as a brave and eloquent leader, symbolising his country’s defiance and calling out European countries for their pusillanimity in the face of naked Russian aggression, a ‘wait and see’ attitude could not be sustained. Decisions had to be made on whether and how to back Ukraine with more military assistance and whether to ramp up sanctions by limiting energy imports from Russia. As Russia mounted deadly assaults on populated areas Zelensky demanded that NATO countries implement a ‘No Fly Zone’ to stop his cities being bombed. He was unimpressed by patient explanations of why in practice it would be difficult to establish such a zone and that it would be of no value in preventing artillery and missile strikes. Nor was he convinced that a zone would lead to direct confrontation between Russia and the US, and that if it did this would inevitably lead to escalation to a full-scale war and even nuclear exchanges. This was not, however, a proposition the Biden administration intended to test and so Zelensky’s entreaties failed to shift US policy. It did, however, make it harder to refuse him more and better military equipment. As the full barbarity of the Russian aggression became apparent there was even less reason for a tentative approach.

NATO was going to be damned whatever it did.

Zelensky did not hold back. In every talk to Western parliaments, and there have now been many, he demanded much more assistance from the West than he was getting. The UK continued to be to the fore in getting supplies to Ukraine, including from other donors. The US took time but is now despatching regular planeloads of equipment. There were concerns about whether only defensive equipment as more offensive capabilities might appear provocative to Moscow. But in a war such as this the distinction between offensive and defensive capabilities soon gets blurred and there was little point in worrying about whether Moscow was making fine distinctions. Recognizing the Ukrainian need for tanks and artillery, former members of the Warsaw Pact, withholdings of Soviet equipment (for example Czech T-72 tanks) are making them available as they can be put into the field without extra training.

Until the revelations of Russian atrocities in Bucha and elsewhere,  President Macron of France continued to hold conversations with Putin to explore any interest in peace talks and urge him to allow a humanitarian corridor to Mariupol. He got nowhere. Macron is now preoccupied with the second-round of his re-election bid. If Marie Le Pen won that would be a boost to Putin. It is only with enormous self-control that she has avoided endorsing his war. As for Putin, on Tuesday he acknowledged what had been apparent for some time, that there was no current basis for peace talks.

That leaves Germany in the spotlight, which they find uncomfortable, especially as the coalition is split between hawkish Greens and dovish Social Democrats. For all sorts of reasons, from guilt about the past, to the success of the Ostpolitik of the early 1970s in easing the tensions of the Cold War and then making possible reunification after the Berlin Wall came down, German foreign policy has sought to avoid antagonism with Russia. In 2008 Chancellor Angela Merkel blocked an American proposal to offer Ukraine a route to NATO membership, but accepted a compromise that appeared to Ukraine as a rebuff but to Russia as a promise that the door was still open. After the annexation of Crimea and the Russian-sponsored separatist rebellion in the Donbas she worked, with then then French President Hollande, to find a settlement with Putin and the then Ukrainian President Poroshenko. But this was never implemented.

The most damning charge is that she allowed energy dependence on Russia to grow rather than diminish and pressed ahead with the NordStream 2 gas pipeline despite warnings about how this would harm Ukraine and give Russia even more leverage over German foreign policy. That project has now been abandoned but Scholtz is still anxious about cutting off gas supplies from Russia because of the damage this might do to the German economy. The result is that Ukraine accuses Germany of financing Russia’s campaign while not even compensating by making a serious effort to provide military supplies. Zelensky, who has discarded tact when dealing with political leaders who have in his view refused to recognise the seriousness of his country’s predicament, and the wider international interest in its military success, has expressed his anger by refusing to welcome to Kyiv the German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, one of the architects of Germany’s Russia policy.

The End Game

With no peace talks and few new sanctions likely to be introduced the focus now is on the fighting. Ukraine cannot cope without Western support and so the key test over the coming weeks will be whether or not the flow of equipment and materiel to the front can be sustained. In reality the West dare not let Ukraine fail now. If Putin’s last big gamble, the offensive currently developing in and around the Donbas, comes off and Ukraine is pushed back then NATO will have to live with the consequences for years to come. This is no longer about sympathy for an underdog but solidarity with a country that has stood up to bullying and brutal behaviour and may now even have a chance of pushing out the invading forces.

Another one of the past assumptions was that at some point the Americans would have no choice but to step in and arrange a negotiated conclusion to put an end to this deeply damaging conflict. The Americans, however, have had not high-levels talks with Moscow and if they did it is not clear what they could discuss. Once it is accepted that as Ukraine is doing the fighting only Kyiv can agree terms then there is not much of a limited diplomatic role left for other would-be interlocutors. Should terms be agreed between Moscow and Kyiv then there would be lots to talk about – security guarantees and reparations, war crimes and economic sanctions. But that is for the future. For now the main role can only be a supporting one.

It remains possible that the war will not have a definite conclusion, but a messy cease-fire that will result in continuing instability. Should Russia recover its military competence then the original alliance concerns about preparing to cope with the Russian threat over the long term would remain valid. But while at the start of the war it was the expectation of a Russian victory that shocked NATO countries into addressing their own security needs, a Russian defeat would come as a different sort of shock. It would reverberate throughout the former Soviet Union, potentially causing upheavals in Russia itself. Instead of an expanding threat, NATO would be faced with one that was contracting. This could produce different forms of instability. It would also undoubtedly raise questions about whether the measures adopted in the immediate aftermath of the invasion were still necessary. This possible shift illustrates just how much the West’s perceived stakes in this war have shifted over a matter of weeks.

As NATO countries developed their policies, first in the build-up and then in the war’s opening stages, it was possible to find all sorts of complexities and subtleties in the situation. Now the war has reached a point of stark simplicity.

This column was first published by Substack. The New Voice of Ukraine is republishing it with permission.

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