At the Vilnius summit this week, NATO leaders have been telling anyone who will listen that Ukraine’s future lies within NATO. As US president Joe Biden put it to Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine is going to become a NATO member.
But these are hollow words. NATO’s torturous communiqué, published on Tuesday, drowned any promise of membership in a sea of caveats. NATO leaders will ‘extend an invitation’ to Ukraine to join NATO after the war ends. But only if ‘allies agree and conditions are met’; only if they’re satisfied with ‘Ukraine’s progress on interoperability’; and only if Ukraine undertakes ‘democratic and security-sector reforms’. NATO has extended an invitation with one hand and withdrawn it with the other.
‘It seems there is no readiness either to invite Ukraine [in]to NATO or to make it a member of the alliance’, tweeted an angry Zelensky. His reaction is eminently understandable, as his nation fights for its own survival, and looks ahead to how it might secure its borders against the prospect of further Russian aggression in the future.
But Zelensky can hardly have been surprised by NATO’s two-facedness. Ukraine has been engaged in this membership dance with NATO for the best part of three decades. It always follows the same pattern. NATO makes eyes at Ukraine, beckoning it over with the offer of joining. At the same time, it recoils from Ukraine, tying up the possibility of membership in vague conditions. Always watching on is an unfailingly angry Moscow. This week, Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov complained furiously about the threat of ‘possible NATO enlargement’ through the incorporation of Ukraine.
So NATO keeps opening the door to Ukraine, while constantly pulling it shut, and Ukraine has been left in the worst of all possible worlds. NATO has long said Ukraine will join – a blood-red line for the Russians – but never follows through on it, leaving Ukraine both imperiled and undefended.
NATO’s communiqué this week, written amid a conflict that it helped to stoke, stressed that ‘NATO does not seek confrontation and poses no threat to Russia’ – and that it will ‘seek stability and predictability in the Euro-Atlantic area and between NATO and Russia’. But if NATO is seeking ‘stability and predictability’, it’s not doing a very good job. For all the talk of NATO expansionism representing some grand American masterplan, the communiqué reveals the approach to be blundering and incoherent, but no less dangerous for it.
This geopolitical cluelessness is a product of NATO’s reckless drive to expand after the end of the Cold War. This has dragged it into conflicts it has neither the will nor wherewithal to fight. And it has pulled it towards nations to which it can’t commit itself. Mired in a world that its own expansion has helped to destabilize, NATO is now inherently incoherent. As Ukraine is discovering to its cost.
This moment has been a long time in the making.
From its formation in 1949 up until the disintegration of the USSR, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation was defined by the Cold War. It served an explicitly anti-Communist purpose, and it was limited by the geopolitical realities of the Cold War order. Indeed, its make-up remained pretty much unchanged throughout this period – only one member, Spain, joined between 1955 and 1991, taking the membership total to 16.
The end of the Cold War completely disoriented NATO, depriving it of both purpose and geopolitical boundaries. An alliance established for defensive, anti-Soviet ends was transformed during the 1990s into a vague vehicle for the promotion of Western ‘values’ and interests. It wanted to expand, enlarge, bring others into the Western fold. Of its current 31 members, 15 were added after 1991.
It expanded ever eastwards, towards Russia. First the former Warsaw Pact nations joined, followed by the former Soviet republics. At every stage, this process of expansion was antagonising Russia, intensifying the national chauvinism and militarism of its increasingly insecure ruling clique. In a grim irony, NATO expansion almost started to justify itself – by creating a Russian threat on NATO’s increasingly militarised eastern borders.
Ukraine was always going to expose the world-historical folly of NATO expansion. Indeed, Russian and Western diplomats warned, from the collapse of the USSR onwards, that Ukraine becoming part of NATO would provoke Russia. But that didn’t stop successive Western leaders from continuously flirting with the prospect, as part of NATO’s new expansive purpose. As early as 1994, NATO concluded a framework agreement with Ukraine, in the shape of the Partnership for Peace initiative. At the Bucharest summit in 2008, NATO explicitly declared, at the urging of then US president George W Bush, that Ukraine and Georgia would become members. A few weeks later, in an ominous sign of what was to come for Ukraine, Putin launched an invasion of Georgia.
Yet while NATO has spent nearly 30 years dangling the prospect of membership in front of Ukraine, dragging it towards the West and antagonising Russia, nothing has ever come of it. NATO may have felt impelled by its expansionist logic to flirt with expanding into Ukraine, but it has always baulked at the potential consequences – especially after Moscow showed its willingness to retaliate by annexing Crimea in 2014. And so the prospect of membership has always been on the table for Ukraine. But the table has always been out of reach.
NATO has never really been serious about Ukraine. It was still playing this game on the eve of Russia’s invasion, with secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg urging Ukraine to undertake myriad reforms before admission could be considered. And it is still doing the same thing now, while Ukrainians are fighting for their lives – and their nation’s very existence.
NATO’s incoherence remains a serious problem. It generates the conditions for conflict, yet it lacks the purpose and authority to impose order. Putin and the Russian elites are ultimately responsible for their barbaric invasion of Ukraine, but the role NATO expansion has played in stoking – and providing a pretext for – this conflict cannot be ignored.
Before Russia’s invasion, NATO was effectively provoking a war it didn’t want to fight. Now, it is helping Ukraine to fight for a future it refuses to commit to. Before this week’s summit, Joe Biden said that some ‘Israel-style’ security arrangements might be available for Ukraine ‘if’ there is a peace agreement with Russia. The ‘if’ was telling. It seems NATO’s main player won’t even guarantee vague security arrangements for Ukraine.