- Written by Katya Adler
- Europe Editor
NATO is just hours away from its annual high-profile summit – a stress test for the alliance, with Russian President Vladimir Putin watching intently from the sidelines.
With Joe Biden, Emmanuel Macron, Rishi Sunak, Olaf Schultz and many more world leaders in attendance, the ambassadors of the coalition’s 31 member states came together, discussing what they can or should say publicly about Ukraine.
So what is all this nonsense?
This weekend marks 500 days since Russia launched its all-out invasion of Ukraine, seizing territory, attacking civilians and kidnapping children.
To Vladimir Putin’s dismay, Europe and its close ally the US have rushed to Ukraine’s aid (some faster than others – here you go, Berlin), to the tune of $165bn (£129bn) spent on humanitarian, financial and military aid from before May this year, according to the respected Kiel Institute for the World Economy.
It was a delicate, sometimes uncomfortable, balancing act — for individual European countries, for the European Union, and most of all for the NATO military alliance, which includes Russia’s old enemy, the United States.
The conundrum: How do you send a clear message to Moscow that the West will not stand by and allow the Kremlin to seize sovereign territory in Ukraine or elsewhere in Europe, while at the same time avoiding direct conflict with nuclear power Russia and risking all-out war?
According to US President Joe Biden: “I don’t think there is a consensus in NATO about whether or not to include Ukraine in the NATO family now, at this moment, in the midst of the war.”
He noted that Ukraine’s accession would mean that “if the war continues, we are all at war. We are at war with Russia, if that is the case.”
And 500 days after the Russian invasion, NATO’s balancing act couldn’t be easier.
Ukraine is clear. It wants an equal seat at the NATO table – with all the security guarantees that go with that.
And it wants it now — or because it knows NATO can’t accept a new member while that country is at war, it wants at least “a clear signal that Ukraine will be in the alliance,” says Ukraine’s media-savvy President Volodymyr Zelensky.
“Not that the door is open for us, that’s not enough, but Ukraine will be in it,” he says.
Anything less, and he has threatened not to come to the summit at all, infuriating quite a few NATO members, including Germany and the United States.
If Zelensky does not attend, the optics of Western unity with Ukraine — meant to send a clear message to Moscow at the summit — would be disastrous.
The main problem is that NATO already told Ukraine it belonged in the alliance in 2008, long before the Russian invasion.
Expectations are high that NATO should now offer Kiev something else of importance. but what?
Senior diplomats from a number of key NATO countries spoke to me for this article on condition of anonymity, so they can express their observations freely.
They say NATO members are united about Ukraine’s belonging within their “family”. But they are still divided on the details.
The summit will be held in Vilnius, capital of Lithuania. It is one of the three small Baltic states in Russia’s backyard that were swallowed up and occupied by the Soviet Union at the end of World War II.
Lithuanians, Latvians and Estonians sympathize with Ukraine’s pain. They are calling, along with Poland, the eastern European country, which also considers itself a former victim of Russian aggression, to grant Ukraine rapid membership in NATO after an eventual cease-fire with Moscow.
But NATO’s decisions require unanimous agreement among the member states. Germany, the United States and the United Kingdom are among the most cautious countries.
First, due to formal circumstances, an alliance may usually want the accession country to meet before becoming a member.
“As much as Ukraine deserves to be part of NATO,” one influential diplomat told me, “we have the same concerns now as we did in 2008.”
“We need to see reforms, fight corruption and proper control of the armed forces,” he said. But he added that he believed the Ukrainian authorities had learned a clear lesson from corruption in the Russian military, which has swallowed billions and left Russians weak and unprepared for battle.
Some NATO countries are also worried that if there is an iron promise to accept Kiev as a member immediately after a cease-fire with Russia, it could encourage Moscow to prolong its assault on Ukraine even further.
So what can Ukraine expect from this summit?
First, strategic patience – As Camille Grand, a former member of NATO and now a defense expert at the European Council on Foreign Relations, puts it. A clear pledge from the West that they are in it for the long haul. And that Russia should not believe that it can wait any longer for the West than Ukraine.
I was struck in my conversations with diplomats how relaxed their countries seem to be about slowing down Ukraine’s counterattack against Russia.
They seemed from the same school of thought as Britain’s Foreign Secretary, who remarked, “This is not a Hollywood movie.”
One of the ambassadors told me that “Moscow had been preparing for this invasion for a long, long time.” “And now we expect Ukraine to achieve great success in three or four weeks? It’s not realistic.”
Another commented, “Ukraine is trying to make progress while respecting human life,” referring to what he called Russia’s meat-grinder stance, pushing its soldiers “to the highest levels” to smash in droves.
“Do we have special questions about how quickly Ukraine can penetrate munitions? Absolutely!” A more pointed diplomatic note. “But it is important that the Ukrainians do not feel that we are breathing down their necks.
“We provide them with important, increasingly sophisticated military support, and they – and Moscow – need to know that it will keep coming.”
One of the important talks at the Vilnius summit will focus on Europe’s defense industry: the investment needed to ensure supplies continue to flow into Ukraine, while leaving EU and NATO members with enough defense capabilities to take care of themselves.
Also the question of coordination possibilities – at the moment it is kind of a mess. Each NATO country sends its military aid to Ukraine, leaving Kiev to grapple with different models of armored vehicles, tanks, and so on. Not the most efficient way forward.
secondIn the absence of immediate NATO membership for Ukraine, a group of countries (centered around the UK, US, France and Germany to name a few) are forming a “coalition of the willing” to give Kiev security guarantees. More cautious ones like the US refer to this as “security guarantees”. More details are expected to be revealed during the summit.
thirdOn the second day of the summit, NATO will convene the newly formed NATO-Ukraine Council – which would make it especially awkward if President Zelensky decided not to attend! The council’s idea is to elevate Kiev’s connection to the alliance, giving it greater access to NATO resources.
fourthIt is also possible that NATO will ignore the Membership Action Plan normally required for Ukraine, sparing Kiev at least some of the lengthy and incremental preparatory process through which entry candidates would normally work.
In the end, no one in NATO questions the need to support Ukraine in the short, medium and long term. Right now, she has a blank check for her counterattack.
Some NATO members – notably Italy – are concerned, though public opinion remains in favor of costly support for Ukraine. The coalition also needs to work (hard) on a common position on Russia when the war is over.
Officially NATO members say it is up to them to decide when the terms of the cease-fire talks with Moscow are met.
But behind the scenes, diplomats told me, there might come a point where the West might whisper about how there should be a cease-fire at hand, rather than losing more Ukrainian lives and spending billions more in Western money on an unwinnable war. .
Although, as they insist, this conversation is definitely not for the time being.
“Travel specialist. Typical social media scholar. Friend of animals everywhere. Freelance zombie ninja. Twitter buff.”