Half a promise is worse than no promise at all
The story of Western assistance to Ukraine throughout the war so far has followed a familiar pattern. The Ukrainians demand more powerful weapons systems than Washington feels comfortable delivering and eventually — through a combination of battlefield success, desperate need and appeals to Western sympathy — erode red lines that once seemed absolute. From Western armour to F-16 jets, moral pressure from Ukraine and its most hawkish Nato supporters has so far managed to win out over Joe Biden’s instinctive caution at embroiling America too deeply in an open confrontation with Russia.
But with Nato membership, Ukraine seems to have hit Biden’s absolute red line. While affirming that “Ukraine’s future is in Nato”, the eventual communiqué from the Vilnius summit offered Ukraine only vague and uncertain prospects of joining the Alliance, far from the confirmed and accelerated pathway for which Zelenskyy was publicly hoping. He responded furiously, declaring in a tweet which has reportedly angered the Biden administration that “it’s unprecedented and absurd when time frame is not set neither for the invitation nor for Ukraine’s membership. While at the same time vague wording about ‘conditions’ is added even for inviting Ukraine.”
In reality, Zelenskyy will have known in advance that an open hand would not be forthcoming. During Biden’s London visit, US Under Secretary for Defence Colin Kahl briefed journalists on the resistance in the White House to any suggestion “that there’s a degree of automaticity or immediacy” to Ukraine’s Nato bid. What’s more, the American President told CNN that Ukraine joining would mean “we’re at war with Russia, if that were the case.”
Ukrainian officials will have long been assured of Biden’s caution privately and directly. Even Polish President Andrzej Duda, one of Ukraine’s most hawkish supporters, remarked before the summit that “it must be understood: if Ukraine were admitted to Nato today, during the war, it would first of all demand the application of Article 5. This is not only a concern of Germany. This is a fear that exists in many countries.”
Within the context of Ukraine’s ongoing existential war against Russia, in which the latter occupies around a fifth of the former’s internationally recognised territory, any firmer promises of future Nato membership were unlikely in the extreme. Yet the resulting declaration essentially offers Ukraine the worst of both worlds, combining high-flown rhetorical solidarity with an ambiguous non-commitment to future membership.
This hardly improves on the 2008 Bucharest declaration, now seen as spurring Russia’s invasion of Georgia four months later, and its eventual aggression towards Ukraine. As the realist international relations scholar Patrick Porter remarked on Twitter, “glutinous self-praise, evasion of critical choices and dicking Ukraine around with a dalliance of open-ended, non-commital assurances. The road that helped lead here.”
Indeed, the communiqué’s statement that “we will be in a position to extend an invitation to Ukraine to join the Alliance when Allies agree and conditions are met” means that it is in Russia’s interest to ensure that the Western allies disagree and membership conditions are never met. The war has settled into a tempo currently favourable to Russia, with Ukraine’s long-anticipated counteroffensive so far making little headway against deep and well-fortified defensive lines. Unless the Ukrainians make a significant breakthrough within the next few months, they will come under increased pressure from their Western partners, now running out of munitions to deliver, to negotiate a peace deal.
The “1.5 track” negotiations between Russia and senior members of the US security establishment like the Council on Foreign Relations president Richard Haass — dismissed as a “tankie” by the Ukrainian diplomat Olexander Scherba — indicate that Washington is considering ways to freeze the war in a manner acceptable to its interests, ahead of any abrupt policy shifts that may follow the 2024 election.
Yet the eventual wording of the Vilnius declaration, by awkwardly combining grand rhetoric with hard-nosed realpolitik, may provide Russia with the incentive to allow the war to drag on interminably, ensuring that Nato membership conditions are never met. In this sense, the open-ended compromise wording of Tuesday’s communiqué, though designed to express support for Ukraine, may prove to be a worse outcome for the country than no promises of Nato membership at all.