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Nato offers Ukraine the worst of all worlds

Volodymyr Zelenskyy speaks at the Nato Summit in Vilnius on 12 July. Credit: Getty

July 12, 2023 - 1:00pm

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 Haassdismissed 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.


Aris Roussinos is an UnHerd columnist and a former war reporter.

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Steve White
Steve White
11 months ago

Why did any of us really care which Slav controls the border in the Donbas? I mean, I think if most of them spoke Russian that they should have been allowed to speak Russian, and not harassed or killed for it. That sort of openness and inclusion seems to fit with Western principles. But just like cluster bombs are bad things until the right person says they are not so bad, so oppressing people for their language or religion is only bad when the right people say it’s bad. 
I love the “Biden’s red line” stuff… Biden is the kind of guy that sends a guy to sweet talk the Chinese, then 24 hours later is calling their president a dictator. Biden probably had a red line of cluster munitions 2 weeks ago. The red line we really need to worry about are these so called “tactical nukes”. If they fit in 155MM guns, we’re all in trouble, because as we’ve been told, the Biden administration is convinced that his 2024 prospects henge on a good outcome in Ukraine. It’s the whole sunken cost fallacy.
Also, just as Covid minted over 40 new billionaires, most of the billions allocated to Ukraine from the US go through the weapons manufacturers. Very little actually gets to Ukraine directly. Which is why nearly half of the signers of the open letter stating the Ukraine should be able to join Nato are themslves tied to weapons manufacturers, and therefore stand to benefit from this continuing to the last Ukrainian.
Billions are on the line people! You won’t get any, some at the top of Ukraine will get some, but most Ukrainians won’t get any either.
Now the question is, are you going to go along with the right narrative and be a useful resource, or are are you going to be a troublemaker?

Last edited 11 months ago by Steve White
Steve White
Steve White
11 months ago

Why did any of us really care which Slav controls the border in the Donbas? I mean, I think if most of them spoke Russian that they should have been allowed to speak Russian, and not harassed or killed for it. That sort of openness and inclusion seems to fit with Western principles. But just like cluster bombs are bad things until the right person says they are not so bad, so oppressing people for their language or religion is only bad when the right people say it’s bad. 
I love the “Biden’s red line” stuff… Biden is the kind of guy that sends a guy to sweet talk the Chinese, then 24 hours later is calling their president a dictator. Biden probably had a red line of cluster munitions 2 weeks ago. The red line we really need to worry about are these so called “tactical nukes”. If they fit in 155MM guns, we’re all in trouble, because as we’ve been told, the Biden administration is convinced that his 2024 prospects henge on a good outcome in Ukraine. It’s the whole sunken cost fallacy.
Also, just as Covid minted over 40 new billionaires, most of the billions allocated to Ukraine from the US go through the weapons manufacturers. Very little actually gets to Ukraine directly. Which is why nearly half of the signers of the open letter stating the Ukraine should be able to join Nato are themslves tied to weapons manufacturers, and therefore stand to benefit from this continuing to the last Ukrainian.
Billions are on the line people! You won’t get any, some at the top of Ukraine will get some, but most Ukrainians won’t get any either.
Now the question is, are you going to go along with the right narrative and be a useful resource, or are are you going to be a troublemaker?

Last edited 11 months ago by Steve White
Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
11 months ago

I’m sorry but the Ukraine is NOT worth the bones of one British Grenadier.

Albert McGloan
Albert McGloan
11 months ago

What about Tom Tugendhat? Sending them Tugendhat is the least we can do for the brave Ukrainians.

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
11 months ago
Reply to  Albert McGloan

TA, then Intelligence Corps, so NOT a ‘teeth arm’.
Thus a perfect choice, that should really frighten ‘em!

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
11 months ago
Reply to  Albert McGloan

TA, then Intelligence Corps, so NOT a ‘teeth arm’.
Thus a perfect choice, that should really frighten ‘em!

Albert McGloan
Albert McGloan
11 months ago

What about Tom Tugendhat? Sending them Tugendhat is the least we can do for the brave Ukrainians.

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
11 months ago

I’m sorry but the Ukraine is NOT worth the bones of one British Grenadier.

rob clark
rob clark
11 months ago

‘But with Nato membership, Ukraine seems to have hit Biden’s absolute red line.”
Most likely to be “updated” within the month!

rob clark
rob clark
11 months ago

‘But with Nato membership, Ukraine seems to have hit Biden’s absolute red line.”
Most likely to be “updated” within the month!

Fran Martinez
Fran Martinez
11 months ago

Is this author not tired of pushing pro war rhetoric? I find myself in a similar situation than when Tom Chiver used to push the vaccine. For them the answer is always “more more”. Accepting Ukraine would be a war declaration to Russia. I don’t want to fight that war. If the author wants to do that, I advise him to go fighting himself instead of trying to drag the rest of us.

For some reason Unherd thinks it is ok to hold this comment ‘awaiting for approval’. Maybe I should stop paying my subscription to Unherd. After all, there are plenty of platforms out there willing to censor me for free!

Last edited 11 months ago by Fran Martinez
Fran Martinez
Fran Martinez
11 months ago

Is this author not tired of pushing pro war rhetoric? I find myself in a similar situation than when Tom Chiver used to push the vaccine. For them the answer is always “more more”. Accepting Ukraine would be a war declaration to Russia. I don’t want to fight that war. If the author wants to do that, I advise him to go fighting himself instead of trying to drag the rest of us.

For some reason Unherd thinks it is ok to hold this comment ‘awaiting for approval’. Maybe I should stop paying my subscription to Unherd. After all, there are plenty of platforms out there willing to censor me for free!

Last edited 11 months ago by Fran Martinez
Fran Martinez
Fran Martinez
11 months ago

Why are my comments ‘awaiting for approval’. Even a site like Unherd that claims to fight censorship uses it in its own site. Sad times indeed!

Fran Martinez
Fran Martinez
11 months ago

Why are my comments ‘awaiting for approval’. Even a site like Unherd that claims to fight censorship uses it in its own site. Sad times indeed!

Anna Bramwell
Anna Bramwell
11 months ago

If Ukraine were to join NATO now, Russia would then be facing frontiers of other NATO countries at war: Finland, Poland facing Kaliningrad, plus facing Belarus if NATO called it as a close ally of Russia: Turkey. Russia cant fight in that many fronts. Then what? I forgot. According to the author, Russia is occupying Georgia, so, Georgia gets involved in the war. It would be interesting to look at the relative armed forces involved.

Anna Bramwell
Anna Bramwell
11 months ago

If Ukraine were to join NATO now, Russia would then be facing frontiers of other NATO countries at war: Finland, Poland facing Kaliningrad, plus facing Belarus if NATO called it as a close ally of Russia: Turkey. Russia cant fight in that many fronts. Then what? I forgot. According to the author, Russia is occupying Georgia, so, Georgia gets involved in the war. It would be interesting to look at the relative armed forces involved.

Jim McDonnell
Jim McDonnell
11 months ago

Do the Ukrainians have the kind of hardware they need to break through defensive positions where the Russians have been digging in and building up for months, years, in some cases almost a decade? They’re paying a price for our reluctance to provide some of the items on their military wish lists.

Jim McDonnell
Jim McDonnell
11 months ago

Do the Ukrainians have the kind of hardware they need to break through defensive positions where the Russians have been digging in and building up for months, years, in some cases almost a decade? They’re paying a price for our reluctance to provide some of the items on their military wish lists.

Laurel Kenner
Laurel Kenner
11 months ago

F-16s to Turkey for fighting Kurds but none to Ukraine for fighting the aggressor.

Steve White
Steve White
11 months ago
Reply to  Laurel Kenner

The Kurds (who are Marxists by the way) were useful for a while just like Saddam was, just like Osama was… Right now the Ukrainians are useful and tomorrow the Taiwanese will be useful. These people go in and out of usefulness to the US hegemon.  You need to get caught up.

Steve White
Steve White
11 months ago
Reply to  Laurel Kenner

The Kurds (who are Marxists by the way) were useful for a while just like Saddam was, just like Osama was… Right now the Ukrainians are useful and tomorrow the Taiwanese will be useful. These people go in and out of usefulness to the US hegemon.  You need to get caught up.

Laurel Kenner
Laurel Kenner
11 months ago

F-16s to Turkey for fighting Kurds but none to Ukraine for fighting the aggressor.