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Will upcoming NATO summit launch forever war in Europe?

Pressure is mounting to make some sort of formal declaration over Ukraine's membership at meetings in Vilnius next month.

Analysis | Europe

An article in the New York Times on Wednesday claimed that pressure is building on Biden to announce a timetable for Ukrainian membership in NATO at its Vilnius Summit next month. 

Supposedly Biden is “isolated” among NATO allies in his reluctance to do so, even though that claim is contradicted by the story’s own last paragraph (the one that Noam Chomsky once quipped should be read first), which acknowledges that “others argue more quietly” that NATO membership “could give Mr. Putin more incentive to continue the war, or to escalate it.”

Indeed, since Moscow has already declared NATO membership for Ukraine to be completely unacceptable and an existential threat — the prevention of which is one of its chief war aims — a Vilnius Declaration that Ukraine will join NATO when the war ends will effectively ensure that the war goes on forever. It will also take off the table the West’s central bargaining chip to achieve peace, which is a neutral Ukraine. 

It’s clear that the “pressure” on Biden is coming from Zelensky and some of the eastern NATO countries, specifically Poland and the Baltic States. Zelensky said two weeks ago that Ukraine would not even attend the Vilnius Summit unless given a firm signal on its eventual membership. Former NATO secretary general Anders Rasmussen, now a consultant to Zelensky, even threatened that “if NATO cannot agree on a clear path forward for Ukraine, there is a clear possibility that some countries individually might take action.” In particular, “the Poles would seriously consider going in,” triggering direct war between NATO and Russia. 

The NYTarticle implies that the current secretary general Jens Stoltenberg agrees with the hardliners on the need for a concrete timetable for Ukraine’s admission into NATO, but he made no such promises during his joint address with President Biden on Tuesday. By Wednesday, Stoltenberg and NATO were making it clear that no specific timeline for Ukraine’s NATO membership would be on the agenda in Vilnius. He reiterated comments from April that “Ukraine’s future is in NATO,” and said there would be agreement from member states on a “multi-year program” to help Ukraine “become fully interoperable with NATO,” but wouldn’t commit to anything more specific than that. 

Apparently, it’s Zelensky and his allies along the Russian border who are “isolated,” not President Biden.

Whatever Stoltenberg’s personal views may be, he knows NATO is divided on the question of admitting Ukraine in the near future. Even the NYT name-checks three countries – Germany, Hungary, and Turkey – whose leaders would definitely oppose membership at a specific future date. Many more leaders have privately expressed concern, and Biden, to his credit, appears to be one of them.

While his overall conduct and rhetoric has been hawkish (and I continue to maintain he could have avoided this war altogether with better diplomacy in the months leading up to it), Biden has been admirably consistent in his desire not to plunge America into direct war with Russia. The threats from Rasmussen underscore how easily a proxy war can turn into a real one in an alliance where all members are pledged to come to the military defense of any one member. The American people may begin to question the wisdom of making new Article 5 guarantees if foreigners like Rassmussen can use existing ones to blackmail the United States into reckless action.

Polish or Ukrainian tails should not wag American dogs into World War III. 

Short of giving Ukraine the security guarantees that NATO membership provides, some in Biden’s foreign policy circle, such as Secretary of State Antony Blinken, have been pushing a different idea, which is to give “Israel status” to Ukraine. This consists of long-term security guarantees (which run for ten-year intervals in Israel’s case) including weapons, ammunition, and money “not subject to the fate of the current counteroffensive or the electoral calendar.” In other words, America won’t reassess support even if the counteroffensive fails. Indeed, support won’t cease even if those pesky voters change their minds. Biden’s War for Democracy is too important to be subject to elections. 

However, some observers may see here a classic bait and switch. Last year, after Ukraine retook land around Kharkiv and Kherson, the American people were assured that the Ukrainians would complete the job in the spring and summer of 2023. This new Ukrainian counteroffensive would roll back Russian territorial gains, perhaps even threaten the Russian hold on Crimea, and thereby drive Moscow to the negotiating table and end the war. Many Americans supported the $100+ billion in appropriations for Ukraine on this basis. The implicit promise was that this was a one-time expense, not the baseline for an annual appropriation in a new Forever War. 

Now a difficult start to the counteroffensive coupled with a proposed multi-year deal at Vilnius makes clear that this was a lie or a pipe dream. But isn’t this what always happens? Administrations ease us into war with promises of quick and easy victory, and then once involved, tell us we can’t back out no matter the cost because American credibility is at stake. It’s Vietnam, Afghanistan or Iraq all over again, except this time with a nuclear-armed adversary creating the heightened risk that the war could escalate into WWIII at any point.

Perhaps the most pointless aspect of the current debate among NATO members is that with or without a timetable, a Vilnius Declaration that Ukraine will join NATO is a promise that cannot be implemented, absent a major reversal in Ukrainian fortunes on the battlefield. Such a declaration cannot guarantee Ukraine’s NATO admission any more than its forerunner at the Bucharest Summit in 2008 did. It can only guarantee that the Russians remain implacably resolved to stopping it by perpetuating the war as long as they have to.

So our insistence that Ukraine be allowed to join NATO "someday," combined with our (sensible) desire not to be drawn into World War III, means that “someday” will never arrive. This begs the question: why continue to make a promise when there is no realistic path to achieving it? Why fight over a principle (NATO’s “open door”) that's largely theoretical anyway because Ukraine can't actually join the alliance without triggering the continent-wide conflagration NATO was established to avoid in the first place? 

The leaders meeting at Vilnius may not be asking that question, but future historians judging them surely will. 

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin pose with NATO Defence ministers for a family picture on the second day of a meeting at the NATO headquarter in Brussels, Belgium Feb, 15, 2023. (Shutterstock/Alexandros Michailidis)
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