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The elephant in the room at next week's  NATO summit

The elephant in the room at next week's NATO summit

The alliance won't talk about the role Russia will play in European security once the war is over.

Analysis | Europe

Next week, a NATO summit in Vilnius, Lithuania will likely agree on further robust steps to help Ukraine counter Russia’s aggression. The alliance will also likely agree on arrangements to beef up NATO military capabilities and organization. But there will be limits, consistent with President Joe Biden’s careful calibration in providing U.S. weapons to Ukraine and encouraging allies to do so: just enough to help Ukraine on the immediate battlefield, but not enough to escalate the war into Russia proper, with unknowable risks.

Also at stake in Vilnius is whether Ukraine can move closer to NATO membership.  

Ukraine will not become a full alliance member, which requires consensus of NATO’s 31 member states. Most allies, notably France and Germany, don’t accept that even Vladimir Putin’s aggression against Ukraine is cause for declaring war on Russia, as would be provided for by the NATO Treaty’s Article 5, much less for becoming directly involved in combat.

Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky is pushing hard to get Ukraine as close to NATO membership as possible — sooner rather than later but if need be when the war with Russia ends. With reluctance to take that step, NATO allies are discussing several less-than-dispositive formulas, including adoption of a so-called Membership Action Plan or simply dispensing with an MAP.  Alternatively, France, Germany, the UK and the U.S. could give individual military guarantees to Ukraine; but defining the terms is not simple, and a formal U.S. security commitment would require a two-thirds Senate vote. That almost surely would not happen.

At Vilnius, an almost unavoidable squabble on Ukraine’s long-term relationship to NATO, whatever the allies agree to do, will take the shine off any unity message the alliance wants to project to Russia. This was a risk in holding a summit this year, when the allies’ efforts to support Ukraine militarily could have been achieved through normal diplomacy.  

Even more consequential for the long term is an issue that won’t arise at Vilnius: what role Russia can play in European security after the war is over. Since the end of the Cold War, the Western allies, especially the United States, have pondered what to do about the key remnant (Russia) of the dismembered Soviet Union. George H. W. Bush proposed a “Europe whole and free” and Bill Clinton followed suit. Both administrations thought it most important to avoid what was done to Germany in the 1919 Treaty of Versailles, whose War Guilt Clause (231) required Germany to accept full responsibility for the war. In his rise to power, Hitler made much of what he represented as national humiliation.  

When the Soviet Union collapsed, the United States and key allies (notably German Chancellor Helmut Kohl) were determined to avoid the same mistake with Russia. But then people rose to power in the U.S. government who forgot historical lessons and decided to marginalize Russia. Most consequential was NATO’s 2008 decision, prompted by the G. W. Bush administration, to declare that “Ukraine and Georgia will join NATO.” That was the actual moment of commitment, though without a timeline, which for several allies meant “never.” Yet it fed Putin’s narrative that NATO was trying to surround Russia. Four U.S. administrations later, that ill-conceived NATO position is still being repeated.

Nothing can justify Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and its horrendous war crimes. Its behavior, with the resulting negative impact in Western domestic politics, has made the U.S. and NATO considering serious dealings with Russia so long as Putin is in power virtually impossible. But this understandable attitude must contend with a fact reflected in G. H. W. Bush’s “Europe whole and free” — that unless Russia disintegrates, at some point in the future it will have to be dealt with as a revived great power, which under any leader will pursue what Russia considers to be its legitimate interests. (Already, a weakened Russia is challenging Western interests in the Middle East and elsewhere.) Russia’s European interests include not having a rival military alliance on its doorstep, however accurately NATO asserts its solely defensive purpose.  

Nevertheless, a consensus is rapidly forming in the United States, apparently shared in the Biden administration, that a new cold war confrontation with Russia is inevitable, whatever the risks, dangers, and longevity. Already, for several years it has been difficult in the U.S. to discuss publicly the role the West played in helping to bring about the Ukraine-Russia crisis prior to Putin’s February 2014 seizure of Crimea and sending “little green men” into the Donbas.  

Only President Biden and his top aides can stop the stifling of debate, a necessary first step to serious strategic analysis and policy. But if he and others at Vilnius and elsewhere continue reinforcing the notion of permanent confrontation with Russia, then, no matter how the war ends, we can expect generational limits on dealing with long-term geopolitical realities in Europe.

Measured against this era-defining matter, the compromise worked out at Vilnius to satisfy Zelensky about Ukraine eventually joining NATO, while key allies resist firm commitment, is historically of second-order significance.

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