So what were they afraid of? When NATO leaders arrived in Vilnius this week, it was clear what they had to do. They had to be strong. This is the whole point of NATO. They had to show that they were in no way intimidated by Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin’s eerie saber-rattling.
They had to show that NATO countries recognize the enormous sacrifice of Ukraine and the obligations it imposes on us in the West, and they had to develop an appropriate response.
For more than 500 days, Ukrainians have been resisting the Russian onslaught, a war that they did nothing to start – nothing to repeat – to provoke. Their cities are bombed indiscriminately, women are raped, children are abducted, and there are camps in Crimea where male prisoners of war are systematically castrated.
More than 100,000 Ukrainian soldiers are believed to have died, along with countless civilians, and ten million Ukrainians have been displaced.
This week, NATO leaders had to demonstrate their collective respect and appreciation for Ukraine’s heroic resistance in a fight in which no NATO soldiers were injured or killed, because we in NATO know – and keep saying – that Ukrainians are fighting for all of us.
Their fight is for freedom and democracy everywhere: for Eastern Europe, for the Baltic States, for all the peoples of the world who may be intimidated or invaded by an all-powerful neighbor. That’s why this week we owe Ukrainians the clarity they need about their future.
NATO leaders had to demonstrate their faith in the fundamental principle of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the most successful military alliance in history.
We had to make it clear once and for all that it is up to the sovereign people to decide which organizations they want to join, and that no non-member can veto them or hold them back.
No country has done more and tried harder than Ukraine to demonstrate its suitability for NATO membership. No armed force is more formidable or more effective in the use of NATO weapons.
No country needs more NATO membership. All the Alliance had to do was set a timetable, not instant membership; membership does not make sense while the war is ongoing, but should come as soon as victory is won.
All we needed was the words that the accession could begin as soon as the war was over, with the understanding that it could be as early as next year.
This would be the right message for those brave Ukrainians who are now fighting for their lives – like swimmers struggling with difficulties who suddenly see the safety of the shore.
This would be the right signal for Putin, who has made it very clear that his catastrophic adventure will end only one way. This is exactly what NATO was supposed to say this week in the Lithuanian capital – and what did we get instead?
I am sorry to say that the Vilnius conclusions are no more firm or convincing than the 2008 NATO Bucharest Conclusions, which state – in paragraph 23, to be precise – “we agree that these countries (Ukraine and Georgia) will become NATO members.”
That was 15 years ago, when Gordon Brown was still prime minister, and before Putin had begun his violent and revanchist plan to restore the Soviet empire.
All Ukrainians received this week was an “invitation” to join NATO “when the allies agree and when the conditions are met.” It is not surprising that President Zelensky initially found it difficult to hide his disappointment.
When will the allies agree? When will the conditions be met? According to the Bucharest Conclusions, the Allies agreed on all this 15 years ago!
When will we learn the lesson of the last 20 years of dealing with Putin? It was our ambiguity, our hesitation, our “sucking and blowing” that immediately prompted him to invade. As long as he thinks that there is a chance that he can bring Ukraine back into Moscow’s orbit-as long as he thinks that he can recreate the Soviet Union-he will try.
As long as he thinks he can get away with violence against Ukraine and others, he will use violence. As long as Ukraine is deprived of the formal NATO security guarantees that ensure the collective defense of all members, Putin will continue to wreak havoc and destabilize the world and the global economy.
That is why we in NATO must set a timetable as soon as possible. I know that this is the ambition of the UK government, and I know how hard the UK has been campaigning behind the scenes. The reluctance does not lie in London;.
The problem is that there are still some of our friends and partners who believe that this war can only end through negotiations. They think that we should be cleverly ambiguous now, because they believe that the issue of Ukraine’s membership in NATO can still be part of the deal.
You can make a favorable deal with Putin, they think: you withdraw your troops, and we will keep Ukraine out of NATO.
It’s crazy. Throughout this war, the West has made the same mistake over and over again: overestimating Putin and underestimating Ukraine.
Ukrainians will win. They deserve to win. They are fighting like lions, and there is more and more evidence that they will succeed.
Look at Putin’s position. Only three weeks ago, Yevgeny Prigozhin, the founder of the Wagner Group and still considered its lion and loyal mastiff, suddenly attacked his master and sent his troops on a march on Moscow.
Some are now saying that the “mutiny” was a clever ploy by Putin just to show that Russia can be even more chaotic with other people in charge. What nonsense.
It was not a masquerade. It was almost anarchy – Wagner’s group was actually shooting down Russian helicopters, actually killing Russian soldiers.
And then Sergei Surovikin, the general who had previously led the Russian invasion forces, suddenly disappeared under suspicion of sympathizing with the coup attempt.
Another dismissed general, Ivan Popov, accuses Putin of beheading the army. You can see what is happening. The Russian military knows that they are facing defeat and humiliation in Ukraine, and they are preparing their dolchstosslegende – their myth of the stab in the back – to explain how they have been betrayed and let down by incompetent politicians.
Yes, it will take time for Ukrainians to break through the Vietcong-style dugouts that the Russians have mined and sealed with mines in the captured areas. We have to be patient. We must demonstrate strategic restraint.
We need to give the Ukrainians air cover – F-16 fighters – to do this.
But they will do it, and once they do, there is only one way to make sure that such an invasion never happens again, to resolve once and for all the question of Ukraine’s political identity and orientation-for the sake of the stability of Ukraine, Russia, and the world.
It worked for the Baltics. She worked for Eastern Europe. Now this is the only way forward for Ukraine. It’s time to be strong, to end the mealy-mouthed procrastination, and to bring Ukraine into NATO as soon as possible.