Even before NATO members officially kicked off their two-day summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, this week, the alliance dealt a painful blow to Russian President Vladimir Putin. On Monday evening, the leader of the bloc’s most contentious member, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, lifted his long-standing refusal to allow Sweden to join NATO.
Putin’s invasion of Ukraine had persuaded two formerly neutral countries, Sweden and Finland, that the only path to security when you live near Russia is to join the Western alliance. Both Nordic countries started working to join what was then a 30-country military alliance since May of last year, just about two months after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Putin had two objectives with his war. One was taking control of Ukraine, which he claimed has no right to exist; the other was weakening NATO. Russia’s unprovoked invasion of its neighbor strengthened Ukrainians’ sense of nationhood and led to the expansion of NATO on Russia’s border. Finland, which already lost territory to the Kremlin after it launched an invasion decades ago, has the longest European Union border with Russia at 832 miles. And this past spring, the country started building a fence at the border amid security concerns. It officially became NATO’s 31st member in April. Putin can still take some solace in the intense disagreements inside NATO prior to the summit over whether or not Ukraine should be granted membership. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg announced on Tuesday that allies agreed to remove some of the requirements for accession, making Ukraine’s process much faster. He said Ukraine “will become a member of NATO” but “when conditions are met.”
And although NATO leaders did not formally invite Ukraine to join the alliance, much to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s disappointment, they did agree to sharply boost Ukraine’s military strength and step up their commitment in helping it defeat Russia’s unprovoked invasion. “We’re going to help Ukraine build a strong defense across land, air, and sea,” US President Joe Biden promised, saying it was “a force of stability in the region to deter against any and all threats,” a not-so-veiled reference to Putin. Overall, the summit – held near Russia’s border, in a country once invaded, absorbed and controlled by the Kremlin – is a show of force for Ukraine’s friends, bringing bad news for the Russian strongman. Despite the delay in ushering Ukraine into the alliance, there is no question that the Vilnius summit is strengthening ties with Kyiv, even if earlier on Tuesday, Zelensky had bitterly questioned the wisdom of postponing his country’s accession. On his way to Lithuania, he tweeted a message arguing that any delay gives Russia “motivation to continue its terror.” In an interview with CNN’s Fareed Zakaria before he left the US, Biden said admitting Ukraine now would be “premature,” while the country is in the midst of a war. Under NATO’s Article 5, an attack on one is an attack on all. There’s a strong case to be made that if Ukraine joins while Russia’s invasion continues, NATO allies could be required to enter the war. That’s something Biden has sought to avoid, and it would enjoy little support.
The argument that Ukraine should not be allowed into NATO because it would provoke Putin holds little sway. Putin attacked Ukraine in 2014, prompting Kyiv to abandon its official neutrality, and he attacked again in 2022 when it was not a member of NATO. In fact, there is a mountain of reasons to bring in Ukraine. Even if Ukraine pushes Russian invaders out and the war ends, there is a high likelihood that Russia will try it again, a danger that could outlast Putin. Russia’s extreme nationalists consider Ukraine part of their fatherland. Putin’s lengthy 2021 manifesto, making the case that Ukraine is part of Russia, will likely remain their bible long after its author leaves the scene. Ukraine clearly belongs in NATO, an alliance that has secured the peace of all its European members since it was created after Moscow launched its expansionist campaign across Central Europe in the aftermath of World War II, triggering the Cold War. Imperial, anti-Western ambitions resurfaced with Putin. Biden told CNN that “Putin had an overwhelming objective from the time he launched 185,000 troops into Ukraine, and that was to break NATO.” That goal has failed just as miserably as the plan to swiftly capture Kyiv.
Biden cited the need to maintain NATO’s cohesiveness, with disagreements over Ukraine’s immediate accession as one of several reasons for not doing it now. Another decision that has divided the allies is Biden’s move to provide Ukraine with cluster munitions, whose scattering of small bombs over a wide field can lead to civilian casualties after conflicts end. Ukraine requested them, and Biden said it was a tough decision, but approved them despite criticism. Russia, which has been using cluster munitions inside Ukraine for many months, can take satisfaction in the disagreement among the allies, but the new tool will make Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine more difficult to sustain. Among NATO’s members, any acrimony about the controversial weaponry is barely a ripple next to the tidal wave of rejoicing over Sweden’s impending accession. Erdogan’s decision, after a Sunday phone call with Biden an after months of extracting concessions, is a major reversal for Putin for two reasons: Yes, it bolsters the alliance, but it also marks an extraordinary reversal for Erdogan, who, only a few weeks ago, was defiantly touting Turkey’s “special” and growing relationship with Putin.
It was only one of a series of astonishing moves by Erdogan that undoubtedly caused anger and worry in the Kremlin. On Friday, after a two-hour meeting with Zelensky in Istanbul, Erdogan called the Ukrainian president a “dear friend” and, while underscoring his commitment to peace talks, he declared himself in favor of Ukraine’s membership in NATO and strongly defended the country’s independence. Adding to the slight against Putin, Erdogan allowed Zelensky to bring home Ukrainian prisoners of war who were being held in Turkey as part of a prisoner exchange deal with Russia. Before being taken prisoner, the soldiers from the Azov battalion had spent months fighting from deep inside a steel plant, defending the now mostly-destroyed city of Mariupol, where thousands died. They were welcomed home as heroes. The Kremlin reacted with fury. Erdogan’s apparent change of heart about Putin may be the first concrete ramification of the Russian president’s loss of international stature after the short-lived mutiny by mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin. The mercurial Erdogan may reverse course again, but the events of the past few days add to the relentless string of bad news for Putin. After Prigozhin’s uprising, and his apparent flouting of the deal that ended it, Putin’s efforts at international diplomacy faltered badly last week. Then came the news on cluster munitions, the Sweden bombshell and the reaffirmation of a stronger, unified and expanding NATO. Many will want to take credit. But the one most responsible for making all this happen is none other than Putin himself.