Well, we tried creative ambiguity, and see where it got us. For decades, we have used diplomatic doublespeak on the subject of NATO and Ukraine – and it has ended in total disaster. We spent years telling Ukrainians that we have an “open door” policy in NATO, and that they have the right to “choose their own destiny,” and that Russia should not be able to exercise a veto.
And all that time we have overtly signaled to Moscow that Ukraine is never going to join the alliance – because so many NATO members will simply exercise their veto themselves. In principle, yes; in practice, no. That has been the message.
And what is the result of all this sucking and blowing at once? What have we achieved by speaking softly out of both sides of our mouths? The result is the worst war in Europe for 80 years. Russian President Vladimir Putin has destroyed countless lives, homes, hopes and dreams. He has also destroyed the slightest reason to sympathize with him or to humor him in his paranoia.
Along the way, he has vaporized the case against Ukrainian membership of NATO. People used to say that the Ukrainian population was too divided on the subject of NATO membership; and before 2014 you certainly could have made that argument. Look at the numbers now. Support for NATO membership in Ukraine is now stratospheric – 83 percent, according to one recent poll. People used to claim that Ukraine wasn’t properly militarily compatible with NATO. Today, Ukrainians are deploying a dizzying variety of equipment from NATO countries, with the utmost skill and bravery.
There is absolutely nothing that NATO could teach Ukrainians about fighting a war – in fact, there is a lot that they could teach us. Above all, people used to argue that the prospect of Ukrainian membership in NATO was “provocative” to Putin and to Russia. In truth, we should never have accepted this argument. We should have insisted on the reality – that the Kremlin had nothing to fear from NATO because it is a defensive alliance. But member countries accepted this bogus point; I admit that for a time I accepted it. So look at what happened when we went out of our way not to provoke Putin. We mollified him at the Bucharest NATO summit in 2008. Ukrainians wanted a NATO Membership Action Plan (MAP). They got some warm words about eventual NATO membership, but no MAP. Putin attended that summit and pronounced himself satisfied with the result.
What did he do next? In 2014, he invaded Donbas and Crimea, with his trademark combination of blatant lies and brutality. Instead of properly punishing him, we responded with a policy of craven appeasement. Far from helping Ukrainians to evict him from their country, we set up the tragicomic “Normandy Format,” under which Russia and Ukraine were treated as though they were equally at fault, when Russia was plainly the aggressor and Ukraine was the victim. Ever since then, NATO membership has been theoretically on the agenda, but everyone has known that it just wasn’t going to happen, or at least not in the political lifetimes of anyone around the table.
So, Ukrainians had the worst of both worlds. NATO had spouted enough fine phrases about Ukrainian membership for Putin to use in his propaganda and to claim that Russia was being threatened with encirclement. And yet the reality was that NATO had done nothing to protect Ukraine and nothing to advance the cause of Ukrainian membership. The truth is, if you had asked me before Putin’s invasion when Ukraine would join NATO, I would have said, “Roughly when hell freezes over, or not for at least 10 years.”
But then, if you had asked me whether we would now be sending Challenger tanks to Ukraine, or Abrams tanks, or whether the Germans would now be sending Leopard tanks – I would have thought you were mad. Just as I would have thought you were mad if you had told me that Putin was going to invade. Putin didn’t invade because he thought that Ukraine was going to join NATO. He always knew that was vanishingly unlikely. He attacked Ukraine because he believed – with abundant evidence – that we were not really serious about protecting Ukraine. He attacked because he wanted to rebuild the old Soviet imperium and because he believed – foolishly – that he was going to win. If we had been brave and consistent enough to bring Ukraine into NATO – if we had actually meant what we said – then this utter catastrophe would have been averted.
I know that, in some European capitals, this outcome will seem hard to digest. But the logic is inescapable. For the sake of stability and peace, Ukraine now needs clarity about its position in the Euro-Atlantic security architecture. All our dodging and weaving has ended in slaughter. Ukrainians should be given everything they need to finish this war, as quickly as possible, and we should begin the process of admitting Ukraine to NATO, and begin it now. It would be no use if Moscow complains. They had a case once, and they were heard with respect. That case has been pulverized by the bombs and missiles of Putin.