NATO and Ukraine. The "Israeli" or "East German" road?

In Vilnius, the countries of the North Atlantic Treaty Alliance were wondering how to secure Kyiv without guaranteeing anything.

The NATO summit in Vilnius showed conclusively that the United States has already entered electoral mode, and that over the next year and a half, it is unlikely to change its approach to Ukraine and Russia. Moreover, if it does change anything, it will probably not be for the better for Ukraine. Kyiv has managed to achieve the maximum of what it could have hoped to gain at this summit, and now must wait until the fall of 2024 to see who will become the next US president. In the meantime, it must fight on against Russia and liberate as much of its territory as possible.

Russia will also await the outcome in the US, hoping that an isolationist candidate, one who will put a halt to military and political aid, will win and that divided Europe, as usual, will be unable to arrive at bold decisions on its own, thereby leaving Ukraine alone on the battlefield, alongside Poland, the Baltic and perhaps the Nordic states.

There are plenty of indications that the Vilnius meeting marked a turning point, determining not just where the various pawns now stand on the global chessboard but also how they will conduct themselves over the next several months. At the same time, it has to be acknowldeged that, while from our [Polish] perspective (as a threatened neighbor and de facto ally of Ukraine), NATO's attitude towards Kyiv is the most important factor, the course adopted by the alliance in Vilnius applies to a much wider spectrum than the problem of Ukraine alone. Yes, the Ukraine issue is important, but it is not the only problem and probably not the most significant. Nonetheless, it is still pertinent to start from Ukraine.

Two concepts

President Volodymyr Zelensky played the role he had to play in Vilnius. First, by tweeting while en route there, using very undiplomatic language to call the Allies' actions "absurd". By accusing them of being unwilling not just to admit Ukraine to NATO membership, but citing their inability to even issue an invitation to Kyiv to do so, he caused a small earthquake. Heads of the Member States demanded a print out of his tweet, the contents of which were to dominate their discussions for a while. Yet it was clear to everyone that the decisions about Ukraine had already been made by the Americans and that putting them into words was a matter of secondary importance.

No one had a grudge against Zelensky. It was understood that he had to show himself as a warrior determined to fight for the interests of his people. On the contrary, there was talk of "understandable frustration" since it was argued that what Ukraine had received was of a completely different quality than before (even when a simple analysis of the wording showed that Kyiv had been given not much more than it had 15 years earlier in Bucharest). Actually, what was said was tue because after Bucharest, no serious action had been taken and the declaration of Ukraine's acceptance to NATO "in the future" had sounded empty and proved empty. In the current cirumstances, similar words sound different given that more and more new types of weapons and ammunition are being delivered to Ukraine and that there is real intelligence and political cooperation.

In addition, Western governments and corporations are preparing to rebuild Ukraine, and that will result in not only huge profits, but also huge investments. Taking this country under the Western security umbrella will therefore be justified not only morally, but also economically, and as we know, morality in the language of politics appears only where interests need to be justified. On its own, it means nothing.

Before the summit, two security concepts for Ukraine clashed in the United States. Put simply, one can be called the "East German" concept and the other "Israeli".

The first tried to reconcile fire with water, i.e. to offer Kyiv membership in NATO, but without the need to apply Article 5. The idea was that not all of Ukraine would join the Alliance, but only that part of it that remains under direct military and political control of Kyiv. This would release other NATO countries from the obligation to join the fight to liberate Donbass, Zaporozhye and Crimea. As a historical precedent, the authors of this concept cite the Cold War situation in Germany, when the territory of West Germany was covered by NATO guarantees while East Germany remained under the control of the Soviet Union.

This concept, although seemingly attractive and far-reaching (press headlines such as "Kyiv in NATO!" guaranteed), had two significant weaknesses. The first is that it would freeze the configuration of the current state, which would suit Russia. Putin and his people have long since stopped dreaming of occupying all of Ukraine, and entrenching themselves in the occupied territories would be a dream and long-term, if not final, outcome for them. Makeshift, also political, can be permanent. It should not be forgotten that East Germany lasted for 40 years. Another example is that of Korea, where the division will soon mark 75 years.

On the one hand, as recipients of such a partial NATO membership, the Ukrainians would be very much aware that they were actually giving up a fifth of their territory. On the other -- Western countries would be in a constant state of anxiety lest Russia strike the territories that should be defended and enter a state of war with NATO. It would be an unbearable situation for both sides.

The second weakness is that the borders of the area protected by the North Atlantic Treaty would in fact be fluid, because they would be the borders of the front. Should we first arbitrarily determine that the border of "NATO Ukraine" runs as it is, and then limit ourselves to defending only the areas on its western side? This would be a military and political absurdity.
From the left: British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and US President Joe Biden during the Vilnius NATO Summit. Photo: PAP/Leszek Szymanski
The authors of the "Israeli" concept, the one Joe Biden seems to have finally accepted, point out that Israel has been supported for several decades by the United States -- politically, financially and materially -- without ever having been in a formal alliance with either Washington or NATO, and never having shown any intention of applying for such membership. Possessing an army with high morale, equipped with the most modern weapons (American and its own), Israel is capable of ensuring and securing its sovereignty on its own.

According to US political scientists and political practitioners, Ukraine having similar characteristics, it suffices to establish the same kind of relationship with it as with Israel, whereby the situation will be resolved, leaving the issue of NATO membership relegated to the background as of secondary importance. On day two of the summit, Politico published an article by two US analysts who went even further in developing this concept. Their claim was that Ukraine should receive neither security guarantees nor assurances of prospective NATO membership; that being the recipient of serious arms deliveries and being awarded the status of a neutral country would make it safe, while reassuring Russia that it would not be attacked by Kyiv... I cite this interpretive view to show how far certain American academic analysts can go in their naivity.

  President Zelensky does not seem to have been persuaded by the "Israeli" concept. At the end of the summit he declared that, satisfied though he was with the outcome, "it would have been perfect" had Ukraine actually been invited to join the Alliance. He called anew for the West not to offer his country security guarantees in place of outright membership. The point is that currently there is neither talk of membership nor guarantees, because the G-7's commitment (portentiously referred to as "guarantees") amounts to little more than the provision of weapons and economic aid, lacking any commitment to defence.

Trump's Shadow

This entire festival of big words, smiles and back-slapping took place in the shadow of the upcoming US presidential election, which Donald Trump or any other more-or-less isolationist Republican candidate could win. Nothing better illustrates that anomaly than the fact that just as radical supporters of Ukraine in Vilnius were demonstrating their disappointment at the summit’s failure to invite Kyiv to join the Alliance, in Washington, Republican Marjorie Taylor Greene was tabling amendments in the US Congress to laws in a bid to have the US pull out of NATO and to ban deliveries of the F-16 aircraft to the very state now fighting with Russia.

Interestingly, in support of her demand that the US should leave NATO, Greene pointed out how her country contributes 4 percent of its GDP to the army, whereas the equivalent from Germany, Europe's largest economy, is only slightly above 1 percent, in effect making American taxpayers pay for the security of German taxpayers. This brings to mind Trump's meeting with Chancellor Merkel in 2018, when he said more or less the same thing, with the added accusation that Berlin was financing Russian armaments through the construction of Nord Stream-2 and its purchases of Russian gas.

Of course, Greene, an ardent supporter of Donald Trump and conspiracy theories in general, does not rank in the first league of American politicians. Indeed, even in the Republican-dominated Congress, she is in the minority, so her amendments have no chance of being accepted. However, her demand gives us a stark glimpse of a trend that is gaining increasing traction in US politics, one that no one will be able to ignore during the election.

Supporters of this trend maintain that the US has a primary responsibility to look after its own interests ("America First!"). This means firstly in the country, and secondly in the Indo-Pacific region. An important element of this mindset is fear of entering into an open conflict with a nuclear power like Russia. Proponents even talk about the need to "stop the march towards World War III", something they believe the escalation of Ukraine's defense could lead to.

Of course, the Russians are adept at stoking such fears. The latest example can be found in the June article by Sergei Karaganov (the political scientist and former adviser to presidents Boris Yeltsin and Vladimir Putin) about a preventive nuclear strike on those European countries that support Ukraine -- to "sober them up", as he put it. It can be assumed that the Russians are bluffing, since the nuclear arsenal is the only real military resource they have left, but the problem is that there is no way to check this bluff.

Just how much of an isolationist stance Donald Trump or whoever the Republican presidential candidate happens to be adopts is unknown once the election campaign is in full swing. What is undisputed, however, is that a return to the rhetoric of "America First!" will mean that President Biden, the most likely Democratic candidate, will have to moderate his words and actions, making it all the more difficult for him to oppose theses rooted in the primacy of American interests. In short, the defense of Taiwan and the related defense of semiconductor supply chains, by any criteria (whether Democratic or Republican), are more important for American interests than the defense of Ukraine, which can be left to those most interested, i.e. Europeans. Of course, the risk of nuclear war has to be considered by any serious presidential candidate. Biden's rhetoric, therefore, while flowery and full of assurances of friendship, is carefully measured and does not go too far, as though anticipating an election battle with an opponent who will play precisely these cards. Biden’s actions are similarly measured.

China's concern

Paradoxically, the country that seems to be most worried about the outcome of the Vilnius meeting, is China, not Russia, which expected nothing good to emerge from the NATO summit. The prospect of unifying Japan, South Korea and Australia in some sort of association with NATO is viewed as a threat by China. In the official language of Chinese propagandists, this is known as "NATO+", meaning the institutionalization of cooperation.

In the text published by "Global Times" (an English-language magazine associated with the Chinese Communist Party), one can discern a certain amount of resentment about Russia and its adventurous policy towards Ukraine. This has given the Alliance, already on the verge of "brain death" (as France's President Emmanuel Macron once put it), cause to revitalize, contributing to the decision that it should expand and even possibly extend its influence to the Asia-Pacific region. “If NATO does not rein in these tendencies and strengthens its actions, it will face more serious consequences,” the authors of the "Global Times" editorial warned.

So what will the consequences be? It can be assumed that rather than being military, they will be commercial, yet so serious that Macron (who this past April was given an imperial-like reception in Beijing and Guangzhou) felt obliged to try to soften the summit communiqué's language regarding China. This is where the most important fight will take place. As former (and possibly future) State Department official Richard Fontaine wrote in the prestigious American bimonthly "Foreign Affairs" this week, the world should abandon the belief that in the future it will be possible to live in neutrality when it comes to Beijing's and Washington's interests. It appears that this will also apply to NATO members and the Alliance itself. The official summit communiqué refers to Chinese policies that "endanger our security and values" while proposing "constructive engagement."

Peace under the supervision of the UN and China?

American analysts on Ukraine: to help “as long as needed,” i.e. until the end of the year.

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Regardless of who ends up occupying the White House after 2024, the US will expect NATO members to openly stand with Washington. For the time being, the clearest voice has been that of Lithuania, whose small economy [in defiance of Beijing] strives to continue doing business with Taiwan, an economic partner several times larger. A similar declaration [in defiance of Beijing] would be much more difficult for Germany or France. And, let's not kid ourselves, this would also apply for Poland.

Amateurs of free rides

Napoleon's famous phrase still reflects reality. The military requires three things: money, money and more money. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, European countries, and for some time also the United States, thought that finally they would be able to stop spending so much. Defense spending fell sharply, and the money saved was spent on stimulating the economy and building prosperity. This was facilitated by the concepts of small, but well-trained, state-of-the-art-equipped, highly mobile troops.

About 20 years ago, it transpired that expenditures would have to grow once more, yet not everyone took note. In countries like Germany, France and Canada, expenditures fluctuated around 1.5 percent long after NATO's 2006 agreement that they should increase to 2 percent. The term "free-riders" began to appear (best translated in Polish as "amateurs of free rides"). It is this phenomenon that Marjorie Taylor Greene alluded to when she made her move for the US to withdraw from NATO.

The Vilnius summit marked the re-emergence of solemn assurances that the Allies would invest 2 percent of their GDP in defense. Again, however, there was no deadline -- again it was an assurance that can remain on paper. Why? Because the large economies of the rich European countries, burdened with multiple social programs and self-imposed energy transformation costs, are experiencing difficulties finding additional money while avoiding having to raise their already high taxes.

A major budget debate in Germany right now is considering very serious across-the-board spending cuts other than for defense. In fact, defense spending is expected to increase from 50 to 52 billion euro next year, a lot, admittedly, but still far short of the 2 percent of GDP advocated at Vilnius. Nor does it match the much-heralded commitments Chancellor Scholz declared four days after Russia launched its aggression against Ukraine, when, in his "Zeitenwende" remarks [meaning a turning point in Germany's politics], he promised an additional 100 billion euros to cover arrears in defense spending. Since then, a debate has ensued in Germany as to whether this should also be subject to the "spending rule". The word "Zeitenwende" may have taken on a media career as a symbol of Germany's commitment to defense but for now at least, it looks as though the audience should be content to settle for the word, no more. And that's just Germany.

Meantime, the number of Allies due to spend the agreed 2 percent on defense is expected to increase from seven to 11 next year. A failure to carry out this seemingly simple budget operation will make it difficult to talk about the real rebirth of NATO, which the politicians at Vilnius so eagerly addressed in their flowery speeches.

100K soldiers in defense of Poland

However, in order not to end up in a depressed mood at a time when most observers are opening the Champagne, let's focus on two really significant accomplishments that have been achieved. The first, of course, is having addressed the most important obstacle to Sweden's admission and in the process overcoming the resistance of President Recep Erdoğan. Now Prime Minister Viktor Orbán remains to be convinced with the promise of selling American F-16s. Although the Hungarian head of the Ministry of Diplomacy and Trade, Peter Szijjarto, assured some time ago that if the Turkish side changed its approach to Sweden, Budapest would not delay accession, but who knows whether Orbán, encouraged by the success of Ankara's effective blackmail, will not similarly want to get something for himself.

Will the EU countries decide to give him [Orbán] money from the Recovery and Resilience Facility? Or will the EU drop the rule of law proceedings? Highly doubtful. Orbán may find himself in a situation where his resistance will only add to the pressure. This situation shows how NATO is no mere mutual admiration society and that managing it is a difficult and complicated process.

Finally, something that is a surely a success yet because of its nature we cannot say too much about it. These are defense plans. Few Poles probably realized that when Poland was admitted to NATO in 1999, there were no specific military plans related to its defense. Had we been attacked then, the defense by the armies of other countries would have been illusory. And for a long time, the Western allies were none too interested in concretizing them. Finally, the so-called "contingency plans" were adopted, which -- as the name implies -- amounted to a show of possibilities and eventualities, i.e. what may, but does not have to happen.

Now we have real defense plans. Those that oblige specific individuals to take specific actions. President Andrzej Duda and the other presidents of NATO's eastern flank countries are rightly pleased about this. Of course, the plans themselves are confidential and Duda himself bit his tongue after saying that 100,000 soldiers would be allocated to defend Poland. However, this number is probably our greatest and most real success at this summit.

– Robert Bogdanski

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and jornalists

– Translated by Agnieszka Rakoczy
Main photo: The inaugural meeting of the NATO-Ukraine Council during the NATO summit in Vilnius, July 12, 2023. Photo: PAP/Leszek Szymanski
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