Among Russian President Vladimir Putin’s grab bag of justifications for Moscow’s latest invasion of Ukraine was a supposed imminent threat from NATO, the 73-year-old collective defense bloc that was supposedly about to use Ukraine as a springboard for aggression against Moscow.
“The danger was rising,” Putin said at Victory Day celebrations in Moscow in May, claiming that “Russia has pre-emptively repulsed an aggression,” in what he said was “forced, timely and the only correct decision by a sovereign, powerful and independent country.”
Few outside Russia took the claim seriously, given that Putin has long made clear his revanchist imperial project and his dismissal of Ukraine as an independent nation distinct from Russia.
A September report by Reuters—vehemently denied by Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov—even reported that just before the February invasion, a Putin aide had secured a deal that would keep Ukraine neutral and out of NATO. The president, Reuters reported, felt the agreement was insufficient and wanted to seize more Ukrainian land.
Russian President Vladimir Putin is pictured during the plenary session of the Eurasian Economic Summit on November 9, 2022, in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.
Whatever role Putin’s NATO concerns played in his decision to press ahead with another invasion of Ukraine, his “special military operation” appears to have backfired.
Ukrainian leaders, buoyed by successive battlefield victories, have made clear that NATO membership will be one of four key demands—alongside full liberation of all land occupied since 2014, reparations, and war crime trials for Russian leaders—of any peace.
President Volodymyr Zelensky submitted Ukraine’s NATO application in September as his troops stormed across occupied Kharkiv, sending Russian occupiers fleeing in disarray. Addressing Ukraine’s “de facto allies,” Zelensky called for “accelerated” membership and said: “This is the consolidation at the level of the treaty of what has already been achieved.”
The path to NATO membership for Ukraine will not be an easy one. All members must agree to accession, and several nations are likely to have concerns.
A New NATO EraThe conversation is shifting in Kyiv’s favor, Fabrice Pothier—the former director of policy planning for NATO and now the CEO of the Rasmussen Global consultancy—told Newsweek.
“Putin’s invasion has made the prospect more credible, more plausible,” Pothier said. “Now you have one of the best-trained, best-equipped armies in Europe in Ukraine, operating under NATO standards, and trained by NATO countries.”
“They actually are much more capable and much more able to operate under NATO standards than many other allies. That’s the irony of the invasion.”
The political aspect of accession is trickier. “Politically, I would say that there is more support than there was before the war,” Pothier explained. “There is a wider group of central and eastern European allies, and ‘fence sitters’ I’d call them, who do see that now Putin’s position on Ukraine is putting us closer to the point of no return.”
“The feeling is that there is no other way than NATO membership. However, that’s not enough to carry the consensus at NATO.”
Pothier noted a stubborn “general reluctance” among Western European allies to demolish the last bridge with Russia, even if it has become clear there is little chance of returning to the pre-invasion status quo.
“People are still quite reluctant to cross that Rubicon,” he said. “What I heard is there is also increasingly a more open mind to at least have that discussion, which before was completely dismissed, and often caveated by saying this is something that we have to return to once and if there is some sort of peace agreement or settlement.”
“I think this is very different from what you had before.”
Russia’s demands for enforcing neutrality on Ukraine, at least, seem dead in the water, Pothier said. Ukraine is on the long road to EU membership and has proven its value to collective transatlantic and European defense.
“The question on the security-defense front is more on the modus operandi to keep them at that level of capacity and robustness to be able to resist and push back against the Russian invasion,” he said.
The Kyiv Security Compact—proposed by Zelensky’s office earlier this year as a stop-gap defensive measure until NATO membership is achieved—could have a role to play in this regard, Pothier said.
Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky appears on a giant screen as he delivers a statement at the start of the first plenary session of the NATO summit at the Ifema congress center in Madrid, Spain, on June 29, 2022.
GABRIEL BOUYS/AFP via Getty Images
The sentiment in Ukraine is clear. In 2018, the Ukrainian parliament passed a resolution in support of adding the country’s NATO and European Union membership ambitions to the constitution. Then, some 46 percent of voters were in favor of NATO ascension, with around 31 percent opposed.
Russia’s invasion prompted record support for both goals among voters. In January 2022, one poll found around 64 percent of respondents in favor and 17 percent opposed to NATO accession. A poll from October recorded 84 percent backing and just 4 percent opposition.
‘Putin Is Afraid’Tens of thousands of Ukrainians have been killed by Russian aggression since the 2014 Maidan Revolution toppled pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych in a popular rejection of Kremlin alignment. The country has paid a high price for a seat at the Euro-Atlantic table.
“The best guarantee of security in the world is NATO membership,” Oleksandr Merezhko, the chair of the Ukrainian parliament’s foreign affairs committee, told Newsweek, calling for “immediate membership.”
“Putin is afraid of NATO, and he couldn’t do anything when Sweden and Finland decided to join,” Merezhko added, referring to Moscow’s ominous—but so far empty—threats to the two Nordic nations soon to become the newest members of the alliance.
For many in Ukraine, the Franco-German opposition to Ukrainian membership at the alliance’s 2008 Bucharest summit is one of the costliest blunders of modern times.
“That is why Germany and France should immediately correct this mistake,” Merezhko said. “Had Germany and France not blocked NATO membership of Ukraine at that time, Russia wouldn’t have risked attacking Ukraine now. That’s why Germany and France bear moral responsibility for what’s going on now.”
Merezhko said he hopes the invasion will win over skeptics within the alliance, though warned there will be some “who cannot say openly that they are against Ukraine’s membership, but who will be looking for a different pretext to prevent it from happening.”
Merezhko said his appeals to French and German counterparts have not been fully successful. “I don’t have the feeling that they understand this and how important it is,” he explained.
As for Hungary, Merezhko said: “If it continues to systematically undermine transatlantic solidarity, it should be expelled from NATO.”
“I’d like to believe that the feeling within NATO has shifted in favor of Ukraine’s membership in NATO. At the same time I understand that in the West there are still politicians that believe or spread Russian narratives that Ukraine’s membership in NATO might lead to World War Three and even nuclear war.”
A member of the Ukrainian 59th Brigade is pictured in a tank while taking on new supplies before moving to a new position on November 23, 2022 in Kherson, Ukraine. Ukrainian troops have surprised partners and enemies alike with their impressive battlefield performance.
Chris McGrath/Getty Images
“There are also some Western politicians who argue that NATO shouldn’t be involved in the direct conflict with Russia because of Ukraine, even though Putin and his propaganda openly state that Russia is already waging war against NATO in the territory of Ukraine.”
“To me, the issue of Ukraine’s membership in NATO is a litmus test for Western politicians regarding how serious they are when talking about global security, peace and democracy in the world.”
Brussels could see the peril as an opportunity, Merezhko said. “As a result of this war NATO itself should be transformed,” he suggested. “It should become a defense alliance of democratic, like-minded states and broadened to include not only countries from the transatlantic region, but also democratic countries from other regions.”
“Who knows, maybe someday we will see not only Ukraine, but also such countries as Australia, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan among NATO members.”
Newsweek has contacted the Russian Foreign Ministry for comment.
Source : Newsweek