NATO must recognise that the countries of the Eastern Flank are not the problem, they are the solution

At a key summit in Vilnius in July, NATO is likely to disappoint Ukraine, and with it the rest of Central and Eastern Europe.

The language will be polite, diplomatic, and will praise Ukraine’s resilience in the face of Russia’s brutal invasion to the high heavens. But the joint statement NATO members will release at the end of their next summit on July 11-12 will be blunt: Ukraine cannot join NATO. Yet.

It’s the same message Ukraine has been hearing since 2008. Then, at its Bucharest summit, NATO members first agreed that Ukraine would “eventually” join the alliance. Since then, however, NATO leaders have stopped well short of setting out a timetable for bringing Kyiv into the alliance.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky called for fast-tracked NATO accession in September 2022, after Russia annexed four Ukrainian regions. While Ukraine reluctantly accepts that membership is not currently on the table (Zelensky acknowledged in May that membership would be “impossible” before the war with Russia ended), it has for some time hoped that the alliance would offer a clear roadmap to membership: a list of obligations which, if fulfilled by a certain date, would automatically bring it into the alliance.

At the forthcoming summit, set to take place in the Lithuanian capital Vilnius, NATO is again set to disappoint Ukraine.

NATO’s secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, said on June 19 that the Vilnius summit would not discuss issuing Ukraine a formal invitation. “What we are discussing is how to move Ukraine closer to NATO,” he said after meeting German Chancellor Olaf Scholz in Berlin.

The best Kyiv appears able to hope for is the promise of a yet undefined “shorter route” to membership, probably bypassing NATO’s membership action plan (MAP) accession formalities which could speed up the process of joining. This shorter route, however, will only come into play as and when a formal offer of membership is made.

Stoltenberg’s comments came just a couple of days after US President Joe Biden said that his administration would not “make it easy” for Ukraine to join NATO, adding that the country must “meet the same standards” as other member states.

Support but not membership

At the 2016 NATO Summit in Warsaw, the alliance’s measures in support of Ukraine became part of the Comprehensive Assistance Package (CAP), which is designed to support Ukraine’s ability to provide for its own security and to implement wide-ranging reforms based on NATO standards, Euro-Atlantic principles and best practices.

Under the CAP, NATO has helped Ukraine transform its security and defence sector, providing strategic-level advice via the NATO representation to Ukraine and practical support through a range of capacity-building programmes and initiatives.

Through these programmes and tailored advice, there is no doubt that NATO has significantly strengthened the capacity and resilience of Ukraine’s security and defence sector, as well as its ability to counter hybrid threats.

At the 2022 NATO Summit in Madrid, allies agreed to strengthen the CAP and provide even more support to Ukraine. The strengthened CAP includes initiatives to provide Ukraine with immediate, short-term, non-lethal military assistance, as well as structures to boost NATO’s long-term support.

As welcome as this support has been, and co-operation with Ukraine is likely to be upgraded further in Vilnius, it falls well short of membership and the security guarantees membership confers on allies.

A leader from the Eastern Flank?

The Vilnius summit will also likely decide whether Stoltenberg’s tenure as NATO leader is extended for a further year, or if the alliance will formally begin the process of selecting a new chief.

The Norwegian should have stood down last October but his term was extended by a year shortly after Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. He has gone on record saying that he will not seek a further extension, but NATO may not have a choice: there is currently very little consensus over who his replacement may be.

Ben Wallace, the UK defence minister, is so far the only potential candidate to admit he wants the job, although French President Emmanuel Macron said on June 17 that “France and other countries” want the next NATO boss to come from an EU member state, hinting that a Wallace candidacy would be vetoed.

Kaja Kallas, Estonia’s prime minister, has dropped several hints that she would be willing to take the job. Like Wallace, Kallas has been a staunch supporter of Ukraine from the very beginning of Russia’s invasion. Indeed, Kallas was one of a handful of politicians (all from NATO’s so-called Eastern Flank) who had been warning for years that Russia could launch a full-scale invasion.

Viewed by some NATO leaders in Western Europe (and by more than a few members of the Biden administration) as a hawk, it is doubtful, however, if Kallas will be seriously considered. She admitted as much in an interview with the BBC in May. “It is highly unlikely that I will be offered such a job,” she said, adding, “although we have been in NATO for 20 years, I think there are still some countries that are considered to be more eligible.”

Countries which are not considered overly hostile towards Russia, she might have added.

The current compromise candidate is reportedly the Danish PM Mette Frederiksen. However, given that Denmark falls well short of the commitment made in 2006 by all alliance members to spend a minimum of two per cent of their GDP on defence, Frederiksen would be an unpopular choice amongst the seven NATO members which do meet the target.

Of those seven, four are from emerging Europe: Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland. (The others are the US, the UK, and Greece).

A betrayal of emerging Europe

The countries of Central and Eastern Europe have responded to Russia’s war by helping millions of Ukrainian refugees and have shown leadership in standing up to Russia and offering unflinching support to Ukraine. According to the Centre for Economic Policy Research, a think tank, in terms of bilateral commitments as a percentage of donor country GDP, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland have given Ukraine more support than any other country – including the US.

At times, Kallas and the leaders of Latvia, Lithuania and Poland – Ukraine’s strongest NATO allies – have had to cajole other members of the alliance into action, while at EU level they have led calls for sanctions against Russia. Here, again, they have often had to drag the rest of the bloc along with them.

This leadership, and the hesitancy of some prime ministers and heads of state in Western Europe to fully commit to a Ukrainian victory, has led to a significant, seismic shift in Europe’s centre of gravity. Emerging Europe is setting Europe’s agenda, and the old Paris-Berlin Axis which has propped up Europe since World War II is very quickly being replaced by a new axis that stretches from Tallinn in Estonia to Sofia in Bulgaria.

In a speech last August, Chancellor Scholz explicitly acknowledged this, saying that, “the centre of Europe is moving eastwards”. Both Western Europe and the United States need to adjust their own policies and posture accordingly. Vilnius is likely to betray the fact that they are not yet ready to do so.

This is a pity. For the first time since 1989, the states of emerging Europe which are members of the EU and (or) NATO are not just at the heart of a major crisis, they are leading the response to that crisis.

The countries of emerging Europe are not the problem, they are the solution.

That they are likely to be rewarded with very little in Vilnius – no membership timeline for Ukraine, no NATO job for Kaja Kallas or any of the other well-qualified regional candidates, such as former Polish PM Donald Tusk – is a betrayal of their commitment to the alliance.

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