The two-day summit of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), held in Vilnius, Lithuania on 11-12 July 2023, concluded with anticipated results. Despite a sturdy and assertive campaign by its rather mercurial President, Vladimir Zelenskyy, Ukraine did not receive an invitation to join NATO, nor was a timeline provided for its future membership. The summit, attended by 31 member states, Sweden, and the European Union, held significant historical significance as it took place in a former Soviet Union territory.
Ahead of the summit, Turkish President Erdogan made two noteworthy moves. Firstly, he welcomed President Zelenskyy and announced the release of five commanders from the Azov battalions, who were held as prisoners of war, thereby violating agreements with Russia. Secondly, Erdogan publicly supported Sweden’s NATO membership bid, further displeasing Russia and raising doubts about the extension of the expiring Black Sea Grain Export agreement. A planned visit by Russian President Vladimir Putin to Turkey may be canceled consequently.
At the summit, Erdogan also had a meeting with US President Joe Biden, which signaled a potential improvement in the strained bilateral relations between Turkey and the United States. Turkey’s 2017 decision to purchase the S-400 air defense system from Russia, which led to Washington’s removing of Turkey from the list of countries eligible to buy F-35 fighter aircraft, might be reconsidered. Erdogan’s recent actions indicate a shift towards closer alignment with the West and distancing from Russia.
The most challenging aspect of the summit was reaching a consensus on the language of the joint communique about Ukraine’s entry into NATO. President Biden made it clear that Ukraine’s immediate membership was not on the table, citing the risk of a potential “third world war” between NATO and Russia. Biden’s concerns regarding Russia’s possible use of nuclear weapons under “certain circumstances” were shared by most European countries, except for Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and Poland, which are immediate neighbors of Russia.
In contrast, the situation was different at the 2008 NATO summit in Bucharest. The then US President George Bush had advocated for granting Ukraine and Georgia a Membership Action Plan (MAP), but France and Germany had opposed the move to avoid provoking President Putin. It was decided that the two “will join” NATO and that the NATO foreign ministers meeting in December 2008 would take a decision on giving MAP. However, Russia invaded Georgia in August 2008, and Western countries stood by and watched, except for French President Nicholas Sarkozy who negotiated a cease-fire, which resulted in Ukraine and Georgia not receiving the MAP as initially planned.
The 2023 summit makes no such commitment and the joint communique states that an invitation to Ukraine will be extended when agreed upon by all allies and conditions are met. This decision will only be taken after the ongoing war ends and if there is unanimous agreement among member states, as required by the NATO charter.
President Zelenskyy responded critically to NATO’s decision, considering it “absurd and unprecedented.” He initially demanded a clear timeline for Ukraine’s admission, upsetting both the US and the UK. UK Defence Minister Ben Wallace and US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan publicly stated that Ukraine should show more ‘gratitude’ for what it was getting. Zelenskyy got the hint and later endorsed the decision after meeting with Biden.
Ukraine continues to get support from Western countries, with the UK and France announcing readiness to provide fighter jets and weapons to Kyiv. Before coming to Vilnius, Biden had announced the decision to send munition weapons, banned under a treaty subscribed to by 123 countries, including from NATO.
Arguments have been made that if Ukraine had been admitted to NATO earlier, Russia may not have invaded in 2022. It is argued that Ukraine should have received the security guarantees it had been seeking. The argument is not unsound. However, the same argument applies with even greater force to Russia seeking security guarantees. Russia had sought security guarantees through draft treaties sent to Washington and Brussels in December 2021, which were publicly ignored by President Biden.
Russia’s response to the summit was strong, with its foreign ministry, on 12 July, accusing the West of returning to “Cold War schemes” and asserting the Kremlin’s readiness to respond to threats using “all means,” a phrase that can have perilous implications.
In short, we have been looking in vain for any sign that this unfolding, unscripted tragedy will end soon.
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