It’s been more than 13 years since Nato’s Bucharest summit, when the western alliance decided that Ukraine and Georgia, both former Soviet republics, should join. However, the impact of that April 2008 summit – Vladimir Putin’s final – still lingers over the Ukraine situation today in many ways.
George W. Bush came into office with an expansionist, post-Cold War worldview, pressing for Ukraine and Georgia to be granted a Nato membership pathway. If they are granted a so-called membership action plan, they will be able to join a long list of former Eastern Bloc nations who have been permitted to join since 1999.
Putin, on the other hand, spoke first to the gathering leaders, calling such a move a “clear danger” to Russian security. “I recall him stating to Angela Merkel and George W. Bush, ‘For me, Ukraine is not a legitimate nation,'” Jamie Shea, a 38-year Nato veteran, said.
Putin’s words aided in a partial retreat – and a difficult compromise.
“There was a lot of wrangling between Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy [then-French President Nicolas Sarkozy], and the end outcome was that Ukraine would be given membership in the future, but there would be no membership action plan, no concrete deadline to join Nato,” Shea added.
As a result, the issue has been allowed to persist, despite Nato and its members’ lack of commitment to Ukraine. At a press conference with Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, last week, Nato Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg remarked, “I was genuinely present.” “We’re sticking to our guns on that choice.”
The half-promise, however, remains an open sore for Russia’s long-serving Putin, who is concerned with the two countries’ lengthy history as one entity before to 1991. In a historical essay published by the Kremlin in July, Putin wrote, “I am confident that true sovereignty of Ukraine is possible only in partnership with Russia.” “Because we are all one people.”
According to Britain’s new chief of the armed forces, Adm Sir Tony Radakin, Russia has massed an estimated 100,000 soldiers to the north, east, and south of Ukraine during this winter’s turmoil, raising concerns of an invasion and a fight “on a scale not seen since World War II” among Nato members. However, the attention-seeking Kremlin has now shifted its focus to a series of diplomatic requests.
Before making a draft security pact public, Russia gave it to the US. The US should prohibit Ukraine, Georgia, and other former Soviet governments from joining Nato, according to its requirements. It also states that the US should not build military bases or participate in “bilateral military cooperation” with Ukraine or any other non-NATO, post-Soviet country in an attempt to carve out a clearly defined Russian sphere of influence.
Such a notion is undoubtedly divisive, particularly in eastern Europe, where memories of Soviet oppression still persist. “Russia’s proposed two draft treaties on December 17 outline the establishment of a two-tier Europe – one with the right to defend itself against Russian encroachment, while the other must accept Russian supremacy as a new geopolitical reality,” wrote Orysia Lutsevych, a Chatham House analyst, in a recent paper.
According to some analysts, NATO has gotten overconfident. According to Joshua Shifrinson, an associate professor of international affairs at Boston University, the US and the west “have grown less attentive to Russian concerns in the wide sweep of post-cold war interactions,” losing sight of the concept that the Kremlin has significant interests as well.
“Russia does not want other political groups present in their motherland,” he continued. That is not a difficult concept to grasp. Consider what would happen if China and Canada formed an alliance. “Powerful governments do not want other powers to forge coalitions close to their borders.”
According to historian Shifrinson, towards the conclusion of the Cold War, US and German strategists sent “quite strong indications” that Nato would not expand eastward if Germany were to rejoin. However, as Russia struggled as an independent country and a number of eastern bloc countries joined Nato and the EU in the 1990s and early 2000s, this sphere of influence agreement was swiftly abandoned.
Critics of this perspective believe that Nato’s recent support for Ukraine has been insufficient. “Russia has learned that it can upsell and descale a crisis anytime they want it because of a lack of strong action in the past,” said William Alberque, an American former Nato officer and now the head of the International Institute for Strategic Studies think tank. “Russia has the upper hand in the current issue,” he said, noting that the US and Nato had agreed to meet with Kremlin ambassadors in the new year.
Ukraine has already been through the war of 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea and aided in the creation of a crisis that resulted in rebels controlling the eastern Donbas area, where a low-intensity combat has cost the lives of an estimated 14,000 people. Since 2014, NATO partners have provided a steady but small amount of military assistance.
A few hundred US military trainers are stationed in the country’s west, far from the frontlines. Since Russia’s invasion of Crimea, Washington has contributed $2.5 billion in military help, including Javelin anti-tank missiles, as part of a deliberate effort to modernize Kyiv’s forces and formally a prerequisite to Ukraine being granted a road to Nato membership.
The acquisition of at least six TB2 drones from Turkey, which proved effective against Russian-made armour in last year’s brief Nagorno-Karabakh war when employed by Azerbaijan against Armenia, has irritated the Kremlin even more. In an early December phone chat, Putin informed his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdoan, that deploying the drones was “provocative.”
NATO has made it clear that it does not pose a military threat to Russia. For example, the UK defence minister, Ben Wallace, warned earlier this month that sending western soldiers to protect Ukraine if it was invaded was “very improbable.”
But, according to Shifrinson, even if the west thought it was treading lightly, it needed to learn more about how its acts were seen. “Moscow recognizes that Ukraine will not be armed to the teeth or anchored in the west tomorrow, but it is also concerned about Ukraine’s future.”