Meeting in Vilnius, NATO leaders predictably rejected the Ukrainian government’s claim to reach a clear timetable for their country’s entry into the Atlantic alliance. At the same time, they subjected their eventual membership to the “agreement of the allies and the fulfillment of the conditions.”
While Western heads of state and government renewed their support to Kyiv and made a statement on “Ukraine´s future in NATO”, plans to extend future invitation were observed as ambiguous by President Volodymyr Zelensky.
Naturally, Ukrainian ambition once again dominated the agenda in the Lithuanian capital and forced main players -the United States and Germany in particular- to exercise prudent diplomacy to try to avoid further confrontation with the Russian Federation. As it is well known, an Ukrainian accession to NATO would immediately imply that the alliance itself would be involved in an open war with Russia, since the provisions of article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty establishes collective defense. But Ukraine´s possible NATO membership is nothing new at all. For at least fifteen years, the issue has highlighted a large part of the debate on the role of the Atlantic alliance.
To understand this evolution, it is convenient to evoke what happened at the summit that took place in April 2008 in Bucharest (Romania). In times when Russia itself was invited to alliance meetings as a consequence of the Russian-American friendship that emerged in the early post-Cold War period. During the Bucharest summit, Western powers seemed to encourage Georgia and Ukraine with possible membership, which was obviously interpreted by Russia as a threat to its vital security interests. It was then that, perhaps without noticing the risks of their expressions, Western leaders seemed to be unaware of the possible consequences of that policy. Not even when -with brutal sincerity- Vladimir Putin told President George W. Bush that for Russia, Ukraine wasn´t even a sovereign country.
The 2008 Bucharest summit would become the first act of a conflict that today seems forgotten. Because a tragedy awaited Georgia. Since just months later, perhaps emboldened by dreams of NATO membership, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili ordered his army to recapture South Ossetia and Abkhazia, two regions occupied by Kremlin-fostered separatists.
Circumstances that unfolded in special circumstances. Because at that very moment (August 7-8, 2008), on the other side of the world, both Putin and Bush were in Beijing sharing the opening of the Olympic Games. From China, Bush expressed his “deep concern” over the escalation of violence in the Caucasus.
The Washington Post claimed the conflict had “caught the Administration by surprise.” The New York Times was even harsher when it published a photo of the president smiling with Putin at the opening of the Games. Days later, Bush said that “harassment and intimidation are not acceptable ways to conduct foreign policy in the 21st century” and chose to punish Moscow and back Tbilisi. But support seemed to be limited to the rhetorical level and no US military assistance was delivered. Determining that the war was resolved in just five days.
The brevity of the war did not hide its dramatic consequences. It was a catastrophe for Georgia. Edward Lucas -then editor of the Financial Times and usually very critical of the Kremlin- wrote in his “The New Cold War” that the crisis had demonstrated “the superiority of the Russian leaders in political games compared to their Western counterparts”.
Lucas argued that the West had been foolishly persuaded to “let its guard down” when “the End of History” had been announced two decades earlier and recalled that Russia had never abandoned its perceived right to control its “Near Abroad”.
But the Georgian tragedy would only be the prelude to the misfortunes that would spread in the years that followed. And those that are likely to continue to develop. Because, strictly speaking, the disruption of the international system of our days is based on the dangerous premise of Moscow´s disagreement regarding the legitimacy of the current global order.
A starting point that can be found at the end of the Cold War and in the Russian conviction about the “broken promises” that the US would have formulated then. Those of US Secretary of State James Baker words, who assured Mikjail Gorbachev in February 1990 that if he accepted German unification, NATO will not shift one-inch eastward. An extreme that was finally fulfilled during the Clinton and Bush Jr. Administrations.
Today, a revisionist Russia seems to revive its most primitive instincts of suspicion towards the West, the one that offers both a source of admiration and resentment. To the point of having become a huge paradox of modern history. Because, as Henry Kissinger warned, in the last four centuries, Russia has successively been both a factor of disruptions and stability in Europe.
Sitting on an immense plateau, virtually deprived of decisive natural borders, from the very beginning of its experience as a state, Russia sought to expand to all latitudes. Suddenly in search of security. Building around it successive protection rings. Those that would reach their greatest point of expansion after World War II or “The Great Patriotic War” according to the Russian narrative. The one that would be followed by a series of diplomatic arrangements enabling her expansion through that key geography that is Eastern Europe. The one that separates the West from Russia, and that constitutes the space destined for the ancestral strategic competition of the great powers. Which would be opportunely and masterfully described more than a hundred years ago by Halford J. Mackinder, in “The Geographical Pivot of History” (1904).
Maybe these historical keys allow us to understand the deep reasons for the perhaps endless dispute between the US and Russia. With the aggravating outcome for the free world interests of having provoked the corollary of an alliance between Moscow and Beijing.
The conflict of our days is, strictly speaking, as old as it is virtually endless. Since it is based on almost unchangeable notions of geography and history. To the point of revitalizing some historical lessons. As those offered by the legendary Ambassador George Kennan, the author of the doctrine of containment of the Soviet Union. Who explained in his Long Telegram (1946) that the jealous and intolerant eye of the Kremlin can distinguish, in the end, only vassals and enemies, and the neighbors of Russia, if they do not wish to be one, must reconcile themselves to being the other.