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NATO Can't Do Anything to Save Ukraine

But this week's summit is a win for the U.S.

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

This week’s NATO summit in Wales has been billed as the most important meeting in the organization’s history, “a strategic inflection point,” an occasion for its rebirth, rediscoveryreinvention as a tougher, mightier alliance. The impetus for this new beginning is the worsening situation in Ukraine, which awoke the organization from its slumber by alerting it to the fact that its member states in Eastern Europe are vulnerable to an assault from Russia. Ukraine will be one of the main items on the agenda. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko will be on the scene at the Welsh golf resort to plead for help, badly needed after his squabble with Russia on Wednesday, which resulted in yet another failed attempt at a ceasefire. Poroshenko will try to  convince European leaders that Russia is not just at war with Ukraine, it’s at war with all of Europe.

His argument, which is being echoed throughout the Baltics, is a desperate one. NATO appears to have entirely abandoned Ukraine, which, as the organization’s leadership would be quick to remind, does not belong to the alliance. “Militarily, Kiev has already lost the conflict,” a senior NATO official told Der Spiegel, a remark that was not received well in the Ukrainian press. One thousand NATO troops will engage in joint training exercises near Lviv this month, but as of now there are no plans to use those forces to back up the depleted Ukrainian army. NATO has sent non-lethal aid to Ukraine, but it has not yet armed it. 

The past week has seen a crescendo of calls for it to do so, which have only served to underscore the improbability of that request. “If we believe that Ukraine will one day become a member of the European Union and NATO, then we should be ready to arm it,” Ben Judah argues in the New York Times opinion pages. But we don’t believe that, however much President Bush pushed for Georgia and Ukraine to join the organization back in 2008. In order for Ukraine to become part of the alliance, it would have to be capable of contributing to NATO's mutual security assurances; all member states must commit to contributing 2 percent of GDP to national defense (though most don't meet that modest standard). Given that Ukraine is currently facing bankruptcy, there's “no imminent membership,” says Jim Goldgeier, dean of the School of International Service at American University. 

That hasn’t stopped Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk from pushing to abandon the country’s non-aligned status, clearing the way for Ukraine to join the EU and NATO blocs. This from a man who, in March, assured journalists that the prospect of NATO membership “is not on our radars.” But at that point, neither was the invasion of eastern Ukraine. Now that the Ukrainian military is rapidly losing ground with diminishing hope for regaining territory, as the NATO official said, the Ukrainian government has little choice but to make desperate appeals to member states for help.

But Ukraine will hardly benefit from its appeals for military backup. The Baltic states, all NATO members, will gain much more, having long beseeched their fellow member states to help adequately arm them against the possibility of a Russian invasion of their borders. NATO’s response, a defining element of the alliance’s supposed “rebirth,” is mediocre at best: It will create a “spearhead” force of 4,000 troops ready to deploy throughout Eastern Europe at short notice, and is launching a substantive cyberdefense program. As for the “spearhead” force, it is part of NATO’s so-called “Readiness Action Plan” (RAP) designed for the hypothetical, and distinctly improbable, event that Russia launches a full-scale invasion of the Baltic EU and NATO member states. It’s a significant symbolic move, but by no means a definitive security assurance for the alliance’s eastern flank. “Reflecting scepticism about how effective such a tiny force would be in confronting the Red Army, journalists at the press conference joked afterwards with NATO officials that the commander of the new force would be known as CRAP,” the Guardian reports. The cyberdefense program seems less promising: "While NATO has built a gleaming new computer security center, and now routinely runs computer exercises, it possesses no cyberweapons of its own—and, apparently, no strategy for how it might use the weapons of member states to strike back in a computer conflict," The New York Times reports

Division among NATO’s 28 member nations and dwindling defense expenditures in Europe mean that these initiatives, and NATO’s supposed reinvention, should indeed be regarded with considerable skepticism. For example, Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves, whom President Obama is visiting today along with the presidents of Latvia and Lithuania, has called for a permanent NATO base in the country. “We should not have a two-tier NATO, with some countries having a permanent NATO base and some without,” Ilves said on Tuesday. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has all but ruled out the possibility, favoring temporary, but open-ended, NATO presence instead. Back in 2008, Germany and France blocked Ukraine and Georgia from being seriously considered as potential member states, against the Bush administation's insistence.

“A two-tier NATO” is precisely what we have, which is partly why President Obama must make such a show of making security assurances to the Baltics. "It is unbreakable, it is unwavering, it is eternal. And Estonia will never stand alone," the president said of NATO's mutual defense pledge in Tallinn on Wednesday. But the sense of solidarity under which the alliance was founded “is difficult, if not impossible, to re-create today. Although a number of eastern European nations developed an increasing sense of insecurity after the 2008 Russia-Georgia war, citizens in France and Portugal do not lie awake at night fearing a resurgent Red Army,” Goldgeier wrote in is 2010 Council on Foreign Relations special report, “The Future of NATO.” The languor with which the NATO has responded to the current crisis underscores that point.

It is deeply unfortunate that Ukraine will not win much, if anything, for all its petitioning. Nothing will stop the Kremlin from pursuing the outcome it desires in Ukraine, but the posturing of a reinvigorated NATO certainly will not help quell the violence. “A stronger NATO isn't any consolation to Ukrainians, but it's an important win for US diplomacy...especially post-Snowden,” the Eurasia Group’s Ian Bremmer tweeted Tuesday. The U.S. and Eastern European member states are justified in taking advantage of the Wales summit to further their strategic interests, but it is distinctly poor form that they will do so at the expense of Ukraine. 

This post has been updated.