Last hope summit: how the meeting of NATO leaders in Vilnius may decide the fate of Ukraine

summit Jens Stoltenberg, NATO, Volodymyr Zelensky

The NATO Summit set for 11-12 July in Vilnius will become a turning point for Ukraine and its President Volodymyr Zelensky. As the high-level meeting is approaching, experts are engaging in discussion of the possibility of NATO giving Kyiv security guarantees as a partner (but not a member) of the alliance or even Ukraine’s admittance to the North Atlantic military block.

NATO membership has been among the most ambitious goals of Ukraine since the former Soviet republic declared its independence in 1991. Although the Declaration of Independence of Ukraine signed on August 24th, 1991 explicitly sets neutral status of the Ukrainian state, during the presidency of Zelensky’s predecessor Petro Poroshenko Kyiv’s commitment to Euro-Atlantic integration was added to the text of the Constitution as priority of Ukrainian foreign policy.

Anyway, Kyiv has failed to reach its main goal and become a full-fledged member of NATO despite more than 30 years of relations with the alliance, including creation of institutional bodies for cooperation (consultation committees Ukraine-NATO), training of Ukrainian troops in accordance with NATO standards, and supplies of Western weapons. As the relations with NATO gradually improved, the relations with Ukraine’s Eastern neighbor, Russia, deteriorated. In the logic of the patriarch of the American foreign policy doctrine Zbigniew Brzezinski, Kremlin was extremely wary of Ukraine’s rapprochement with NATO.

Russian President Vladimir Putin himself reproached North Atlantic Alliance for encroaching into Russia’s traditional sphere of influence. The rift of misunderstanding between Moscow and Kyiv was becoming only deeper over time, especially after the turning points presented by the annexation of Crimea to Russia and the civil conflict in Donbass.

In both cases Russia appealed to the necessity to protect Russian-speaking people from Ukrainian far-right radicals, while Kyiv accused Moscow of violating its territorial integrity. The final act of the Ukraine-Russia standoff started on February, 24th, 2022, when the two countries entered a full-scale armed conflict and Russian tanks rolled in the suburbs of Kyiv.

Back then it seemed that this landmark of the international politics could have become a breaking point in the relations between Ukraine and NATO and trigger the decision to admit Kyiv to the alliance. The Western block was quick to help Kyiv that was on the brink of military defeat: Ukrainian Armed Forces receive NATO weapons, Ukrainian troops are sent to the alliance’s training centres. According to the Ministry of reintegration of Ukraine, since February 2022 the total amount of aid provided by NATO members to Ukraine has come up to 170 billion dollars.

Western support, heroic resistance of Ukrainian fighters and selfless determination of the Ukrainian people to defend its independence thwarted the Russian plans for a quick seizure of Kyiv. In the early April of 2002 the Russian command withdrew its forces from Northern Ukraine. By the mid-summer the Russian offensive stalled on all directions, and in autumn the Russian suffered a number of humiliating defeats and were forced to retreat from Kharkiv region and Kherson region east of Dnipro river, leaving Kherson city.

It is likely that these Ukrainian advances induced euphoria in the cabinets of Ukrainian and Western officials. By the end of last autumn both Western leaders and Ukrainian elites believed in the possibility of military victory over Russia. This is the reason behind the media craze in the West over the Ukrainian counter-offensive. Since the beginning of winter headlines of Western and Ukrainian tabloids promised quick defeat of Russia and recapture of lost territories in the south-east of Ukraine.

Inspired by the promises of coming success NATO members provided Kyiv with heavy weaponry, including tanks.

However, June developments of the Ukrainian counter-offensive showed that the Russian defences were not that easy to penetrate. Russian forces fought tooth and nail to repel the Ukrainian attacks and the resources spent by Ukraine and its western allies failed to bring the expected results. Now, Western officials are not that optimistic about the possibility of Ukraine’s military victory, and the ruling elites in Europe and the United States are inevitably forced to postpone the question of Ukraine’s admittance to NATO. The issue, to Kyiv’s discontent, will not be discussed at the upcoming summit of the alliance.

This was explicitly stated by NATO General Secretary Jens Stoltenberg. “The victory of Ukraine is a precondition for any meaningful discussion of its membership in the alliance,” stressed Stoltenberg.

German chancellor stated a similar point of view. According to him, “there mustn’t be any direct border conflicts” is one of criteria to join NATO. Furthermore the minister of Defense of Germany made a more adamant statement “Ukraine won’t even receive an entrance to NATO plan until the end of war”

Many in Kyiv received this rejection as diplomatic slap in the face, because the Ukrainian government to the bitter end hoped that after generous military aid in the war against Russia, the western leaders would vote in favor of Ukraine joining the Alliance. Turns out Kyiv is left all alone with Putin’s Russia.

The Ukrainian elite does not hide its disappointment, many influential representatives of the Zelensky’s team beguile him out of the visit to Vilnius NATO summit. “The president won’t attend the summit, if the leaders inclined to demonstrate deficit of courage”, – stated by an adviser of the Ukrainian leader Igor Zhukov.

If you draw a historical parallel, then today’s position of Zelensky is quite similar to ex-president of Georgia Mikheil Saakashvili in August 2008, when a 5 day conflict ignited between Tbilisi and Moscow. A month before the war, when the future was becoming clearer, State Secretary of USA Condoleezza Rice visited Tbilisi, giving the attention needed to the Georgian leader and American administration gave hope for firm support in a probable conflict against Russia.

The Georgian army were stiffened by NATO instructors and military equipment. However after the defeat of the Georgian army, USA and Europe preferred to take a moderate stance and gave Moscow moral dictums about “inadequate application of the military force” but hesitated to directly intervene in the conflict.

As a result the West completely stepped away from actively supporting Mikhiel Saakashvili and left him alone against his internal opponents, one of whom was an oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili, who the parliamentary elections in 2012 and took away Saakashvili’s power. Afterwards the ex-president had to run away from the country and settled down in Ukraine for a short while but he could not re-launch his bright political career.

In 2021 he decided to return to Georgia, where his arrested straight away. Even recently published pictures of a starving, slimmed out Saakashvili in prison did not raise any sympathy in the Georgian community and his political aspirations were at last destroyed.

For the time being Volodymyr Zelensky is still Western media’s favourite and is an expected guest at European forums. However his further political and personal future is directly correlated to the success of the Ukrainian army.

After one and half years the Victory of Ukraine, as it is appeared, even if it became closer but not by a lot and it appears to be Armed Forces of Ukraine will never be as strong as in the spring of last year. The stream of weaponry to Ukraine is still more or less consistent but in the European and American Media the skepticism about inability of AFU to recapture the territory under 1991 border is becoming more common and therefore the reasonability of further support is under question.

US and EU politicians make no bone about this. In the context of development of Ukrainian counteroffensive president of France Emmanuel Macron reckons that “it must lead to a negotiations table’.

The President of Czech Republic pointed out that in a case of fiasco Ukraine “might not have enough resources for another counteroffensive”. Right-wing powers, who are becoming people’s favorites in the whole of Europe, are openly demanding to stop military and financial aid to Ukraine.

Zelensky must not be happy with the internal situation in Ukraine. As of yesterday the Ukrainian people were praising their leader and tomorrow they will not forgive Zelensky a failed counteroffensive. During his presidency Zelesnky acquired himself a lot of influential enemies.

Oligarch are among them, from who he wanted to take away their businesses, ex-president Petr Poroshenko who was charged with a criminal case and other charismatic politicians with an access to a large capital. Taking into account absence of any notable results on the front, the collapse of quality of life, destroyed infrastructure and accumulated overall tiredness of the community from the war, the political future of Zelensky seems to be quite clouded.

It can never be written out that Washington and Europe in a critical moment will not lend him assistance and leave him alone against many of his opponents, as it happened before with Mikheil Saakashvili.

Kemran Mamedov is a Moscow-based Azerbaijani journalist born in Georgia with a focus on South Caucasus issues.

Guest Contributor

This piece was written for Greek City Times by a Guest Contributor