Commentary on Political Economy

Saturday 18 May 2024

 


A man sits near his home in Kharkiv, Ukraine, as smoke rises above the city after Russian shelling on 17 May.
Opinion

Nato’s failure to save Ukraine raises an existential question: what on earth is it for?

The military alliance is turning 75. But there’s little to celebrate in Kyiv, as Putin’s forces continue their bloody advance

Nato’s grand 75th birthday celebration in Washington in July will ring hollow in Kyiv. The alliance has miserably failed its biggest post-cold war test – the battle for Ukraine. Sadly, there’s no denying it: Vladimir Putin is on a roll.

Advancing Russian forces in Kharkiv profit from the west’s culpably slow drip-feed of weaponry to Kyiv and its leaders’ chronic fear of escalation. Ukraine receives just enough support to survive, never to prevail. Now even bare survival is in doubt.

Ukraine is Europe’s fight. It’s freedom’s global fight, Joe Biden says – a fight for democracy. “Our support cannot and will not falter. Britain is with you for as long as it takes,” Rishi Sunak vows. Yet, on the ground, Ukraine is mostly left to fight alone.

Nato should have intervened robustly to deter Russia’s aggression right from the start, as repeatedly urged here. No-fly zones could have prevented thousands of civilian casualties and limited damage to Ukraine’s cities.

Restrictions on Kyiv’s use of western-made missiles to attack military bases and oil refineries inside Russia were, and are, self-defeating. Nato navies should have imposed defensive cordons around grain-exporting Black Sea ports. Putin should be told where to shove his contemptible attempts at nuclear blackmail.

All this might still be done, if there’s a will. General Richard Shirreff, a former top Nato commander, urges a “fundamental shift” to a more activist strategy. He’s right. But there’s little sign that politicians are listening. Biden and Germany’s Olaf Scholz allow excessive, myopic caution to obscure military and moral imperatives. France’s Emmanuel Macron, abandoning appeasement, now claims only Russia’s defeat will save Europe. A bit late, Manu.

In Britain, Sunak prates disingenuously about unparalleled security dangers. He may scare UK voters – but he does not scare Putin or his “no-limits” enabler, China’s Xi Jinping, as last week’s defiant Beijing love-in showed. That’s because, for all their talk, like Nato as a whole, neither Sunak nor hawkish foreign secretary David Cameron, the Cotswolds kestrel, are prepared to step in directly to help Ukraine win. Thus, they render defeat more probable.

Nato should fast-track Ukraine’s full membership in July. But it won’t. The US has already decided against – and the rest tamely tag along. Kyiv is vaguely told it must wait until “conditions are right”. The actual, discreditable reason is Biden’s outdated, cold war-era fear of Russian retaliation. Does he truly believe Putin would attack Nato’s 32-country array, a vastly superior force? More likely, cowardly Putin would back off.

Anders Fogh Rasmussen, former Nato secretary-general, has the right idea. He wants Ukraine’s accession talks to begin right away – and Scholz to stop blocking supplies of long-range Taurus missiles.

“If you argue that you cannot extend an invitation to Ukraine as long as a war is going on, then you give Putin an incentive to continue the war, to prevent Ukraine joining Nato,” he said. The EU should stop dithering, too, and super-charge Kyiv’s membership application at next month’s summit. The frontline situation grows critical, partly because Russia has exploited the delay, caused by Donald Trump’s allies, in delivering a $60bn (£47bn) US weapons package. Secretary of state Antony Blinken admitted as much in Kyiv last week. Ukraine is also short of soldiers. Macron’s recent musings about sending ground troops were angrily dismissed out of hand in Washington and Berlin. Yet this option demands serious consideration. The US is now reportedly considering deploying troops as trainers.

“European leaders cannot afford to let American political dysfunction dictate European security,” analysts Alex Crowther, Jahara Matisek and Phillips O’Brien argue. “They must seriously contemplate deploying troops to Ukraine to provide logistical support and training, to protect Ukraine’s borders and critical infrastructure, or even to defend Ukrainian cities. They must make it clear… Europe is willing to protect Ukraine’s territorial sovereignty.”

It’s increasingly up to Europe, which has most to lose. Aside from the dire consequences of Ukraine’s permanent partition or total subjugation, success for Putin’s neo-imperial project prospectively imperils a clutch of former Soviet republics – Georgia is one vulnerable example – the EU and European security.

If such scenarios materialised, Nato would be sucked in regardless. Or would it? Trump is a wild card. If he beats Biden in November, former advisers are convinced he will pull the rug from under Ukraine and cosy up to Putin. They also believe he will move to quit Nato, initially by sabotaging or blocking operations. July’s birthday party may be Nato’s last. At which point, Europe really would be on its own.

“If Trump is re-elected and follows through on his anti-Nato instincts, the first casualty would be Ukraine,” wrote Alexander Vershbow, former US ambassador to Russia and Nato. “The disastrous consequences would only start there.”

Why is it so hard for western politicians to grasp the broader, existential nature of the Russian threat? Recurring spying rows, sabotage, assassinations, arson and cyber-hacks show Moscow “is waging war on European countries”, Russia expert Edward Lucas warned. “How is it that Russia, a country with an Italy-sized economy, is able to attack the entire west with impunity? The answer is that Russia does not take us seriously.”

Imagine how future historians may view all this. The world’s most powerful military alliance failed to defend a neighbouring European democracy and independent sovereign state from illegal, unprovoked, precedent-setting invasion, ruinous destruction and war crimes committed by a less powerful, authoritarian aggressor. Extraordinary.

Ill-led Nato cannot be relied upon to head off far-reaching disaster in Ukraine. So the question arises: what is Nato for? It’s not only Trump who’s asking. If they don’t raise their game, quickly, alliance leaders should cancel the champagne – and hang their heads in shame.

• Simon Tisdall is the Observer’s Foreign Affairs Commentator

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