February 1, 2023

Let Us Not Deceive Ourselves: Western Unity Is Fragile

French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz on January 22 in Paris, celebrating the 60th anniversary of the Élysée Treaty marking German-French friendship.
French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz on January 22 in Paris, celebrating the 60th anniversary of the Élysée Treaty marking German-French friendship.

A common Western policy on Russia requires a herculean effort. Yet European unity will be short-lived unless—once the war ends—Ukraine receives the only security guarantee that has proven effective—that is, membership in NATO.

“We are not ready to die for Ukraine.” This was how one eminent security expert from a major NATO country responded when I recently argued in favour of Ukraine joining NATO in a closed roundtable discussion.

Preventing the war between Russia and Ukraine from escalating into a war between Russia and NATO has been one of NATO’s key principles over the past year. Therefore, I premised my argument on the acknowledgement: as long as the war is ongoing, Ukraine’s membership shall be off the official agenda. However, once the arms have fallen silent, sustainable peace will require reliable security guarantees for Ukraine.

These discussions are already underway. The clearest and most effective solution would be to accept Ukraine into NATO.

Point One: NATO Brings Stability

The two main arguments that were deployed against Ukraine’s accession in the past should no longer apply. First, there was the wish to maintain stability by not provoking Russia—the main talking point raised by Germany and France among others, which has turned out to be a colossal failure. The West’s unwillingness to integrate and support Ukraine was exactly what provoked Russia to act. It allowed the Kremlin to assume that it could force Ukraine into the Russian sphere of influence. Second, there were doubts about Ukraine’s will and ability to defend itself, which has been effectively dispelled by its impressive resistance to the Russian invasion since 24 February 2022.

However, Western countries are still hesitant about whether they should stand ready to send their men and women to fight for Ukraine in the future. In the Baltic states, we heard these hesitations before, with regards to NATO’s readiness to defend our countries. We joined NATO at a time when these concerns seemed largely theoretical. The West considered a Russian military attack extremely unlikely and thus dismissed the threat, which it perceived as a symptom of our historical trauma that would heal over time.

Ukraine applied for NATO membership last September when no one already doubted Russia’s aggressive posture. Now, the Baltic states—together with Ukraine—must convince our allies that the same logic applies to both the Baltic states and Ukraine. Unless the West offers credible security guarantees to the border states (and none are more credible than NATO membership), then Eastern Europe will remain unstable, while Russia’s threat to the Western security will only grow stronger.

Point Two: The EU Is Too Reluctant

For the time being, however, Ukraine’s accession to NATO remains one of the big issues concerning Eastern Europe that the newfound Western unity does not extend to. Another controversial topic is EU enlargement. Although Ukraine was granted EU candidate status last summer, many member states are reluctant to rush into accession negotiations. Everyone, including the Ukrainians themselves, acknowledge that it will take years before the country can meet the membership criteria.

Nevertheless, Ukraine needs assurance that accession is the genuine goal that the EU sincerely seeks to achieve and contribute to. Turkey and the Western Balkans have had no such assurance—despite having been candidate countries for years—and thus have consistently been undermotivated to fulfil the accession criteria. Ukraine risks ending up in a similar limbo, which would—understandably—deeply frustrate and disappoint Ukrainians.

It is a widely held opinion in the EU that Ukraine has been granted the candidate country status as a sign of solidarity and a geopolitical signal to underline the EU’s support. Last summer, this decision seemed to be a political necessity, although Ukraine’s desire to join the EU aroused deep scepticism in, for instance, Germany and France. Many politicians and experts in Western Europe  think that Ukraine cannot become a full member of the EU because the system cannot absorb it.

Several member states have been trying to delay and postpone the process. There is debate about the need to ensure the EU’s ‘absorption capacity.’ Yet this is such a vague concept that it runs the risk of being used to mask other political considerations.

The Germany-France tandem—with the two countries being historical leaders of the EU—is concerned about the political balance in Europe shifting eastwards. This shift (which has nonetheless begun) would be greatly amplified by Ukraine’s EU accession. Western European countries are also worried about the price tag on Ukraine’s membership, as the country’s wealth is bound to remain below the EU average for a long time. Nonetheless, Europe has already committed to supporting Ukraine’s post-war reconstruction, which will cost hundreds of billions of euros. This is the bill that Western Europe now has to pay for having ignored the Russian threat for years.

Point Three: A Dangerous Willingness to Compromise

The possible outcome of the war is the third issue dividing the Western countries. In the first weeks following the Russian attack, most in the West believed that Ukraine would inevitably fall. Today, most Western observers deem Ukraine’s victory to be possible.

However, many Western security experts still consider that the liberation of all occupied territories would be too ambitious and even dangerous. Crimea, in particular, tends to be seen as a red line for the Kremlin. The fear is that Ukraine’s attempt to liberate Crimea would be a good enough reason for Putin to use tactical nuclear weapons.

The Russian narrative suggests that Crimea has historically belonged to Russia. Although the facts do not bear it out, this narrative has been quite successful in the West, where Ukraine is habitually viewed through the Russian prism. The West should be working to refute this narrative and deter Russian nuclear threats instead of letting them paralyse us.

Some also believe that a compromise on Crimea could be an acceptable price for peace. Yet such a compromise would not stop Russia’s imperialist ambitions from expanding beyond Crimea. A compromise on Crimea would betray the principle that redrawing national borders by force is unacceptable. It seems that the West’s belief in the rationality of compromises is as strong as Russia’s view that its opponent’s willingness to compromise is a sign of weakness, which further encourages it to impose its will even more forcefully.

Point Four: Wishful thinking about Russia

The fourth—and weakest—point in Western unity concerns the way the West sees its future relations with Russia and the future of Russia itself. I have heard accusations from my German colleagues (who otherwise strongly condemn the Russian aggression) that the ‘Russophobic’ Baltic states do not wish to support the Russian democratic opposition. They tend to believe that actively supporting the Russian opposition gives the West an opportunity to influence Russia’s development in a favourable direction and thus normalise relations after Putin has left power. They are not discouraged by the weakness and fragmentation of the Russian opposition or the poor reputation of ‘democracy’ among the Russian people.

Wishful thinking about Russia has not disappeared in the West and will probably grow stronger if Putin is succeeded by a new leader who appears reasonable and cooperative. Although NATO has expressed the conviction that it must be ready for a long-term confrontation with Russia, many Allies still hope that there may be other options.

Over the past year, we repeatedly heard that the West should have taken the Baltic states’ threat assessment more seriously. The Baltic states now have their allies’ ear more than ever before, but it is still not easy for them to shape the West’s Russia policy. Thousands of Ukrainians have already died for European security, but the European unity will be short-lived unless NATO Allies eventually realise that they, too, should be ready to die for Ukraine.

This article was written for ICDS Diplomaatia magazine. Views expressed in ICDS publications are those of the author(s).