Is NATO to Put Its Enlargement Policy on Hold?

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Sergiu CEBAN
NATO Summit in Vilnius turned into a major disappointment to Ukraine, as it was not invited to the alliance with a definite timeline and also got tougher conditions for joining the bloc. Moldova and Georgia also heard nothing essentially new, other than formal and vague pledges of support
Recently, the bloodshed in Ukraine crossed another tragic 500-day mark. At the same time, the first month of the Ukrainian counteroffensive came to an end, which in turn came close to the NATO Summit in Vilnius. According to the totality of events and decisions taken, we can say that the war has passed a certain point, from which it will unfold under new conditions. The main thing that Kyiv has failed to achieve is to demonstrate not only the ability to defend, but also to effectively attack the enemy while gradually returning the occupied territories. Apparently, it became one of the main factors that determined the future strategy and the extent of the West’s involvement in the conflict. Of course, in addition to the lack of serious changes on the front line, there are many other reasons that force NATO countries to (re)think further course of military events on the eastern flank. First of all, it should be recognized that neither the US nor Europe prepared for a protracted conflict, and with a significant margin of economic strength, the weapon complex of Kyiv’s Western allies was not ready to this kind of war. As a result, Ukraine is again on the verge of a munition hunger. In addition, unwillingness to use strategic reserves leads to very dangerous escalation steps like providing the Ukrainian army with cluster munitions that take hostilities beyond the conventional warfare. Amidst the “cluster case” and the Vilnius summit that ended yesterday, it was important for the whole world to understand where the conflict was heading and to what extent the West was prepared to support Ukraine. Kyiv’s unveiled irritable reaction provided grounds to say that the outcome of the meeting would be, to put it mildly, not in its favor. Our neighbor expected much more serious decisions from the North Atlantic alliance: if not membership, then at least some definite declaration with timelines, stages and NATO’s commitments to Ukraine. As many experts expected, no such thing was voiced in the end. Moreover, there is no mention of the country joining the bloc. The main opponents of the NATO perspective for Kyiv are the USA and Germany, as they justify their position by a probable direct clash between NATO and Russia. Volodymyr Zelensky, of course, did not hide his resentment and even tried to take the “NATO altitude” in his own manner, but it had no effect on the alliance’s final decision. The security guarantees, largely debated in recent weeks in the Western media and expert circles, have in practice turned out to be very general promises. In particular, about additional aid and unwillingness of Western allies to send their troops to Ukraine. The additional military supply packages presented during the NATO summit look like a blatant attempt to buy off Kyiv’s political demands and to mitigate the “discouraging flavor” of the event’s outcome. Among the main results of the Summit for Ukraine are the creation of the “Ukraine-NATO Council”, as well as the cancellation of MAP and the simplification of the NATO accession procedure from two to one step. The latter, however, is burdened with difficult-to-implement conditions - democratic reforms that make the prospect of Kyiv’s joining the alliance even more remote. The NATO members approved annual support of $500 million on a long-term basis, but only in the form of non-lethal assistance. In addition, NATO will finance the reform of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, as well as the costs of rearmament, medicine, demining and fuel supplies. Based on the quite clear statements of Western politicians and the leadership of the North Atlantic bloc, the real consideration of Ukraine’s membership in NATO is possible only after the end of war. And seemingly, only if Kyiv defeats Russia or achieves incredible attainments on the front. The prudence and rational approach, which, perhaps for the first time in 500 days, the U.S. and NATO members have shown, may impact the mood in Ukrainian society. First of all, such hidden uncertainty of the West will increase doubts and lead to disappointment among Ukrainians, who will lose hope that the country will be able to defend its interests and preserve its statehood. One way or another, Ukraine will have to come to terms with this position of its Western partners, given its high degree of dependence on the NATO countries’ assistance. No clarity about the outcome of the war, as well as great doubts about the positive results of hostilities for Ukraine, force the West to distance from Kyiv, leaving it with a choice and the increasingly likely interim solution of freezing, let’s say, the first stage of confrontation with Moscow. The interests of Western countries and NATO are an absolute priority, and for this reason Ukraine has heard a bitter but justified “no” from the alliance. Moscow, of course, perceived the results of the summit as a tactic victory, implying the implementation of one of its “SWO” points, namely – the prevention of Ukraine’s accession to NATO. The mention in the finite documents that the communication channels with Russia are open can be considered as a covert invitation to the Kremlin to negotiate. Therefore, soon we may expect a revival of contacts between Russian and Western diplomats on the future of European security and the post-Soviet region. Our country also expected some more or less reassuring messages from NATO, which could be regarded as indicating that Moldova and Ukraine belong to the alliance’s sphere of interest and its willingness to respond to possible threats from Moscow. However, in the final declaration, the alliance countries limited themselves to supporting Moldova’s territorial integrity and sovereignty, called on Russia to withdraw all its troops from the Transnistrian region, outlined Chisinau’s right to determine its future and foreign policy without interference from outside, and expressed their respect for our country’s constitutional neutrality. All of this together gives rise to a strong sense of deja vu. As Kyiv, Chisinau wanted to hear something different in terms of current geopolitical realities but not the old pre-war narratives about strengthening neutrality and defense capabilities. The fact that Moldova and Georgia have been left out of any North Atlantic prospects at all may indicate that the West prepares to talk to Moscow and signals to the Kremlin that it is ready to stop the policy of alliance expansion on its current borders. Such a turn of events is dangerous for Moldova and Ukraine also for the reason the European Union will have the next word, which relies on the NATO strategic vision and proceeds from the security priorities.