NATO returns to the scene of one of its most controversial decisions on Tuesday, intent on repeating its pledge that Ukraine – now in its tenth month of war against Russia – will one day join the world’s largest military alliance.
The NATO foreign ministers meet for two days in the Palace of Parliament in the Romanian capital Bucharest. There, in April 2008, US President George W. Bush persuaded his allies to open the door to Ukraine and Georgia, despite vehement Russian objections.
“NATO welcomes the Euro-Atlantic aspirations of Ukraine and Georgia for NATO membership. We agreed today that these countries will become members of NATO,” the leaders said in a statement. Russian President Vladimir Putin, who was at the summit, described this as “a direct threat” to Russia’s security.
About four months later, Russian troops invaded Georgia.
Some pundits call the Bucharest decision a massive mistake, leaving Russia feeling cornered by what appears to be an ever-expanding NATO. NATO counters that it is not pushing gang countries to join, and that some have applied for membership to seek protection from Russia — as Finland and Sweden are now doing.
More than 14 years later, NATO will this week pledge long-term support to Ukraine as it defends against Russian air, missile and ground attacks – many of which have struck power grids and other civilian infrastructure, and deprived millions of people of power and heating .
“NATO will stand by Ukraine for as long as necessary. We will not back down,” the organization’s top civilian official, Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, promised last week.
North Macedonia and Montenegro have joined the US-led organization in recent years. In doing so, said Stoltenberg, “we have shown that NATO’s door is open and that it is up to NATO allies and candidate countries to decide on membership. That is also the message to Ukraine.”
At that meeting in Bucharest, NATO is likely to make new pledges of non-lethal support to Ukraine: fuel, power generators, medical supplies, winter gear and drone jammers.
Individual allies are also likely to announce new shipments of military equipment to Ukraine – mainly the air defense systems that Kyiv is so desperate to protect its skies. NATO as an organization will not offer such supplies lest it be drawn into a major war with nuclear-armed Russia.
But the ministers, along with their Ukrainian counterpart Dmytro Kuleba, will also think outside the box.
“In the long term, we will help Ukraine transition from Soviet-era equipment to modern NATO standards, doctrine and training,” Stoltenberg said. Not only will this improve Ukraine’s Armed Forces and help them integrate better, but it will also fulfill some of the conditions for membership.
However, Ukraine will not join NATO any time soon. With the Crimean peninsula annexed and Russian troops and pro-Moscow separatists holding parts of the south and east, it’s not clear what Ukraine’s borders would even look like.
Many of the 30 allies believe the focus now must be solely on defeating Russia.
But even as economic pressures — high electricity and gas prices plus inflation, all exacerbated by the war — mount on many allies, Stoltenberg would not push Ukraine into peace talks, and indeed NATO and European diplomats say Putin is not ready seems to come to the table.
“Most wars end in negotiations,” he said. “But what happens at the negotiating table depends on what happens on the battlefield. Therefore, the best way to increase the chances of a peaceful solution is to support Ukraine.”
The foreign ministers of Bosnia, Georgia and Moldova – three partners NATO says are coming under increasing Russian pressure – will also be in Bucharest. Stoltenberg said NATO “will take further steps to help them protect their independence and strengthen their capacity for self-defense.”
Cook reported from Brussels.
This story was originally published Nov 28, 2022 2:28 am.