Opinion: As NATO leaders meet in Washington, 5,000 miles away desperation sets in

The US will host this year’s NATO summit in Washington DC from July 9 to July 11. Thirty-two allies will meet at the Capitol — coming 75 years after 12 countries first signed the North Atlantic Treaty there. J. David Ake/Getty Images


As Washington prepares to welcome world leaders for a landmark summit commemorating 75 years of NATO, some 5,000 miles away I was having a heart wrenching dinner conversation.

“My dreams have been shattered,” a Ukrainian friend, Inna Ivanova, told me at a restaurant tucked away in an obscure corner of Odesa.

A former resident of this southern Ukrainian port city, Inna was visiting family during a break from her job as an accountant in Germany.

Up until Russia’s full-scale invasion two years ago, Inna was studying drama with hopes of becoming an actress. But with the frequent air raid sirens and electricity outages, like millions of other Ukrainians, Inna opted for a calmer life elsewhere.

Her turmoil, however, continues.

This week, 32 NATO allies will be gathering in Washington, DC, amid what they rightly describe as “the most dangerous security environment since the Cold War.”

The overarching message from Ukrainians I’ve spoken to over the past few weeks, including Inna, is: “Help us stop this war — now.”

And indeed, catapulting Ukraine into a winning position should be the key goal of the Washington summit. Failing to push back Russian President Vladimir Putin, a man who only responds to brute force, will only prolong the war and make it more costly for Europe — especially if many thousands of Ukrainians, unable to heat their homes, seek asylum there this winter.

The question on everyone’s lips

Looming over the summit will be the question of Ukraine’s desperately sought NATO membership.

Former Vice-Prime Minister for the European and Euro-Atlantic Integration of Ukraine Ivanna Klympush-Tsintsadze told me that if NATO leaders pass up the opportunity to “signal the irreversibility of Ukraine’s membership … it will be a drastic mistake of the alliance.”

She added that it would be a much bigger mistake for the region and the world than the “mismanaged 2008 Bucharest NATO summit decision,” which opened the door for Ukraine and Georgia to join the alliance, but with no plan on how to get there. (Critics argued it essentially raised a red flag to Moscow regarding two former Soviet countries but without the benefit of NATO protection.)

Considering the moves already made by Brussels towards integrating Ukraine and providing it with more predictability, Kyiv could feel that it is pretty much part of the NATO family — save for the collective protection (known as Article 5) that full membership supposedly brings.

The Biden administration has talked about the idea of a “bridge” to NATO eventual membership for Ukraine, but the alliance has yet to offer Kyiv a concrete timeline. Nonetheless, NATO leaders could give themselves a pass to skirt the membership question by giving Kyiv drastically enhanced capability to repel Putin’s aggression, while still providing a solid roadmap for a seat at the alliance table.

The two faces of Ukraine

After more than two years of war, those of us who have stayed recognize newcomers or returnees such as Inna. With each passing air raid siren they anxiously scroll through Telegram channels to assess the threat (cruise missiles and ballistic missiles being the biggest).

But a brief stroll would present an Odesa that is opening up, looking less and less like a war zone. The port, the engine which powers the local economy as well as a crucial part of the global food supply chain, is back to pre-war levels of traffic. Visitors this summer will find the landmark Potemkin Stairs and many other prized attractions re-opened after the removal of military blockades.

But beneath the surface, the war is still undeniably taking its toll. Fewer men are visible on the streets; caught up in the war or hiding from the roving conscription squads trying to enlist them in it. The morale of soldiers, many of whom have served for more than two years with little time off, is in rough shape, those who visit them regularly, tell me. Military cemeteries in cities such as Lviv are bursting at the seams. And firms are struggling to keep operating amid a severe manpower shortage and power cuts.

A smouldering building in the southern Ukrainian port city of Odesa, following a Russian missile strike on June 24

A smouldering building in the southern Ukrainian port city of Odesa, following a Russian missile strike on June 24. Oleksandr Gimanov/AFP/Getty Images

Nationwide, including here in Odesa, attacks on critical infrastructure have been so brutal that much of Ukraine’s generating capacity has been destroyed — leading to outages of several hours a day. Ukrainian-Canadian Bohdan Chomiak, who lives in Kyiv, told me that “roughly speaking, more than half the day is without power.”

Some experts are predicting that by the time the first frost arrives later this year, parts of Ukraine could be down to less than four hours a day of power, creating the conditions for a humanitarian catastrophe.

To make matters worse, Russia has reportedly started to attack renewable energy installations such as solar and wind farms.

What’s next for Ukraine?

Let there be no mistake: The last thing Ukrainians want is for any of their countrymen to live a minute more than necessary under brutal Russian occupation. But I’ve seen a noticeable shift in the mood of ordinary people, with many telling me that they can’t take much more of a war that’s claimed the lives of tens of thousands of soldiers and at least 174 civilians in May alone.

Bitterness is building up too about the drip, drip, drip approach to providing aid to Ukraine. Had Kyiv been given everything it needed at the start of the war, the argument goes, Russia wouldn’t have been able to exploit the delays to seize more territory, build up defenses and repurpose old missiles to target Ukrainian cities.

Ukrainians are also realizing that their traditional alliances with Western capitals may not be so solid after voters turned towards far-right parties in the recent European elections. The agonizing five-month wait for US legislators to approve $61 billion in military and other aid for Kyiv should’ve been a signal for the Zelensky administration that they can also no longer bank on unrestricted American support.

Even more so with the prospect of a return of former US President Donald Trump who, in CNN’s presidential debate, made the outrageous claim that he would have the war “settled” before Inauguration Day — doubtfully in Ukraine’s favor.

Meanwhile in Washington

The forecasted record heat won’t be the only thing making NATO leaders in Washington break into a sweat.

Growing questions over President Joe Biden’s ability to govern, Trump’s strong showing in post-debate polls and the political uncertainty swirling around other alliance leaders in the fallout from the European elections, will make this summit feel more like a painful goodbye gathering than a celebration of NATO unity.

The clock to November’s US election is ticking — and loudly. NATO members now look certain to agree to Secretary General Jen Stoltenberg’s proposal to guarantee at least 40 billion euros in military support each year to Ukraine, “for as long as necessary” — an apparent effort to future-proof Ukraine funding from a Trump presidency.

Given the high stakes for Ukraine, people here will be watching developments in Washington closely. As one Ukrainian member of parliament, Kira Rudik, leader of the Golos Party, told me: “The best way of honoring Ukraine’s fight for freedom is to allow us to finally win this war.”

Source: CNN