Andrius Kubilius is a former PM of Lithuania, MEP, Initiator of the “United for Ukraine” network
The NATO festival in Lithuania is over. That’s how many of us saw the NATO Summit – as a NATO celebration in Vilnius. Both those of us who were lucky enough to see it up close and those of us who watched it from the distances of Brussels or Strasbourg. Lithuania made sure that the celebration was well and efficiently organised, citizens made sure that they demonstrated how important Ukraine is to Lithuania and to the World. All Ukrainians, from journalists to politicians, with whom I have had the opportunity to interact these days, thank Lithuania for this. We did well!
Although, it is us and all the Europeans who have to thank Ukraine first of all. For its struggles and sacrifices made not only for its own freedom and security, but for the freedom and security of all of us.
However, celebrations tend to end. Then it is time to ask ourselves: what is the legacy of that celebration?
Unfortunately, when searching for an answer to such a question, there is less festive mood after the Summit. And especially because of the decisions (or non-decisions) taken at the Summit regarding Ukraine.
I will not repeat my praise for the decisions announced at the Summit (not on Ukraine), both on the completely new quality of the NATO regional defence plans and on the agreement between Sweden and Turkey. It is good that this was announced in Vilnius, but it had little to do with the Summit itself.
It is also good that Ukraine’s NATO membership has gained strong momentum during the last six months before the Vilnius Summit, and it seems that Ukraine has moved strongly along this path. It is good that the Summit itself was full of speeches and pledges to continue to support Ukraine with arms, but it is bad that the West did not dare to use the Vilnius Summit to send a strong geopolitical signal, in particular, to Russia, by taking a formal decision in Vilnius to invite Ukraine to become a NATO member.
Ukraine not only needs long-range military weapons from the West, it also needs long-range geopolitical weapons. And they are all in the hands of the West. I will repeat what I have said more than once: Ukraine’s invitation to become a member of NATO is necessary not only for the sake of Ukraine’s security, but also for the sake of the West’s message to the Kremlin elite and to ordinary Russians: forget your dreams of rebuilding the empire; Ukraine is no longer available for imperial nostalgia; there is no longer any point in continuing the imperial colonial war.
Inviting Ukraine would be the first step to demonstrate that the West is boldly embracing Brzezinski’s doctrine that Russia has a chance to become a democracy without Ukraine, and that Russia will always remain an empire as long as the West allows Russia to keep Ukraine in so called zone of its interests. Moreover, in Vilnius, the West had the opportunity to show that it has already realised its fundamental geopolitical mistake of the last decades: Ukraine has been left in a “grey security zone” since the 1990s, with no possibility of becoming a member of either NATO or the EU, and this is what prompted Putin to resort to aggression. Vilnius was an opportunity for the West to start correcting this geopolitical mistake, which no amount of arms supplies, not even the largest, can cover. And yet this geopolitical mistake will have to be corrected by the West, sooner rather than later. Or never.
What is disappointing is not only the fact of the non-invitation itself, but the way in which, through the efforts of Western leaders, this non-invitation has been superficially identified and explained – without even attempting to look for any serious substantive or geopolitical arguments.
What has disappointed me most in this Ukrainian affair is the indifference of the text and the comments on the non-invitation of Ukraine.
The text of the communiqué on Ukraine’s NATO membership, published in Vilnius, repeats almost word for word the wording of the 2008 Bucharest NATO Summit’s non-invitation, reiterating that Ukraine’s future is with NATO. This future was also promised in Bucharest, but it has never become a reality. Putin understood this as the West agreeing to leave Ukraine and Georgia in the Kremlin’s zone of interests. To the disappointing phrase from Bucharest, repeated in Vilnius, was added the sentence from the North Atlantic Treaty that Ukraine would be invited to become a member of NATO when all the countries agreed to it. It is as if someone does not know that Treaty provision on the consensus.
It was also casually stated that Ukraine must improve democracy and the fight against corruption, because this is also the basis on which it will be judged as to whether it can become a NATO member. One should imply that, by such standards, Ukraine is still a long way from Albania, Montenegro or North Macedonia, which became NATO members not so long ago. To those who know a little more about the failures of these countries, both in democracy and in the fight against corruption, such conditions for Ukraine announced in Vilnius sound like a completely lax excuse from the West as to why Ukraine in Vilnius has not yet been invited.
It is also worth remembering that Portugal was one of the founding members of NATO in 1949, even though it was ruled from 1932 to 1968 by the same authoritarian and dictatorial leader, Antonio Salazar. Greece, a member of NATO since 1952, lived without any democracy after the “colonels” coup from 1967 to 1974, but its NATO membership was not suspended.
So much for the solidity of the additional “democracy and anti-corruption” conditions announced for Ukraine.
Of course, equally surprising was the argument made in Vilnius that Ukraine could not be invited to join NATO while the war was going on. It is obvious to everyone, and has been repeated over and over again by Mr Zelensky himself, that Ukraine will not become a member of NATO while the war is still going on. But why Ukraine cannot be invited to become a member of NATO now, while the war is still going on, remains completely unclear.
After all, the example of Sweden has already made it clear that there can be quite a long time between a formal invitation and the real membership. For Ukraine, Ukraine could have been invited, but also been presented a condition that the ratification of the accession treaty would start not now, while the war is still going on, but when it is assessed that the circumstances of the war no longer prevent it. There are two separate geopolitically important steps in the process of becoming a NATO member: (1) the invitation to become a member of NATO, and (2) becoming a member of NATO. Each of them sends a strong political signal on its own and can be separated in time. Vilnius Summit could have sent the first signal – an invitation – distinctly from the membership. However, for some reason Western leaders ran away from the possibility of inviting Ukraine to join already in Vilnius, citing the threat of World War III if Ukraine became a NATO member during the war. Despite that no one (not even Ukraine) offered or asked for such membership during the war.
Thus, there were no serious business arguments for not inviting Ukraine. It was simply a missed opportunity to do so. And then the question is: why? Why did Germany and, in particular, the US resist to extend such an invitation? What factor accounts for their cautious or geopolitically unwise approach?
If there is no serious explanation that Ukraine still does not meet some of the NATO criteria, then one must inevitably conclude that the only such serious factor in why Ukraine still has not received an invitation, and about which one dare not go public, is the “Putin factor” and its impact on Western geopolitical thinking. Some in the West may still feel that Putin has a veto right over NATO enlargement in his own sphere of interest (which he clearly had in the Western mind in Bucharest in 2008 and had been holding there until 24 February 2022). Some may fear that such a NATO decision would escalate the military situation and provoke an unpredictable response from Putin (although the West’s geopolitical weakness and the still ongoing non-invitation of Ukraine is precisely what provoked Putin’s current aggression); some may fear that inviting Ukraine to join NATO could bring down the already weak Putin regime and bring some prigozhins to power (although why the West should care about Putin’s survival and why Putin is better than Prigozhin remains completely unclear).
In any case, it is clear that the “Putin factor” still plays an important role in Western thinking. It may be diminishing, but it is still important. This is what the non-invitation of Ukraine at the Vilnius Summit reveals. This is the moment of “Vilnius Sobering-up”: the West must have a clear strategy with regard to the “Putin factor”, that is to say, it must have a clear strategy as to what kind of Russia’s future the West expects to be after Ukraine wins the war. After that the invitation to Ukraine will no longer scare some Western capitals.
A wise and courageous Western policy towards Ukraine is the only way in which the West can also help Russia to transform itself into a normal type of state. This requires the West to believe that Russia, too, can say goodbye to the “Putin factor”; to believe that democracy is also possible in Russia, and that, after Ukraine defeats Russia on the military front, a window of opportunity will open up for such a transformation of Russia. Only by believing in such a possibility will the West no longer fear Ukraine’s crushing victory (and give it the weapons it needs to do so), nor Ukraine’s NATO membership (and invite it to join the Alliance), nor Ukraine’s becoming a member of the EU, thus creating economic success for Ukraine. It is those Western leaders who still do not believe in Russia’s ability to transform itself are afraid of the “Putin factor” and do not dare to invite Ukraine to join NATO. Those who believe in such a possibility are no longer afraid of the “Putin factor”. And they are no longer afraid to invite Ukraine.
This is the essence of the “Vilnius Sobering-up”: not only are we facing new challenges on Ukraine’s path to NATO; we are also facing new challenges on Russia’s transformation path. These two are intrinsically interlinked, and it is our duty to address them both at the same time. For the sake of Ukraine and for the sake of a different Russia. It is also our duty to explain this constantly and loudly throughout the West, with the help of all like-minded people. Otherwise, the West and NATO will continue to tread in our region between the fine words constantly repeated in Budapest, Bucharest and Vilnius about security guarantees and future memberships, but without distancing themselves from the “Putin factor”, thereby losing more and more of their geopolitical credibility.
When “sobering-up” and “awakening” occur in geopolitics, it is also an awakening from the nice, but empty words and one simply does not want to hear them any more.
It is always worth hoping that, after the NATO Summit, it was not only Vilnius that had a “Vilnius Sobering-up” moment, but also Washington and Berlin.