COMMENT: “Ukraine will never join Nato”. Five simple words we refused to say. Are we now about to double down on our mistake?

COMMENT: “Ukraine will never join Nato”. Five simple words we refused to say. Are we now about to double down on our mistake?
The West chose to call Putin's bluff, and he wasn’t bluffing. / WIKI
By Richard Chetwode in London March 14, 2022

It's easy now to claim Putin was always going to invade Ukraine and that unless the West stood up to him, this would simply be the first step in rebuilding the Soviet empire. But maybe it’s much simpler than that; maybe, having ignored his security concerns for so long, we (the West), chose to call his bluff, and he wasn’t bluffing. Maybe we are at least partly responsible for this mess.

Vladimir Putin will know that very rarely in history has the invader won… think Germany in WWI & WWII; North Korea invading South Korea; the Yom Kippur War; Russia (and later Nato) in Afghanistan; Israel in Lebanon; Iraq in Iran; Argentina in the Falklands; Iraq in Kuwait; the UK and US in Iraq… to name but a few. In all cases the invader lost. If history clearly shows that the country which invades another country doesn’t win, then de facto, invading another country is an irrational act. So why did he do it?

A simple message: Ukraine and Georgia can never be members of Nato

History may well say that President Putin was an authoritarian bully, a dictator, even a tyrant, but it will also record that he viewed Ukraine (and/or Georgia) joining Nato as a “Clear and Present Danger” to the security of Russia. For the last fifteen years, he has consistently warned that he will not tolerate either of them joining the Alliance and will never countenance a situation where US missiles and US troops could be based in either country. It may seem an odd question, but through his words and actions, how much clearer could he have been?

2008: Nato states that Ukraine and Georgia will join Nato

Let’s go back to 2008 when on the eve of the Nato summit in Bucharest in April, President Bush publicly stated "we support [a Nato] MAP for Ukraine and Georgia” – MAP, or the Membership Action Plan, is the final stage on the road to full membership of the Alliance. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin immediately warned… "Ukraine's accession to Nato would cause a deep crisis in Russian-Ukrainian relations that would affect all European security. Therefore, the West must also make a choice as to what kind of relationship with Russia is in its interests”. Sergei Ryabkov (head of the Foreign Ministry's department for European co-operation) let rip with both barrels… "we are in a situation where a very serious, powerful and modern machine is moving closer and closer to those areas that we simply cannot help but consider a sphere of our own serious interests”.

Europe forces Nato to compromise

The message could not have been clearer, and someone must have been listening because despite heavy lobbying by President George Bush, and despite Nato stating that both countries “will” become members, some European Nato members declined to agree a date of either country’s accession. French Prime Minister Francois Fillon made it clear that France was "opposed to the entry of Georgia and Ukraine because we think that it is not a good answer to the balance of power within Europe and between Europe and Russia. " German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier was completely in agreement and warned that Nato must respect certain "limits" in its dealings with Russia. In case anyone hadn’t got the right message, President Putin, already furious with Nato’s support for Bush’s controversial anti-missile system, made it very clear how he felt… “Georgia and Ukraine becoming part of Nato is a direct threat to Russia”.

Georgia ignores the message and taunts Russia… and gets squashed

That didn’t work. Georgia interpreted the supportive words and her new friendship with the West and Nato as a sign that she no longer had to worry about her once-powerful Russian neighbour. Georgian President Saakashvili immediately sent troops into the now Russian-backed self-proclaimed independent Republic of South Ossetia, which sits on the Russian border and was really part of Georgia in name only (all its citizens had been offered Russian passports – sound familiar?). Russian President Medvedev reacted instantly, ordering in the Russian military, which smashed the Georgia forces, but although in the perfect position to, held back from conquering the entire country. Nato didn’t come to her aid and Georgia lost control of both South Ossetia and another separatist region, Abkhazia (also on the Russian border). Following the implementation of a peace brokered by French President Sarkozy, President Medvedev signed an order recognising the independence of the two republics (once again – sound familiar?).

The basis for Russian foreign policy: The Medvedev Doctrine

Afterwards, President Medvedev explained the five principles which guided his Russian foreign policy (later known as the Medvedev Doctrine); including that the domination of the world by any single power, even the United States, created instability and conflict; that Russia, as a matter of the highest priority, would protect the rights of its citizens, wherever they might be, and lastly, but by no means least, “As is the case of other countries, there are regions in which Russia has privileged interests”. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to see the names Ukraine and Georgia hung up in lights.

The Ukraine Crisis of 2014: Russia annexes Crimea

The causes of the current Ukrainian crisis really originated with trade talks (association level, not full) between the EU and Ukraine in November 2013. Those talks foundered when Russia intervened and said it was unacceptable for Russia to be excluded but suggested that of course a deal which involved the EU… and the IMF and Russia, was a different matter. Indeed, Putin then offered Ukraine exceptional terms (ignoring the inherent corruption in Ukraine which so worried the EU) and the pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych turned down the EU-only deal… and the protests began, the Government overreacted, fascists elements got involved, President Yanukovich flees and a pro-western Government takes power (what America hailed as a democratic change, Putin saw as pro-America regime change – a US-backed coup). Parliament repealed the minority (Russian) language laws and the rest, as they say is history. Russia annexed the Crimea and supported separatists in Russian-speaking Donetsk and Luhansk.

It’s not difficult to interpret the two messages; “Crimea will never become a Nato base”… And “if you, the West aren’t going to back off in Ukraine, I will wreck it so it’s no use to you and you can’t use it against me. That is how important it is to me not to have you on my border.” (my italics… my words).

Some people thought that was impressive in 2016 a certain Donald Trump tweeted “You look at what he’s doing. And so smart. When you see the riots in a country because they’re hurting the Russians, okay, ‘We’ll go and take it over.’ And he really goes step by step by step, and you have to give him a lot of credit."

Russia continues to warn the West: Ukraine and Georgia cannot join Nato

On the tenth anniversary of the Georgian war, the former Russian President (and now Prime Minister) Medvedev repeated the warning: should the West make the mistake of offering Nato membership to Georgia, it would be “absolutely irresponsible" and a "threat to peace"… it would trigger a “horrible” conflict.

And what has been the response of the West? To ignore Russia’s increasingly stringent warnings as we reached the end of last year. The West was willing to talk about anything, except what Russia wanted to talk about. For those of you who want to paint this invasion as an attempt to rebuild the Soviet Empire, I cannot find any evidence that Vladimir Putin has ever threatened to re-absorb the Baltic countries or to claim any of their territories. Maybe it’s worth remembering Putin’s own words… “Anyone who doesn’t regret the passing of the Soviet Union has no heart. Anyone who wants it restored has no brains.”

We (the West) drew a line in the sand. Ukraine must have the right to join Nato as a matter of principle

There is a simple rule in life; if you can’t see the problem, you have no chance of finding a solution, which is why it’s so important to look at our own culpability. We (the West) were willing to put Ukraine’s very existence in mortal danger to protect their right to join Nato. Really? To quote the words of the British Prime Minister, “The sovereign right of the Ukrainian people to join Nato cannot be traded away”. Of course, it can. Unfortunately, we will now never know if the five simple words “Ukraine will never join Nato”, could have stopped this war from ever starting in the first place. Five simple words which could have changed everything. Or let’s put that question another way: if you ask any Ukrainian today whether they would prefer to return to the status quo in early February but with a guarantee they would remain non-aligned, I suspect most would say yes.

The hypocrisy of America (and the rest of us)

America is possibly as guilty as anyone. Back in 1959, Nato placed missiles in Turkey, and in 1962, the Soviet Union, perceiving American weakness as well as fearing that her ally Cuba would be invaded (again), placed missiles in Cuba. America was willing to go to war to remove those missiles (The Cuban Missile Crisis). How many times over the last fifty years has the United States interfered politically, militarily or covertly in countries in Central and South America because it is in its area of influence? It’s called the Monroe Doctrine, which says in effect that any political intervention in the Americas by a foreign power could be seen as a hostile act against the United States. Indeed, Trump quoted the Monroe doctrine in the United Nations in 2019 as a veiled warning to China and Russia not to get involved in Venezuela, Cuba or Nicaragua. Why is it okay for the US to protect its core strategic interests, but not for Russia to protect hers (and let’s not get into a discussion about America and Britain invading Iraq!)? It doesn’t make Russia right, on the contrary, but it doesn’t make us right either.

Western arrogance paid for with Ukrainian blood

The people of Ukraine have an irrefutable right to live in a free country, but given the obvious Realpolitik, since when should they be allowed to join Nato? Put simply: they shouldn’t. Can democratic Taiwan apply for (or are we going to offer it) membership of a military alliance like Nato? Of course, not – China would see it as an act of war and probably invade the next day. Ukraine could have chosen to be non-aligned, like 120 other countries around the world, or even neutral, like Ireland and Finland. But it was we in the West who shouted loudest that Ukraine must be free to decide on Nato membership and it is the people of Ukraine who are now paying the price – we are not actually sacrificing anything.

The western democracies warned Putin that if he invaded, he would be hit with a wall of sanctions – entirely sensible. The sanctions that have been implemented – can’t fault them. Initially sending planes filled with lethal defensive (has anyone checked that the Russians agree with this designation?) armaments to the Ukrainian people to deter that invasion – laudable. But knowing we would never send our own troops or planes, to have let this war happen merely on the principle that it was Ukraine’s right to join Nato wasn’t courageous, or brave; it was a miscalculation caused by arrogance. Where were the pragmatic politicians who could have made a difference, because the one thing the West refused to contemplate was compromise? Maybe our leaders should remember the words of US General Normal Schwartzkopf: “It doesn’t take a hero to order men into battle. It takes a hero to be one of those men who goes into battle”.

As for Russia, to borrow the words of French Statesman Charles Maurice de Talleyrand “C'est pire qu'un crime; c'est une faute (It's worse than a crime; it's a mistake). This is an utter disaster, and it will just get worse. Putin, with the losses he is taking in Ukraine and the destructive impact of sanctions at home, can’t afford to negotiate until he has achieved some sort of victory; Ukraine, which has paid such a high price itself, won’t negotiate unless Russia is evicted. Neither will likely get their victory, but both can still lose. What happens when desperate men realise they have failed and those desperate men have control of atomic weapons? Peace is about compromise, not least because total victory doesn’t exist in a nuclear world. As to sending Polish jets to Ukraine or setting up a no-fly zone, wake up and smell the coffee; remember Putin’s recent words “To anyone who would consider interfering from the outside – if you do, you will face consequences greater than any you have faced in history”, and he has proved he means what he says.

Are we trying to find a peaceful solution or is the West now using this war to achieve regime change in Moscow?

French President Macron or China are amongst the few who could help win a negotiated peace. Any peace will likely involve Ukraine not joining Nato and leaving Russia with a southern corridor to the Crimea; Russia to immediately evacuate the rest of the country and pay reparations; and Russia would probably jump at the chance to stop this war.

You aren’t going to get war trials – no US or UK politician was ever held accountable for the war, deaths and torture in Iraq, neither was Assad ever held to account in Syria, etc; it doesn’t work that way. The bigger fear now is that seeing the Russian army taking huge losses, that rather than pursuing peace, the West wants to humiliate Putin and economically destroy Russia to enact Regime Change in Moscow. Regime Change is something we have a particularly bad record in. If you don’t accept that Putin has to be part of the solution, then you don’t have a solution. Corner a tiger and it will strike out.

Was not saying those five words really worth this price?

The war may send the global economy into recession, rising prices hurting everyone, not least the rising price of wheat (one of the major causes of the Arab Spring). Was the West’s insistence that Ukraine must have the right to Nato membership really worth the price?

Richard Chetwode is Chairman of Namibian Diamond Mining Company Trustco Resources, Chairman of the Advisory Board of Australian technology company and a non-executive director of property company Roystonea Ltd, as well as consulting to several diamond (and other) businesses. He has worked extensively in Russia. All the opinions in this article are his own.