Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy must be very angry after the Nato decision yesterday to leave him in limbo. There was no concrete promise of Nato membership beyond “Ukraine’s place is in Nato”, and no timetable at all. Nato Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said that Ukraine was offered a “strong package” that “brought Ukraine closer to Nato” but that is little consolation, as Nato is a binary deal: either you are in and enjoy Article 5 protection or you are not. Ukraine is not.
That is not to say Ukraine got nothing. There was a slew of new arms and money commitments from individual countries and a new Western-backed $500mn a year military support facility. But this is all aid to prevent Ukraine losing the war against Russia. They are not long-term political solutions to Ukraine’s main economic and security problems in the way that membership in the EU and of Nato are.
Ukraine has been left in limbo. As bne IntelliNews argued in an op-ed the geography of diplomacy, Ukraine now finds itself in a very difficult position; it is cut off from the Russian markets and investment money, previously both very important, but has not integrated into the EU markets and has little prospect of joining the EU for years, if not decades. (Ask Turkey.)
The same is true with security. Relations with Russia decayed to the point Ukraine is at war with Russia. But again, it is not integrated with the rest of Europe’s security apparatus, and currently has no timetable for joining Nato. Yesterday’s Nato declaration added nothing to the vague “eventually” that was in the Bucharest memorandum in 2008.
Nato’s failure to move forward on Ukraine’s succession was a defeat for Zelenskiy and a victory for Putin. Bankova’s biggest fear is of losing the support of the West on which it is totally reliant. If this war starts to look “unwinnable” by military means, then the pressure for an end will grow rapidly. With the vaunted counter-offensive producing less than spectacular successes that is already starting to look like the case, although Ukraine has yet to commit its main force to the fight, so that still might change.
How did Ukraine end up here, stuck between a rock and hard place? Joining Nato was never on the cards at the summit. The Bucharest memo’s offer was included at the insistence of the US, but over the objections of German and France, both of which understood that it was a dangerous red line for the Kremlin. The compromise with the White House was to make the offer as vague as possible, but I guess that former German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French president Francois Hollande both now regret even conceding that much, as there is a very strong argument to be made that it touched off the fuse that led to the current confrontation.
There was a window of opportunity to join Nato in the late 1990s and early noughties, but Ukraine was under the control of Leonid Kuchma then, a corrupt Soviet-era apparatchik who was close to Moscow, and no one was interested in Ukraine in those days. Besides, the population still regarded Nato with suspicion. Later even under the pro-Europe “Orange” government after the first revolution, then Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko studiously avoided the Nato topic, as it was a political hot potato.
Ukraine’s trade limbo is a result of the tug-of-war that broke out between the EU and Russia, when the Kremlin was trying to set up the Customs Union that eventually became the Eurasian Economic Union (EUU). Under the Orange government a trade deal was worked out in detail, but then never implemented for years. It was only when Russia began to aggressively push for Ukraine to join the Customs Union that this deal was taken out of the draw, dusted off and rapidly implemented. The problem was while the Kremlin said it had no problem with Ukraine joining the EU – “business is business” – it wanted Ukraine’s talks with the EU to be three-way, as Russia had large and open borders with Ukraine. Brussels refused. So Russia closed the border. The Association Agreement went through, and in principle the EU is a much bigger and better market than Russia, but the duty-free quotas in the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Areas (DCFTA) that was the final trade deal are so small that the western border is also in effect closed to Ukraine.
Now Ukraine is stuck in the worst of both worlds and tensions are so inflamed that there is no obvious way out.
Being in limbo is not actually a problem. You don’t have to choose one camp or the other if you play your cards right. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan finds himself in a very similar position. Turkey has been waiting to join the EU since 1987 (and will never manage it) but has excellent trade relations with the EU that have been built up bilaterally over decades.
Turkey was lucky to join Nato in 1952 in the post-WWII period, but it remains a prickly member and just held Sweden, the US and Canada to ransom over Sweden’s accession bid. They had to concede a crackdown on Kurds in Sweden, the sale of F-16s to Turkey by the US and the lifting of arms sanctions on Turkey by Canada. Moreover, Erdogan remains very chummy with Russian President Vladimir Putin, which is now officially Nato’s “main threat”, according to yesterday’s Nato communique.
Central Asia and the Caucasus is in a similar position. Georgia in particularly would like to join the EU but won’t. And Nato membership is not really on the cards in any of those countries either. As for trade, some of them are members of the EEU, and trade with Russia is flourishing with all of them. But thanks to pressure from Washington and opportunities with China, all of these countries are maintaining a neutral stance, keeping some distance from all their partners and pursuing “multi-vector” foreign policies.
That’s what Ukraine was getting ready for too pre-Maidan. The constitution said Ukraine was neutral and it was trying to trade with everyone. Following Maidan, former President Petro Poroshenko changed the constitution to make Nato membership a national ambition and rubbed relations with Russia raw as the animosity between the two got worse.
Of course, Russia was far from innocent in this process, aggressively first trying to buy pre-Maidan President Viktor Yanukovych off with a $15bn loan offer and then putting pressure on Kyiv during its EU trade talks. A string of misfortunes, mistakes and Russian malfeasance have brought us to where we are now.
You have to feel sorry for Zelenskiy as he tries to find a way out of the cul-de-sac. But there is no obvious path that doesn’t include a ceasefire with Russia, conceding territory, or facing an endless unresolved frozen conflict on large parts of his devastated territory. These are options he must be considering now Ukraine’s friends in the West have made it clear they will not ride to his rescue.