Should NATO sacrifice Ukraine?
Russia has gathered a significant number of combat troops along the Ukrainian border. More than 120 thousand Russian soldiers deployed along the border allow NATO and its allies to speak loudly about a possible Russian attack. What happened in 2014 can be repeated nowadays. There is no doubt Russia plays a game with the West. However, the question remains, what does Russia want?
According to pro-Russian-oriented rhetoric, the Russian Federation wants to fulfil eastern Ukraine inhabitants’ “dream” – to become a part of Russia, arguing they speak like Russians, think like Russians, and feel like Russians. Since 2014, Russia has been involved in an ongoing conflict with Ukraine. Kremlin spreads the narrative that Ukraine does not want to respect the voice of people from Donetsk and Luhansk People’s republics. Moreover, according to Russia, Ukraine is massively supported by the West, which has constantly been endangering the sovereignty of Russia.
However, the reality seems to be slightly different. In 2014, Putin’s puppet president Viktor Yanukovich was overthrown in Ukraine and left (flew) to Russia. Putin lost an ally of significant importance. Ukraine turned its sight westwards – to become the EU and NATO member state. Putin could not allow such a scenario. Ukraine as a member of the EU and NATO would present something that would endanger Putin’s position in Russia. Therefore, the annexation of Crimea and subsequent conflict on the eastern Ukrainian border was an aggressive but foreseeable result of the events in Ukraine.
It would be naive to expect that Putin sent his troops to “liberate” Donetsk and Luhansk and make them parts of Russia. Both separatist republics are not parts of the Russian federation even seven years after the conflict has started. The economic situation in the territories mentioned above is severe. Separatist voices are not as strong and loud as they used to be. The conflict, lasting for more than seven years, aims to keep Ukraine in a deadlock. Previous and current actions prove that Russia seeks to prevent Ukraine from joining the Euro-Atlantic structures. It is more than clear that Putin does not want Ukraine to fly out of Russian orbit. The current deployment of the Russian army in the region could be highly impacted by the talks concerning Ukraine as a non-member NATO ally.
Russian army’s presence on the Ukrainian border might intensify the conflict in Eastern Ukraine. Moreover, conditions presented by Russia to NATO can be barely fulfilled. The whole situation appears to be in a stalemate. It is difficult to imagine NATO accepting the conditions presented by Putin. NATO’s future decision not to expand would be a security suicide. Also, it is hard to believe European members of NATO would agree on that. Such an action would also send a negative signal toward current and future NATO allies. Countries slowly directing their foreign and domestic politics toward the EU and NATO would find themselves in a situation where no motivation to work toward western structures exists. Moreover, it would provide Russia with a tactical advantage of achieving its goals by using the army to put NATO under pressure whenever it is convenient for Putin again and again.
On the other hand, voices appeared calling for NATO to halt its expansion eastwards. Such a scenario would make sense to avoid intensifying the conflict between Russia and Ukraine in the short term. However, to completely cease prospects of Ukraine being a NATO member (or a close ally) would provide Russia with a tremendous opportunity to expand its sphere of influence westwards. Ukraine in the Russian orbit would not satisfy the expanding Moscow’s desires. After the Russian “conquest” of Ukraine is finished, Russia will aspire to gain influence in central European countries; regardless they are NATO members. It is no secret Putin would like to get former Soviet Union satellites under Russian influence again.
It is essential to consider how “serious” Moscow’s threats and demands are. Russia possesses military capacities to invade Ukraine again. On the other hand, it is aware that the Ukrainian army has developed significantly since 2014. Russia has not been able to fully control the regions of Donbas and Luhansk since the invasion. Another invasion like the one in 2014 would be too costly for the Russian army. Ukrainians are ready to fight fiercely. Moreover, Russia has more than enough bloody experience with fighting against insurgents.
Therefore, providing Russia with the guarantee of not expanding NATO eastwards might seem like an acceptable short-term solution. But from the long-term perspective, it would be a significant setback for NATO, which should fight for its influence in Ukraine. Without supporting Ukraine, NATO would appear in an environment similar to the Cold War – Russian actions would challenge NATO member states to get them under the Russian sphere of influence.
Tomáš Iliev is security and Eastern partnership researcher.
Disclaimer: Views presented here are those of the author solely and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Strategic Analysis.