Unless the United States gives bolder leadership on long-term security for Ukraine at NATO’s Vilnius summit this week, historians may one day ask, “Who lost Ukraine?” And their shocking answer might be: President Joe Biden.
I say this after talking to a wide range of people in Kyiv last week, before departing Ukraine on Saturday, the 500th day of the largest war in Europe since 1945. There’s still the extraordinary fighting spirit that I found on my last visit, in February. But in five months, some people seem to have aged five years. They are exhausted. The casualties, military and civilian, continue to mount.
With other members of our European Council on Foreign Relations fact-finding mission, I witnessed prayers being chanted in Saint Michael’s monastery over the coffin of the Ukrainian writer Victoria Amelina. As she was visiting Kramatorsk to document Russian war crimes, she herself became the victim of a Russian war crime. While the Biden administration worries at every single step about escalation, Vladimir Putin has continued to escalate – notably with the blowing-up of the Kakhovka dam, which has ruined vast tracts of Ukrainian land. Ecocide complements genocide.
In a recent poll, 78 per cent of Ukrainians said close family members or friends had been wounded or killed since Russia’s full-scale invasion last year. The pain is partly masked by the adrenaline of resistance, but after the war, the country will face widespread trauma. A priest told us about a soldier who returned after some months at the front, but could not sleep. Back home, it was just too quiet.
Senior defence officials frankly acknowledged how slowly this summer’s counteroffensive was progressing, especially against Russia’s minefields and multiple lines of anti-tank defences in the south. The big combined arms push by Western-trained and equipped brigades is yet to come, but in this kind of warfare the advantage lies with entrenched defence. Crucially, Russia is stronger in the skies. Hence the constant Ukrainian insistence on the need for more air defence systems – and F-16 fighter jets.
In a survey this May, 87 per cent of Ukrainians said they were optimistic about their country’s future, but there’s an increasingly sober mood in private. We were told that as many as one in every five Ukrainian children is now outside the country. Tymofiy Mylovanov, the president of Kyiv School of Economics, shared with us its projection that on current trends the workforce would be reduced by as much as a third over the next few years. It’s a daunting challenge to produce the jobs, housing, and schools without which millions of Ukrainians will not return from abroad.
So when I say, “Who lost Ukraine?”, I don’t mean losing the war. I mean losing the peace: a country exhausted, ravaged, traumatised, still robbed of some of its territory, a land in limbo. For this is now Putin’s brutal, vengeful objective: if he can’t force Ukraine back into the Russian empire, he will try to ruin it.
Here’s where the buck comes back to the US. Its military support is essential for Ukraine to win the war. Long-term security is essential for Ukraine to win the peace. Without security, there will be little investment, fewer returnees, no successful reconstruction. And that ultimately means NATO membership for Ukraine is critical.
While US military and economic assistance to Ukraine has been massive and indispensable, Europe is now ahead of the US in its strategic stance towards the embattled country. The EU has done what NATO has not: unambiguously committed to Ukrainian membership. As elsewhere in central and eastern Europe since 1989, this is already having a transformative impact on the country’s politics and policies. For everyone in Ukraine now has this big shared goal of “joining Europe”. Non-governmental experts and activists told us they actually wanted tougher EU conditionality, to fight corruption, strengthen the rule of law, and improve governance. The EU’s four-year, €50 billion support package is framing a domestic agenda of reconstruction and reform.
Europeans are also ahead when it comes to calling for a strong statement from the Vilnius summit on Ukraine’s future NATO membership. And that’s not just the central and eastern Europeans. In what one Kyiv think-tanker called a “magic transformation” of the French position, President Emmanuel Macron has come out strongly in favour. Germany is more hesitant, but Kyiv’s biggest problem is now in Washington.
Ukrainians are realistic. They know they can’t join NATO while there’s a war on. They want what they call a “political invitation”, which would be implemented only when conditions are right. As a bridge to that moment, they seek security commitments from leading NATO powers such as the US, Britain, France, and Germany. These are sometimes called “security guarantees”, but as one expert explained, a more accurate description would be “security assistance guarantees”. Those powers would undertake to go on supplying the military means necessary for Ukraine to fight off the aggressor. This would be something like what the US does for Israel, but from multiple partners and with a clear path to eventual NATO membership.
At the time of writing, Biden is still not there. On Sunday, he told the CNN journalist Fareed Zakaria that Ukraine was not ready for NATO membership and that Israel-style security arrangements should be available “if there is a ceasefire, if there is a peace agreement”. He emphasised the word “if”. Cross-checking this with public and private statements by senior US officials, one detects a rather hard-nosed stance. NATO membership is to be deployed as a future reward for Ukraine negotiating the best peace it can get, probably accepting some significant loss of territory.
If this were to be the outcome of the Vilnius summit, there would be massive disappointment in Ukraine. (The morally dubious gift of American cluster bombs is no substitute for long-term security commitments, and only confuses the debate.) We already heard indications in Kyiv of growing anger against the West. Left to fight on alone for another 500 days, without a firm promise of future security, even the bravest of the brave would find it difficult to rebuild their battered, exhausted, traumatised country.
But if the West gives Ukraine the military means to win this war, adding a firm promise of future NATO membership when it’s over, then the US will end up with a Europe much more capable of defending itself against a weakened Russia. The US will then be able to devote more of its own resources to the geostrategic threat from China.
The final decision will only be taken this week, over the leaders’ table in Vilnius. Come on, Mr President, do the right, the bold, the truly strategic thing. History is watching you.
This article was first published in the Guardian on 11 July.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.