With its aggression against Ukraine, Russia achieved in just a few months what Vadim Grechaninov has been trying to do for a decade. His mission as President of the Atlantic Council of Ukraine, a lobbying organization based in Kiev, has been to convince his country’s leaders, citizens and military officers that joining NATO is Ukraine’s only path to security. He never had much success. According to a Pew Research poll taken in 2009, a majority of Ukrainians—51%—opposed NATO membership, while only 28% supported it.
That dynamic is now being reversed. The most recent nationwide survey taken in July suggested that, for the first time in their post-Soviet history, a plurality of Ukrainians—44%—would favor joining the alliance that Russia sees as a strategic threat. When the Rating Group, a Ukrainian pollster, conducted the same survey in 2012, they found only 19% of respondents in favor of NATO accession. Ukraine’s new government has likewise embraced the idea, proposing a law last week that would clear the way for NATO membership. But Grechaninov, a retired major general of the Soviet army, is no more optimistic about his country joining the alliance today than he was five years ago, especially after watching the news that came out of the NATO leaders’ summit on Thursday. “They are still bending to Moscow’s demands,” he says of the alliance.
Those demands have been very explicit. The day President Vladimir Putin annexed the Crimean peninsula in March, he warned NATO not to “make itself at home in our backyard or in our historical territory.” As if that wasn’t clear enough, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov drove home the point on Thursday as the NATO summit commenced in Wales. Any attempt to draw Ukraine into the alliance, Lavrov said, would scuttle the fragile peace talks between the Ukrainian government and the separatist rebels whom Moscow has armed and supported since April. “The U.S. wants NATO to win,” Lavrov said in Moscow. “[It wants] a situation where America dictates its will to the whole world.” These ambitions, he added, “will lead to no good.”
A far more alarming message came on the eve of the summit from the Russian military. Yuri Yakubov, an influential general of the Russian army, told the Interfax news agency on Wednesday that Russia would be amending its official military doctrine this year in light of “the approach of U.S. and NATO bases right up to our borders.” He said the revisions would identify the alliance as a “likely opponent” in a future conflict, and it would make some dramatic amendments to Russia’s nuclear strategy. “It is necessary to set out the conditions in which Russia could launch a preventative strike with Russia’s strategic nuclear forces,” he said. In its current form, the doctrine only envisions using nuclear weapons in response to a strike against Russia. It does not mention the possibility of a “preventative” nuclear attack.
This kind of rhetoric was, perhaps thankfully, nowhere to be found during the first day of the NATO summit. Putin’s recent reminder that Russia is “one of the strongest nuclear powers” did not come up in any of the public comments, and neither did the warning from General Yakubov about a preventative strike. The most concrete step NATO announced in response to Russia’s aggression in Ukraine was the creation of a “very high readiness” force of several thousand troops that could be deployed near Russia’s borders in the course of about two days. (It took Russian forces no more than a day in late February to sweep into the capital of Crimea and help install a loyal government to prepare the annexation.)
The new rapid reaction force was meant to calm NATO members in Eastern Europe—namely Poland and the Baltic states—though it did not measure up to their demands. What the eastern allies wanted were permanent military bases to be built closer to Russia’s territory. But their allies in Western Europe, particularly Germany, shot down those requests, as they would break a pact that NATO made with Russia in 1997 not to station “permanent combat forces” near Russia’s borders. (It did not seem to matter that, with the conquest of Crimea, Russia broke the pledge it made to the U.S. and U.K. in 1994 never to violate Ukraine’s sovereignty.) Asked at a press conference on Monday whether NATO’s new force would be permanent, its Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said, “Actually very few things in life are permanent.” He added: “The bottom line is you will see more visible NATO presence in the East.”
There were, however, some more encouraging signs than that of NATO unity and assertiveness. The day before the summit, France agreed to halt the scheduled delivery next month of an aircraft carrier to Russia, saying that the conditions were “not right.” It took months of pressure from the U.S. and other allies for the French to stop the weapons transfer, though it is not clear whether France will go ahead with the sale of another warship to Russia next year.
In showing support for Ukraine, the allies also tried to make President Petro Poroshenko feel like the summit’s guest of honor. The leaders of NATO’s five most powerful members—the U.S., U.K., Germany, France and Italy—met with Poroshenko to discuss his country’s conflict with Russia, and they collectively pledged to create several “trust funds” worth about $16 million—a largely symbolic sum—to help modernize the Ukrainian military. But they stopped short of promising to provide Ukraine with any weapons, and they made no commitments to let Ukraine join the alliance at any point in the future.
Speaking by phone from Kiev, Grechaninov says he is disappointed, but not surprised. If Ukraine were to join NATO, every one of its members would be treaty-bound to defend Ukraine’s in case of a foreign attack, and none of the allies have been willing to risk that kind of confrontation with nuclear-armed Russia. Grechaninov understands these fears, but he warns that the alliance is only delaying the inevitable. “Putin can only be stopped by a force greater than his,” he says. “We waited for this force from NATO, and they have it. They can stop Putin. But right now they don’t consider it,” he says, pausing to find the right word. “They don’t consider it expedient.”
NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen calls on Russia to pull back from the Crimea during a speech at the NATO Summit in Wales on Sept.4, 2014.