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A Sobering Message on Ukraine From a NATO Head of State

5 minute read

Few if any world leaders understand the NATO alliance as deeply as Czech President Petr Pavel. A retired army general and veteran of military intelligence, he served as one of NATO’s top officials before winning his nation's highest office last year. His voice within the alliance has been among the boldest when it comes to helping Ukraine, defeating Russia, and building Europe’s military strength. So his message sounds particularly sobering ahead of this week’s NATO summit: Curb your expectations for the war in Ukraine.

“Obviously, the ultimate goal is a full restoration of the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine, including Crimea,” Pavel tells TIME in an exclusive interview before the gathering of NATO leaders, which U.S. President Joe Biden will host in Washington on July 9-11. “But we all understand that it's not an easy task. It will not happen in the foreseeable future.” 

He used a historical analogy to explain where the front lines in Ukraine will likely remain in the years to come, comparing them to the disputed borders that divided Europe during the Cold War. For decades, the Soviet Union remained in control of lands it had occupied in World War II—including the Baltic States and East Germany. The West continued to denounce these occupations and pressured the Kremlin to end them. Still, the status quo persisted, and Moscow remained in control of these countries until the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.

President Pavel painted a similar scenario as the one to expect for the occupied regions of southern and eastern Ukraine. “We should never accept that these territories are part of Russia,” he said. “We should always call them temporarily occupied territories.” But that does not mean Ukraine or its supporters within NATO will be able to end that occupation any time soon: "Achieving a return of full sovereignty and territorial integrity is not a goal for the short term."

The alliance’s response to the war has made that clear to Pavel in the past two years. Even as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky pleaded for weapons to stave off the Russian advance, the West failed to provide them quickly enough. The U.S. and Europe could not produce nearly enough artillery shells to keep pace with Russia’s military industry. In response, President Pavel announced a plan in February to buy the Soviet-era weapons Ukraine needed. He and his government conducted the deals discreetly, as most of the sellers did not want to antagonize Russia by arming Ukraine. “This initiative started with our understanding that we cannot provide Ukraine from our resources,” he says.

The goal was to track down a million shells from arms dealers around the world, and several NATO members chipped in money to pay for them. The first shipment arrived last month, demonstrating what the alliance can achieve if it shows “determination and flexibility,” Pavel says. 

Still, the extra ammo will not change the overall dynamics of the war. The fighting in southern and eastern Ukraine has been at a virtual stalemate since last fall, with neither side able to seize large tracts of territory. In the coming months, Ukraine intends to organize a peace summit, where the Russians will be invited to begin discussing a settlement. The rhetoric coming from both sides does not suggest much space for compromise. Vladimir Putin issued an ultimatum last month, demanding that Ukraine hand over a fifth of its territory while abandoning its plans to join NATO. Zelensky, for his part, has refused to trade away land for peace, insisting that Russia must withdraw its troops from all occupied territories.

Once the talks get underway, Pavel expects both sides to continue pushing for advantage on the battlefield. Both of them appear to be running out of time. The Russians, he says, have succeeded in putting their economy on a war footing. “But there are also some limits,” he says of the Russian forces. “They will run out of all the reserves within the latest a year. And that will bring them to an extremely difficult situation.”

By scaling up support for Ukraine this summer and fall, the U.S. and its European allies can give Zelensky a chance to negotiate with Putin from a position of strength. But that would require unity and resolve within NATO, and Pavel has observed a shortage of both. Some allies, he says, continue to insist that Russia’s security concerns should form the basis of negotiations. Others have resisted calls to continue arming Ukraine for victory in this war. As a result, Pavel says, the Russians “have no pressure whatsoever to sit at the table right now.”

The gathering of NATO leaders this week will provide another opportunity to change that. But here, too, Pavel does not expect a major breakthrough. "Ukraine will not be invited to become a member in Washington,” he says. “That’s understood by all. But the Ukrainians will be assured that the process is irreversible: there is a clear path to membership.” 

Completing that path is likely to take years, if it happens. In the meantime, Ukraine plans to reach security deals with as many NATO members as possible, hoping to commit them to assisting Ukraine over the long term. These agreements, Pavel says, cannot serve as an alternative to Article Five of NATO’s founding treaty, which commits all members to defend each other in case of an attack. “We cannot and don’t want to provide any substitution to Article Five or to NATO,” he says. At best these bilateral deals with Ukraine will serve as pledges of support. “Ukraine will be in a position to assess what they can count on, and from whom.”

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