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Vilnius Summit: yet again the triumph of a “grey zone”

The inability of some NATO Allies in the West to not see the bigger picture in Ukraine is costing lives every day. While states in the region continue to raise the alarm, many of their partners are still frozen with indecision.

July 21, 2023 - Dzmitry Pravatorau - Articles and Commentary

NATO summit decorations for the 2023 summit in July 2023 in Vilnius. Photo Vetre / Shutterstock

The 2023 NATO summit in Vilnius, predictably, has not delivered any meaningful outcomes for Ukraine’s membership aspirations. The communiqué, issued on Tuesday July 11th, vaguely mentioned that the country will be invited to join the Alliance “when Allies agree and conditions are met”. The atmosphere of ever-increasing disagreement on Ukraine’s membership between Allies from the West and East has been aptly commented on by former Lithuanian state leaders and diplomats. For example, former President Dalia Grybauskaitė stated that “they laughed at us, then said we were right, and now are not listening again.” At the same time, while the politician Žygimantas Pavilionis declared that the actions of some Allies amounted to “appeasement that normally leads to final defeat”, the former Foreign Minister Petras Vaitiekūnas stated that the West is “encouraging the Kremlin to continue the war”.

At the summit, Russia was yet again granted an effective veto on Ukraine’s accession. This sent a signal of western weakness to Putin, who got the green light to further torment the nation. The exceptional circumstances that Ukraine and Europe currently exist in are not well understood in the West. The fact that the conflict is existential and is aimed at the genocidal elimination of Ukraine as a state and nation, is rarely mentioned by the leaders of “old Europe” and the US. Together with Germany, Washington continues to stick to the pragmatic position of “non-escalation”. This outlook is shared with “realist” analysts, who believe that the war has been provoked by the West and its promises of NATO membership to Ukraine. The country, according to realists, has to stay “neutral” and remain a buffer zone between the West and Russia.

Surprisingly, this group reacts to the discursive noise surrounding Ukraine’s potential NATO accession more than it scrutinises the evidence, as true empiricists would usually do. If one looks at the hard facts rather than paying attention to the vague formulations and procedural appeals to “values” and “support” voiced by western politicians since 2014, it is clear how the West has in fact contributed to the creation of a de-facto buffer or “grey” zone in Ukraine. This started to take shape as early as 2008, when France and Germany blocked Ukraine and Georgia’s road to NATO. As many commentators have noted, this would eventually lead to the invasion of both countries. The annexation of Crimea was broadly accepted as a fait accompli, with mainly symbolic sanctions coexisting alongside the business-as-usual relations with Russia. Baltic and Polish concerns about the Russian threat were openly dismissed until the full-scale invasion, when even the established neutral states of Finland and Sweden suddenly decided to join NATO. Ironically, during the Cold War these two countries actively flirted with the Soviets, and Sweden even recognised the occupation of the Baltic states.

The condition of a grey zone has also been sustained by Ukraine’s inability to restore its internationally recognised borders. Despite the discourse of firm support in the West, military assistance after the full-scale invasion has been dispensed in homeopathic doses. Whether this represents actual western capacities, intentional misinformation aimed at Russia, or a plan to not let Russia be defeated, is extremely unclear judging by the communications of Ukraine’s partners. In this context, comments in the West about the slow progress of Ukraine’s counteroffensive in the absence of fighter jets, or remarks that the western governments are “not Amazon”, sound especially cynical.

Heavily relying on the West as its economic and military lifeline, the fighting nation of Ukraine continues to be vulnerable to potential deals struck with Russia behind its back. It is also vulnerable to pressure from partners aimed at the acceptance of Russian demands. Any security commitments from the G7 states without clear binding responsibilities are just another reiteration of the notorious Budapest Memorandum, which benefitted everyone except Ukraine. It must also be remembered that far-right Russia-friendly governments may win future elections in Europe, alongside the possible return of Trump in the US. This will render the conflict chronic and hardly ever extinguishable, making Ukraine a grey zone for an indefinite period.

Time is clearly on Russia’s side. In the words of another Lithuanian statesman, “the West will finally understand what Russia is, but the hard way.” Yet again, it will be Ukraine that will suffer the most.

Dzmitry Pravatorau is a researcher in Baltic and post-Soviet studies and a contributor to New Eastern Europe, the Journal of Baltic Studies and Baltic Worlds.

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