Robert E. Hunter served as US Ambassador to NATO and as chief White House official for Europe and the Middle East. He was Senior International Consultant to Lockheed-Martin from 1998 - 2013. He has written speeches for three US presidents and three vice presidents and provides coaching in strategic planning, political and executive communications and media handling.
At its summit meeting in Madrid last month, NATO faced one overriding demand: to show Russian President Vladimir Putin that the alliance will provide Ukraine support sufficient to halt Russian aggression. It failed to do so. Putin is now assured that he will get away with the first serious assault on European security since the end of the Cold War, even if he gets less in Ukraine than he intended.
As Hamlet would say of the Madrid summit: “words, words, words.” NATO had aplenty, but it was short on deeds. The allies, led by the United States, will continue to provide Ukraine with effective weapons only in increments – just enough to enable Ukrainian forces to contain further major advances by Russia, but not enough to push it back. Meanwhile, the war of attrition will continue, but all on Ukrainian territory and with all civilian casualties being Ukrainians. Allied distance-taking is underscored by statements that only Ukraine can make decisions about negotiations.
This is an extension of recent actions by the United States and key allies: to exert pressure on Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to be willing to negotiate with Putin for goals well short of reclaiming all territories that Russia has occupied since February 24th.
“Words” at the summit included Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s, that the allies “…want to give them [the Ukrainians] the means to repel the Russians, to expel the Russians from the territory that they have occupied…” But neither Britain nor any other ally is willing to provide the needed means. By the summit’s end, Putin could judge that NATO will tolerate his continuing West-challenging aggression; he even brushed aside the suggestion that Russia could be discommoded by Finland’s and Sweden’s joining NATO.
The NATO summit also revealed, more in the corridors than in the open, that commitments to maintaining sanctions against Russia are wearing thin. With inflation spiking, the sanctions are having a major domestic political impact in all allied states. They were always a weak reed. Sanctions almost never work, certainly not against a state with national security objectives at stake. This was demonstrated in 2014 when sanctions were imposed on Russia following its seizure of Crimea and attacks on the Donbas. They had no effect on Moscow. Even if sanctions on Russia affected Putin’s thinking, it would not happen in time to help Ukraine. Sanctions are also having a greater blowback on the West and elsewhere than impact on Russia and certainly on Putin.
At the summit, the allies also failed to learn from experience. A quarter century ago, the 1997 NATO summit in Madrid had hopes of implementing George H.W. Bush’s grand strategy of a “Europe whole and free.” Bill Clinton followed through, with a far-reaching NATO-Russia Founding Act and a NATO-Ukraine Charter. The latter reflected everyone’s understanding that Ukraine could not become a NATO member: Sitting on the classical high road for invasions between Russia and the West, Moscow could never accept its being in NATO.
The critical error came at NATO’s 2008 Bucharest summit. At US insistence, the alliance declared that Ukraine and Georgia “will become members” of the alliance. This was the actual moment of commitment and was, regarding Ukraine, far beyond the pale for any Russian government. But the alliance repeated it, year after year. By reference, it was included in the 2022 Strategic Concept, along with renewed commitment that the door to NATO membership remains open. Yet NATO takes such decisions by consensus, and many allies have for years said they will never give Ukraine the alliance’s fundamental Article 5 commitment against aggression.
At the Madrid summit, NATO did decide on a major bolstering of its military defenses in Europe. But they do not deal with the immediate requirement for European security: to provide Ukraine immediately with enough armaments of the right kind. The alliance needs to show Putin that he has exceeded his capabilities and ambitions, that to salvage anything he must negotiate, and that he must accommodate to a Ukraine that is sovereign and independent, even if some parts of the country are not under Kyiv’s effective control. If not, then NATO will have shown it is not willing to confront the most important challenge in its history – stopping open aggression in Europe. No matter how much it beefs up its military deployments, its credibility and, more important, that of the United States, will ineluctably suffer. There is no third alternative.