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The Ukraine Deception and the Geneva Summit
Tomorrow, Presidents Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin will meet at an 18th century Swiss villa overlooking Lake Geneva for their much-anticipated summit to try to dialog about the serious diplomatic problems that exist between the United States and Russia. Expectations are high, perhaps mistakenly so, yet unavoidably, given that it was in Geneva that President Ronald Reagan first met with Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet leader, in November 1985, setting off a series of summits that, in hindsight, can be seen as the beginning of the end of the Cold War, peacefully.
Nobody expects anything so grand to come out of Geneva this week, while the pessimists worry that the outcome may be more like what happened 60 years ago this month in Vienna, when the new American president, John F. Kennedy, met with Nikita Khrushchev, his brusque Soviet counterpart, and promptly got steamrollered. The Vienna summit was a diplomatic debacle that left the youthful neophyte JFK shellshocked. Worse, it gifted Khrushchev the impression that this new president could be pushed around. Just two months later, with Kremlin go-ahead, the East German Communist regime shut off East Berlin and started construction of the infamous Berlin Wall, resulting in a major Cold War crisis. Then, a year after, Khrushchev shipped Soviet nuclear missiles to Cuba, birthing a crisis which nearly resulted in atomic Armageddon.
There’s no reason to think anything quite so dramatic will emerge from tomorrow’s Geneva meeting. Joe Biden is far from a youthful neophyte like JFK: he’s a decade Putin’s senior and has been in Washington since 1973, counting eight years as vice president and 36 years in the Senate, including decades on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (twice serving as its chair). If any American president should be prepared to go toe-to-toe with the wily Chekist-in-Chief who’s run the Kremlin since 1999, it’s Biden.
But is he? Doubts have crept into discussions of the Geneva summit. Biden unquestionably is showing his age – he will turn 79 in a few months – and his recent comments about Putin being “a killer,” which enraged the Kremlin, have invited a response in person. Biden’s effort last week to walk that back by terming the Russian leader “a worthy adversary” seems unlikely to mollify Putin, who holds grudges and weaponizes them effectively. In the run-up to Geneva, Putin has been trolling Biden by mentioning the January 6 Capitol Hill riots in inflammatory terms.
No matter what happens in Geneva tomorrow, that the summit is taking place at all represents a win for Putin since he is being treated as an equal by Biden, a peer great power, which is something the Kremlin strongman craves. We easily forget that, in terms of population and GDP, Russia represents more or less Mexico with a few thousand nuclear weapons, but Putin knows this reality very well.
Moreover, Putin has reason to be pleased with the new American president already since Biden before the Geneva summit cancelled sanctions on Nord Stream 2, put in place by the Trump administration. Contrary to four years of Democratic hyperventilation about Russia and its allegedly existential threat to the West, the Biden administration with Nord Stream 2 gave Putin something which Donald Trump never dared attempt to concede to Moscow. The Kremlin sees this as a victory for Russia’s energy-based diplomacy in Europe, and rightly so, while Poland, the Baltics, and Ukraine view Biden’s gift to Moscow as a strategic defeat for their national security, also rightly so.
That last country is watching what happens in Geneva tomorrow with great interest. Ukraine, after all, is the single biggest reason why relations between Moscow and Washington are at their lowest point since the Communists ran the Kremlin. Putin’s seizure of Crimea in early 2014 and the resulting war in eastern Ukraine, which has never entirely faded out, permanently changed relations between the Kremlin and the West. Moscow still occupies Crimea and a considerable chunk of eastern Ukraine, in violation of international law, leaving Ukraine exposed to further Russian aggression, as demonstrated by periodic saber-rattling mobilizations on Ukraine’s frontier, most recently this spring.
Although the United States has no formal security agreement with Ukraine, the Pentagon has been arming and training Kyiv’s military since 2014, when it was on its heels under Russian pressure, including $2.5 billion in aid, and it continues to the present day, from Obama to Trump to Biden, with occasional political bumps. The Kremlin views Ukraine as a Western stalking-horse, and perhaps a puppet in the making, while Putin will not tolerate any further moves by Kyiv into the American-led security orbit. Above all, Moscow will not countenance Ukraine joining NATO, which is precisely what Kyiv wants.
This is presumably why Ukraine’s president, the TV star turned politician Volodymyr Zelensky, took to Twitter yesterday to get the jump on the Geneva summit to announce that, miraculously, NATO had suddenly agreed to admit his country to the North Atlantic Alliance. As he put it in slightly fractured English: “Commend NATO partners' understanding of all the risks and challenges we face. NATO leaders confirmed that Flag of Ukraine will become a member of the Alliance & the MAP is an integral part of the membership process. Flag of Ukraine deserves due appreciation of its role in ensuring Euro-Atlantic security.”
Twitter temporarily lost its mind over this supposed diplomatic bombshell, which got pushed by overexcited White House journalists who really should know better. Here Zelensky got the jump not just on Putin but on Biden too, who was about to conduct a news conference to wrap up the NATO summit that had just concluded in Brussels. Zelensky had unsubtly put Biden on notice already, telling the press earlier on Monday that he expected a clear “yes” or no” regarding Ukraine’s path into the North Atlantic Alliance.
Per the hoary admonition: Be careful what you wish for, you might get it. Regrettably for him, Zelensky’s tweet bore no resemblance to diplomatic reality. The NATO summit in Brussels made no progress on Ukraine’s accession to its ranks whatsoever. As its congenitally banal wrap-up communiqué put it: “We reiterate the decision made at the 2008 Bucharest Summit that Ukraine will become a member of the Alliance with the Membership Action Plan (MAP) as an integral part of the process; we reaffirm all elements of that decision, as well as subsequent decisions, including that each partner will be judged on its own merits. We stand firm in our support for Ukraine’s right to decide its own future and foreign policy course free from outside interference.”
Amid all the diplo-speak boilerplate about “wide-ranging, sustainable, and irreversible reforms, including combating corruption, promoting an inclusive political process, and decentralization reform, based on democratic values, respect for human rights, minorities, and the rule of law, will be crucial in laying the groundwork for a prosperous and peaceful Ukraine,” there exists the central fact that NATO is sticking to the same policy towards Ukraine (and Georgia too) it’s held since the Bucharest summit 13 years ago. As the Alliance pronounced in April 2008:
NATO welcomes Ukraine’s and Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations for membership in NATO. We agreed today that these countries will become members of NATO. Both nations have made valuable contributions to Alliance operations. We welcome the democratic reforms in Ukraine and Georgia and look forward to free and fair parliamentary elections in Georgia in May. MAP is the next step for Ukraine and Georgia on their direct way to membership.
It has been the policy of four American administrations in a row – Bush, Obama, Trump, now Biden – that Kyiv and Tbilisi will join NATO sometime between tomorrow afternoon and the end of geologic time. No date has ever been mentioned for the basic reason that nobody in Brussels or Washington is actually serious about Ukraine or Georgia joining the Alliance. Put more bluntly: They don’t mean it.
For the last decade and a half, I have dealt frequently with our security partners in Kyiv and Tbilisi and they, too, suspect the awful truth, that it’s all a charade. Yet they’re wise enough to usually keep those doubts to themselves. They notice that there’s lots of talk, endless meetings and conferences about furthering NATO expansion, mountains of diplomatic communications, “security cooperation” get-togethers to last a lifetime, but there’s never any substantial progress. Because there isn’t supposed to be. It pains me to say this, my friends in Ukraine and Georgia, but you’ve been had.
NATO wasn’t going to admit Kyiv and Tbilisi rapidly back in the spring of 2008, and they’re certainly not going to now, after all the ugly that’s happened over the last 13 years with Moscow. Putin will stop at nothing to keep Ukraine and Georgia out of NATO, which he views as an existential threat to Russia’s security. Hence his short, decisive war against Georgia in August 2008, which made permanent Moscow’s occupation of one-fifth of Georgia’s territory. Then came 2014, when Putin stole Crimea and then a good chunk of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions – that occupation, too, shows no signs of ending. Putin thuggishly did what he needed to do to keep Ukraine and Georgia out of NATO indefinitely.
The fundamental fact is this: No country will ever be admitted to NATO unless it possesses complete sovereignty over every inch of its territory. The idea that Ukraine or Georgia will join the Alliance while a considerable chunk of their territory belongs to Moscow, de facto, is an absurdity which needs to be recognized as such. NATO will not sign-up new members who are in “pre-Article 5 status,” meaning they are already at war with their neighbor, the dreaded Big Bear.
The relevant example here is Croatia, which joined NATO in 2009, having followed the standard pattern: Zagreb in 2000 signed on to the Partnership for Peace, which is best viewed as an extended interview of sorts for potential Alliance members, then got its MAP two years later. What followed was a lot of hard work, particularly by the Croatian defense sector, to bring itself up to Western standards on administration, legalities, and corruption. Above all, Croatia controlled its own territory again. Between the summer of 1991 and the summer of 1995, more than one-quarter of Croatian soil was occupied by Serbian rebels in league with Belgrade. That situation was overturned, step by costly step, above all by the victorious Operation STORM in August 1995, Europe’s biggest military operation since the Second World War, which gradually allowed Croatia to reassert control over all its territory, a process which was completed under UN auspices in 1998. Only then could Croatia contemplate approaching NATO for a membership application.
The lessons here for Ukraine, and Georgia too, are painfully obvious: You will never be allowed into NATO until you regain all your lost territory back from Moscow. How can they do that, given Russia’s dominance over them in conventional military terms, to say nothing of the Kremlin’s nuclear arsenal? There’s no easy answer there, although I can report that, after a few drinks, Ukrainian military officers are known to wax affectionately about perhaps pulling off their own Operation STORM against the Moskali one day.
Just how likely that aspiration might be stands as an important question, albeit an unanswerable one at the moment. What can be stated with confidence is that neither Kyiv nor Tbilisi will be able to defeat Russia on the field of battle as long as Vladimir Putin rules the Kremlin. Putin’s prestige at home is wrapped up with his successful military measures to keep Ukraine and Georgia out of NATO. After Putin, many things may become possible, but in any event NATO and the United States will have nothing to do with such matters, at least not directly. In the mid-1990s, Croatia had quite a bit of discreet help from the Pentagon (and other NATO members) getting their military ready for Operation STORM, including logistics and intelligence support, but there was no overt Alliance hand to be seen. Kyiv and Tbilisi should ponder that model.
Regardless, Zelensky’s ham-handed Twitter games got a stern, if carefully worded, rebuke from Biden yesterday during his Brussels news conference. The American president, when directly asked about Ukraine joining NATO, did not mince words:
It depends on whether they meet the [Alliance] criteria. The fact is they still have to clean up corruption. The fact is they have to meet other criteria to get into the action plan. And so school’s out on that question, it remains to be seen. In the meantime, we will do all that we can to put Ukraine in the position to be able to continue to resist Russian physical aggression, and it will not just depend on me whether or not we conclude that that Ukraine can become part of NATO, it will depend on the alliance and how they vote.
Biden’s admirably direct explanation that Ukraine isn’t joining NATO anytime soon, although it represents a diplomatic win for the Kremlin on the eve of the Geneva summit, should also be applauded for its honesty. For too long, American presidents have strung Kyiv along with false hopes about accession to the North Atlantic Alliance. That is not going to happen anytime soon, certainly not as long as Russia occupies a sizeable chunk of Ukraine.
For now, Ukraine is on its own, officially speaking. Poland in 1939 was not well served by placing its hopes in Warsaw’s military alliance with Paris and London which, when Nazi-Soviet invasions dismembered their country, France and Britain did nothing militarily to stop. Likewise, Washington should contemplate the strategic wisdom of making nebulous diplomatic promises which enrage Moscow yet do nothing for the countries we are supposedly trying to help.
Above all, President Zelensky should stay off Twitter. Next stop: Geneva.