Nato and Ukraine

The West needs to learn from its mistakes 

in Ukraine before it repeats them


by Anthony Galloway

The US and its allies now need to confront a bitter reality: they led Ukraine on without any real plan for the country to ever join NATO.


No amount of sanctions on Russia and military aid for Ukraine – which have no doubt helped force a stalemate – can avoid the need to address where it went horribly wrong.

Since Russia invaded the country on February 24, there have been two diametrically opposing versions of reality.


When I was reporting on the ground in Ukraine over the past three weeks, these two narratives seemed a world away from this incredibly complex conflict.


According to the first view, which is predominantly held in Russia but also among many “realist” foreign policy thinkers in the West, NATO’s eastward expansion needlessly provoked Moscow into lashing out at Ukraine.


But the notion that a democratic government in 2022 can ignore the deeply held views of the vast majority of its population is not realism; it’s a fantasy. It entirely ignores the views of the majority of Ukraine’s 44 million citizens.


Ukrainians are overwhelmingly anti-Russia in their outlook and have long called for greater ties with the West and the security guarantee that Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty provides. The country has had two revolutions in the past 20 years after its governments became too close to Moscow.


But then there is the second version of reality, which dominates Western discourse and solely blames an increasingly paranoid Vladimir Putin.


According to this view of the world, the Russian President had nothing to fear from Ukraine joining NATO, so there is no fault on the part of the West.


This view – that somehow Putin came out of nowhere to invade Ukraine – completely disregards Russia’s widespread opposition to NATO’s expansion over many years. After former members of the Warsaw Pact and the Soviet Union joined the military alliance, Russia repeatedly warned that Ukraine’s ascension to NATO would be the last straw.


In 2008, after then-US president George W Bush named Ukraine and Georgia as the likely next candidates to join NATO, Russia immediately said that such a move would cause a “deep crisis” and was a “huge strategic mistake”.


By advertising Ukraine’s accession to NATO at some unknown date well into the future and repeatedly encouraging Kyiv to come into their fold, the US and Europe effectively created a window for Putin to invade. Do it now, before it’s too late, is how Putin interpreted the message.


There is no more dangerous position to be in the world than a prospective NATO member; countries should either be in or out, and they shouldn’t be courted for more than a decade. From this perspective, NATO’s expansion wasn’t too fast, it was too slow.


The triumphalism creeping in among Western commentators – that somehow a bloody, drawn-out stalemate is a win for Ukraine – is not a view shared among ordinary Ukrainians.


Even those who have taken up arms told me that they wished diplomacy had won the day before Russia invaded. They also regret that their allies in the West did not find a way for them to join NATO sooner, rather than repeatedly floating it without any real plan.


Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky recently recognised his country had no realistic immediate path to NATO membership – a concession he would have never made before the invasion.


Zelensky will now have to make more significant concessions to get Russian forces out, which could include relinquishing large parts of the Donbas region and making a long-term guarantee not to join NATO.


If the US and its allies don’t learn from these mistakes, they are doomed to repeat them.

You only need to listen to Milorad Dodik, the leader of the Serbian entity Republika Srpska within Bosnia, to see that Putin’s playbook in Ukraine and Georgia is now being repeated in the former Yugoslavia.


How is the West going to respond to Bosnia’s heightened calls to join NATO?


With Ukraine as any guide, it will lead it up the garden path.


Ukraine has shown us a lot about how to fight a 21st-century war, with a sense of duty, nationhood and loyalty that many in the West lost decades ago.


If this fight has taught us anything, it’s that Ukraine shouldn’t become more like the West.

The West should become more like Ukraine.