Nato may be about to sell Ukraine short – and make itself irrelevant

Article published in The Sunday Telegraph, 19 August 2023. © Richard Kemp

Nato appears to have abandoned hopes of a Ukrainian victory. Speaking in Norway, secretary general Jens Stoltenberg’s chief of staff, Stian Jenssen, said that a peace deal might involve Kyiv ceding territory to Russia in return for Nato membership.

His comments sparked fury in Ukraine, and rightly so. While Jenssen later apologised for the way he had expressed his views, he did not retract them. Stoltenberg’s subsequent insistence that peace talks will happen on Kyiv’s terms will not have quashed suspicions that Jenssen has revealed how the West really sees the war.

A recent US intelligence assessment indicated that Kyiv’s counteroffensive will fail to achieve its objective of cutting Russia’s land corridor to Crimea. The gloomy conclusion drawn by some is that despite ongoing offensives by both Russia and Ukraine, neither side will make gains of strategic significance.

The answer to this apparent stalemate is not to pressure Ukraine into conceding Russian annexation of its land, but to change the facts on the ground. That can only be done by redoubling efforts to supply Kyiv with sufficient combat resources to drive Russia out, if not this year then next.

Yet two years after the ignominious retreat from Afghanistan, the West seems again to be on the brink of embracing defeat. A peace deal on these terms would mean victory for Russia and defeat for Ukraine. How could surrendering territory to the aggressor be anything else?

We must instead give Kyiv the support that we have failed to provide so far. The latest reports from Washington tell us nothing new. They only confirm identical assessments made in February, which predicted that shortfalls in equipment and force strength would lead to the failure of the counteroffensive.

What we are seeing now, in other words, is the failure of the West to stand by its principles. Instead of taking decisive action earlier this year to ensure Kyiv was properly equipped, Washington and Berlin urged Ukraine to fight according to Nato tactical doctrine, while depriving it of the means to do so. The West continued to drip-feed military hardware, bickering and hand-wringing about the tanks, F-16s, ATACMS and cluster shells vital for Kyiv’s success.

After months of agonising, the US eventually supplied cluster munitions, but has only this week grudgingly approved the provision of F-16s by Denmark and the Netherlands in the fullness of time. Had Biden adopted Churchill’s wartime mantra of ‘action this day’ when Zelensky first asked for these planes, they could now be attacking Russian forces in Ukraine. As it is, they will not be in the skies until sometime next year, if then.

Even now, German chancellor Olaf Scholz has been calling for ‘more peace talks’, while he continues to procrastinate over whether or not to supply urgently needed Taurus cruise missiles. The very idea of peace negotiations in this situation would be farcical if it were not so dangerous.

Every effort so far has amounted to little more than meaningless talking shops. Short of battlefield defeat, no pressure that any country other than China could apply on Putin is likely to lead to withdrawal of his army from the land he has conquered. And despite Beijing’s appearance at the Jeddah talks, Xi Jinping is not in the business of forcing concessions on Putin that he would see as strengthening the West.

And the alternative plan for Ukraine to join Nato after giving up large swathes of its sovereign territory is ridiculous. Apart from anything else, Putin would not agree to any expansion of Nato. But even if he would, there would be no value to Ukraine in joining an alliance that had made itself irrelevant by effectively surrendering to Russia. For that would be the true meaning of Nato’s failure to ensure its ally prevails in the most significant military conflict in Europe since it was formed.

Image: Jens Stoltenberg. Source: NATO/Flickr