Seen from Vilnius, where I was speaking at the NATO Public Forum, the summit final communiqué of July 11 was a moment of dismay and some anger for all the experts in the room.

Whereas NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg had appeared relaxed and confident that same morning when he spoke to us, his tense face at the evening press conference spoke volumes about what had transpired between the heads of state and government. The Dutch Prime Minister, Mark Rutte, a few hours before the final communiqué, had also raised hopes of a more encouraging outcome.

The communiqué referred to the Bucharest summit of 2008, not a good sign. In July 2023, unlike April 2008, a war is raging that has caused many more than 100,000 deaths and the destruction of an entire country, and Western leaders are fiddling with words. The mention of Ukraine’s future membership of NATO, albeit with two provisos. These are that if the conditions are met (with no specifics, as President Zelenskyy also noticed) and if heads of state and government so decide to allow the decision on entry to be postponed indefinitely.

Under reported pressure from the United States and mostly from Germany, NATO sent a signal of weakness to the Kremlin, raising the suspicion of possible negotiations one day with this Russian criminal state, even though US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, speaking at the NATO Public Forum on July 12, denied this possibility. At a time when the allies were constantly talking about unity, rarely has it shown such profound disunity between countries in favor of Ukraine’s quasi-automatic entry into NATO after the end of the war — notably France, Poland, the Baltics states, and the Czech Republic — and the German-American pairing along with other, doubtless more passive, countries.

President Zelenskyy’s swift and angry reaction, as profound as it was fair and rigorous, reflected the Ukrainians’ deep sense of abandonment. He may not have expected immediate entry into the alliance, as I had understood in Kyiv last week, but the minimum expectation was that it would be it be unconditionally accepted in principle and that there would be a tangible plan in the interim on immediate security guarantees for Ukraine and the delivery of combat aircraft and longer-range missiles — which only President Macron has done, by agreeing to the delivery of SCALPs, the French version of the British call Storm Shadow — with a range of 500 kilometers (around 300 miles), which will be able to strike the enemy in depth.

In short, the allies have failed to answer the only question that really matters: “How can we stop Ukrainians, both civilians and soldiers, from being murdered by the Russians in their tens of thousands?” Failing to understand this vital urgency, they took a non-decision.

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The following day, July 12, leaders from NATO countries and the organization itself tried to limit the damage, hailing the fact that a Membership Action Plan would no longer be necessary for Ukraine’s accession, that the road to membership was open and that an additional aid package would be allocated to Ukraine. President Biden also said that, after the end of the war, he would support Ukraine’s admission, but speculation remains about what this really means. The full withdrawal of the Russian troops, a capitulation, a peace settlement, the end of hostilities, a ceasefire? It’s all but a detail.

This self-congratulations on the historic nature of the summit — which is only historic because Turkey finally lifted its veto on Sweden’s accession — were somewhat indecent. Their words do not deceive: Ukraine’s membership prospects remain more uncertain than ever, and the new aid packages, even though substantial and welcome, will not enable the Ukrainians to win the war quickly. There’s nothing decisive about them.

Ukraine’s leaders and people have been humiliated yet again. After the final communiqué, the Ukraine-NATO Council met for the first time, with Volodymyr Zelenskyy attending. Thereafter, the head of the Presidential Administration, Andriy Yermak, had some soothing words, and the same was true of the Ukrainian President’s public statements. For Ukraine knows that it continues to need its allies and that it is not possible for it to show resentment towards allies who are still halfway there. And yet, the deep frustration will remain.

There are some grim conclusions to be made. NATO, still the most powerful military alliance in the world, has shown itself incapable of acting in the face of a real war, even as Russia’s all-out campaign against Ukraine destabilizes member countries, directly threatens our security, and violates the values and principles expressed in both the UN Charter and the Washington Treaty.

In other words, it can only act in calm weather and as a deterrent for countries that are already members. While this is essential, it is limited by the very nature of the danger Russia poses to the world. The temerity expressed by alliance leaders in the face of the Russian threat indirectly weakens NATO’s essence and continues to cast doubt on what might happen if there were a threat to alliance members, most likely on the Eastern Flank. However beneficial the reinforcement of this sector may be, it remains insufficient in the event of a large-scale conventional attack. We also know that the time lost will be measured in the loss of more and more Ukrainian lives.

Russia may conclude that these leaders have “bought” at least some of its so-called red lines and that they are afraid of a total Russian defeat. As for Ukraine, they have made laughable their repeated talk of wishing Kyiv a total victory: in reality, they are giving Moscow every possible argument to continue its war indefinitely. Even the repetition by President Biden and others of “the as long as it takes” formula and the tacit but clear acceptance of a long war, seems to give this message — we are content to delegate the defense of our freedom and security to the Ukrainian people for years to come.

If the Ukrainian people eventually win the war, thanks to the heroism, valor and intelligence of their people, they will draw one conclusion; that it is nice and useful to have friends, but in the final analysis, we’re on our own. That reasoning will one day have consequences the West cannot yet estimate.

If, on the other hand, because of the pusillanimity of certain alliance countries, it ends up having to give in and compromise, Russia will have won. Anything short of complete victory for Ukraine is a form of victory for Russia. It will also be a defeat for the allies, which they will actually have willed through blindness and cowardice. The consequences will be monstrous not only in Ukraine but also in Georgia, Belarus, Syria, Moldavia, Africa, and elsewhere.

The leaders gathered in Vilnius gave no sign of understanding this. It will also send a catastrophic signal to Beijing: if, on the pretext of being a nuclear power, a country is allowed to exercise blackmail and prevent the most powerful countries from intervening to help a nation whose sovereignty and existence are threatened, revisionist dictatorships will have a bright future ahead of them.

Few foreign policy and security analysts were optimistic about the outcome of the Vilnius summit, but few expected such a failure of strategic intelligence — along with such moral indecency in front of a sorely wounded nation.

Not since the early months of the war had such a disastrous signal been sent to Moscow. Perhaps, judging by some off-the-record words, a number of NATO leaders are beginning to realize this.

In the end, the clumsy words of the press release could have a positive outcome: a strong reaction from member states who will have understood that the message was fateful. This could lead some of them to commit to serious security guarantees for Ukraine in the coming weeks.

Let’s hope so. By the time of the next NATO summit in Washington in July 2024 and tens of thousands of deaths thereafter, it will be too late to put things right.

Nicolas Tenzer is a Non-resident Senior Fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA) and Chairman of the Center for Studies and Research on Political Decision (CERAP). He is currently a guest professor at the Paris School of International Affairs (PSIA, Sciences-Po), and a blogger on Tenzer Strategics, a blog on international security and foreign policy issues. He is a former director of the online journal Desk Russie. 

Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.

Europe's Edge
CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America.
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