Editor’s note: Editorials are articles that present the opinion of the editorial team of the Kyiv Independent.
When one looks at the history of the West supporting Ukraine in the fight against Russia, one pattern shines through: missed opportunities.
The whole war is ripe with opportunity for NATO. The alliance’s loyal ally, Ukraine, fights against the alliance’s main security threat, Russia, bleeding it weaker day by day.
For that, NATO members pay only with money and weapons – and don’t have to spill a single drop of their soldiers’ blood. One could see it as the best possible deal.
But if NATO members see it like that, they don’t show it.
Instead of pumping Ukraine up with Western weapons and enabling it to strike a quick and humiliating blow to Russia, Western powers, notably in the EU, have been dragging their feet at many opportunities.
A new investigation, just published by the Kyiv Independent and partners, traces the shockingly slow and reluctant response that EU members have had to the ammunition shortage caused by the Russian invasion.
EU countries waited for weeks before sending any aid in the beginning of the full-scale war, evidently waiting to see whether Ukraine would fall. That could be dismissed as the fog of shock at the beginning of the invasion. But a year and a half later, the same countries have been unable to do anything about their dwindling ammunition stocks – leading to a critical shortage of basic ammunition on the battlefield in Ukraine, and impeding its counteroffensive.
Last year, whenever Ukraine had a breakthrough – like the counteroffensives in Kharkiv and Kherson regions – it didn’t have enough weapons to capitalize on these victories and cause an avalanche effect, crumbling the Russians further.
Every new type of weapons pledged by the West has come after months of Ukraine pleading for it and the allies rejecting the pleas – until finally agreeing to provide it. Because of this hesitancy, Ukraine has entered the 2023 counteroffensive weaker than it could be, and still doesn’t have the fighter jets that it has been pleading for for many months.
It appears that the West treats Ukraine’s requests as unreasonable demands. While in fact, Ukraine is simply showing its allies a list of the most crucial tools it needs to survive – and by surviving, protect the West.
Ukraine is asking its allies for more weapons and better weapons not because it wants to have it easier in the war against Russia, but because it needs them to survive.
It’s in NATO’s utmost interests that Ukraine wins and Russia loses.
It’s in NATO’s interests not to just grudgingly accept Ukraine’s accession – a smart alliance would actively seek Ukraine’s accession as soon as possible. Accepting it would mean strengthening the alliance with the only member whose military has vast battlefield experience.
With the NATO summit in Vilnius approaching on July 11, the alliance is presented with yet another opportunity.
The big question on the table is what Ukraine gets from NATO.
Most of the alliance members predictably don’t want Ukraine’s accession before the war ends. The media reported that on the eve of the summit the members were “frantically” drafting security guarantees that Ukraine would get for the period before its membership.
Ukraine wants a clear plan for accession, with a time frame, and won’t be satisfied with anything symbolic. President Volodymyr Zelensky made it clear he will only participate in the summit if Ukraine gets a tangible outcome. Ukrainian officials’ rhetoric has hinted that they aren’t satisfied with NATO’s proposals and are negotiating for more.
Judging from the past patterns, NATO can try to get through the summit by giving Ukraine the minimum possible deal – a vague promise of future accession and continuous military aid.
It would be a huge miscalculation for NATO to do so, especially now.
The timing is perfect to throw all the NATO’s weight behind Ukraine and help it deal a blow to Russia. With Russian leadership somewhat weakened by the recent Wagner mutiny, and Ukraine on the counteroffensive, it’s time to act.
We once again hear the reasoning that admitting Ukraine into NATO might provoke Russia or bring the West into direct conflict with Russia. But it is Russia that has put itself in direct conflict with the West by attacking a European nation and with that, Western values of freedom, democracy, and sovereignty.
The Ukrainian people have been choosing these values over immediate peace over and over again throughout this war. According to a recent poll, 76% of Ukrainians consider it unacceptable for their country to withhold their NATO membership aspiration “as a price for peace.”
The West must, too, deliver a strong response to Russia for this attack — clearing a path for Ukraine to be a part of NATO would be a huge blow to Russia’s designs.
A smart NATO would use the summit not to preach symbolic support for Ukraine, but as an opportunity to guarantee Ukraine's future full accession and, in the meantime, give it a status that provides it with everything it needs to kick Russia out of its land.
A short-sighted NATO would serve Ukraine a symbolic assurance of continued support and call it a day – to much satisfaction of the Kremlin.
The Vilnius summit comes 15 years after NATO committed arguably its biggest mistake in modern history. In 2008, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy blocked the admission of Ukraine and Georgia into the alliance.
After the Bucharest summit, Russia, receiving assurances that its neighbors would be left unprotected, invaded Georgia and soon after invaded Ukraine.
That one short-sighted decision led to the largest war in Europe since World War II.
Now, the NATO gathering in Vilnius is as vital as that meeting in Bucharest 15 years ago. It can either embolden Russia or crush its ambition.
Ukraine is closer to NATO than ever before. The country is operating Western-made and provided equipment, its military has adapted many NATO standards, and Ukraine is currently defending itself against the alliance’s biggest opponent.
Ukraine is ready, and the West has it in its power to welcome Ukraine among equals. It now comes down to one decision.
NATO should not make the same mistake twice.