This week, on Tuesday, July 11, 2023, leaders of NATO countries met in the Lithuanian capital Vilnius and discussed how to provide more military support to Ukraine and approve the alliance's first comprehensive defense plan since the end of the Cold War.
Although Russia's nearly year-and-a-half-year war on Ukraine revitalized the organization and prompted it to dust off the doctrine of the Cold War and recall it to contain the heiress of the Soviet Union, a key issue was still a bone of contention among NATO countries: when Ukraine would join the alliance, and Biden said at the summit that NATO leaders had agreed that Ukraine would be a member of it after the war.
Putin thought that NATO did not have the audacity to annex Ukraine, he assumed that the consequences of his wide war on Ukraine would be limited, and this assumption was largely inaccurate, but for now he still works in part that NATO is still reluctant to annex Ukraine in light of the war.
Many NATO countries, including some members who want greater involvement in supporting and arming Ukraine, are well calculating the proven consequences of bringing Ukraine into the alliance in light of the ongoing war, and do not want to find themselves forced to activate Article V of the alliance's mutual defense charter and risk direct conflict with Russia.
Instead, these arguments offered another option: increased support for Ukraine, and it was explicitly pledged that it would be invited to join the alliance but only after the war was over.
Differing approaches within NATO on Ukraine's future expose a major predicament that the alliance has faced for nearly two decades and does not seem to be able to break out of, and many experts argue that NATO's promise to annex Georgia and Ukraine at the Bucharest summit in 2008 caused this predicament.
That same year, Russia responded by invading Georgia and separating the regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia from it, and 6 years later annexing Ukraine's Crimea, NATO's reluctance to fulfill the annexation promise made Russia feel capable of facing the consequences of threatening its neighborhood.
Moscow would not have launched a wide war on Ukraine 8 years after the annexation of Crimea had it not derived its audacity from NATO's predicament in Ukraine, as Putin believed that NATO does not have the audacity to annex it, he assumed that the consequences of his wide war on Ukraine would be limited, and this assumption was largely inaccurate, but until now it is still working in part that NATO is still reluctant to annex Ukraine in light of the war.
At the Vilnius summit, NATO will show this time that it is partly breaking free of its fears of annexing Ukraine by asserting that it will eventually become a member.
However, the Western assumption that this liberalization will pressure Putin to seriously consider the consequences of going too far in this war seems less realistic from the perspective of Russian calculations.
If the assumption that Russia decided to launch a full-scale war on Ukraine in order to block its NATO membership efforts, the hypothesis that President Vladimir Putin would be tolerant of the idea that Ukraine would join the alliance after the war ended seems naïve unless the West assumes that Russia will tolerate Atlantic Ukraine in light of its new geographical borders that Putin wants to draw after annexing 4 Ukrainian regions to the Russian Federation.
Indeed, the Atlantic predicament in Ukraine reflects another similar predicament for Russia as well: as the war approaches a year and a half, Moscow, Kiev, and the West are increasingly convinced that neither side will be able to achieve a decisive victory in the war.
Although Russia's predicament seems to be greater because it has so far been able to achieve only some war objectives, it has sought to adapt to this predicament by reducing the list of targets to limiting it to annexing 4 Ukrainian provinces to its territory.
In this sense, Moscow has shifted from an offensive to a relatively defensive position, trying to retain control of the areas it has captured since the beginning of the war, but this shift does not end the impasse: large swathes of the four provinces remain under the control of Ukrainian forces, and Kiev this month began a counteroffensive in the southeast of the country.
Given that Russian military resources are currently concentrated to repel the Ukrainian counteroffensive, Kiev's chances of changing the dynamics of the conflict through this offensive seem modest, and even if Ukraine succeeds in expelling Russian forces from some areas, this does not mean that the war is coming to an end, because Russian forces will try to mobilize again in order to turn the annexation of the four regions into a fait accompli.
For NATO and the West in general, the mere fact that Russia is engaged in a protracted war of attrition means that part of the Western goals of spoiling Putin's victory in Ukraine have been achieved, but this result will not be encouraging either.
A longer war without fundamental changes to the map of the conflict would help Russia consolidate its control over the areas it has captured in eastern and southeastern Ukraine since 2014, diminish Kiev's appetite for continued fighting and perhaps also the West's appetite to continue supporting it the way it is doing now.
Curiously, NATO plans to shape the relationship with Ukraine in the future, while it does not have a clear vision of how the current war will end, reflecting the West's conviction that Kiev can in no way win this war in a way that would mean defeating Russia, but it aims to strengthen Ukraine's position in any possible future peace agreement with Moscow.
Such a strategy makes sense insofar as it seeks firstly to avoid expanding the current war into a military confrontation between Russia and NATO, and second, because it gives Kiev lucrative long-term options for considering the merits of entering into negotiations with Moscow.
It can be said that NATO has so far been able to deal effectively with this war through the involvement of its countries in providing military support to Ukraine to counter the Russian attack and bring about a new wave of expansion by annexing Finland and trying to include Sweden in the Atlantic system.
The difficult question the West is looking for an answer to is how to help Ukraine regain the territory it lost in this war and before it Crimea without NATO having to enter into a military clash with Russia.
In theory, the West has sought to find some solutions to this dilemma by engaging in arming Ukraine with weapons and heavy equipment, to enable it to regain some of its territory and force Russia to engage in a peace process to end the war, but this support has not yet reached the stage that could force Putin to feel that he is starting to lose this war and thus think about the advantages of negotiation, and Ukraine will remain a headache for NATO as much as it is for Russia.