If all sounds but human voices ceased to exist, what was heard in Ukraine in the wake of the NATO Vilnius summit would be a deep sigh. Those of the older generation probably said: “We’ve been here before.”
In 2008 at another NATO summit Ukraine received a vague reply to its membership aspirations, which can be summarised as: “You are definitely welcome some time in the future.”
This position infuriated and empowered one person wanting to conquer Ukraine and other former Soviet and Eastern Bloc states ― Vladimir Putin. He understood that he could lose influence over these countries “some time in the future”.
Logically, the Russian president realised the time to act was sooner rather than later ― and started testing the West. Four months and four days after the 2008 summit, Russia invaded Georgia. This short war showed that invasions are still possible in Europe, as well as impunity for waging them. “It’s horrible if you think about this,” my then-editor at the Ukrainian daily newspaper told me. “And who’s next, if not us?”
He was right. Putin unleashed war against Ukraine six years later.
Now the story seems to be the same: NATO is still irresolute. But I feel optimistic.
It’s understandable that if NATO accepted Ukraine now, it would have to compromise its principle of defending a member who is under attack. Too many NATO states oppose sending troops to Ukraine, and to compromise on this issue would erode the alliance’s future. If NATO introduced a concrete plan for Ukraine membership, Putin would know how to make its achievement impossible.
So that is why this slight disappointment makes me optimistic: if there is no plan, Ukraine can theoretically join NATO anytime. Also, this messes up Putin’s plans. Once he’s weak enough ― we will probably get in. And he’s getting weaker.