As US, European and Russian diplomats discussed Russia’s military build-up on Ukraine’s border and a list of irrational “security concerns” from Moscow, Ukrainian citizens – fellow Europeans – live with the prospect of a new wave of war against their country.
Ukraine is no stranger to Russian aggression. They remember well the tyranny of the Soviet era. But right now, Ukrainian territory remains illegally annexed and occupied in Crimea, and Russian-backed terrorists are waging a war in Ukraine’s Donbas region that has already claimed the lives of more than 13,000 people and internally displaced well over a million Ukrainians.
All this happening, since 2014, on the continent of Europe. So long as this violence continues, Europe will not be “whole and free” as the late President George HW Bush proclaimed in West Germany in 1989.
President Putin’s demands, his “security concerns”, represent a list of requirements that he knew would be unacceptable to the Nato alliance.
A demand that Ukraine, Georgia, Sweden, and Finland be permanently frozen out from obtaining membership would be an assault on the national sovereignty of those nations, effectively handing a veto to the Kremlin over which security alliances they may choose to join. Can you imagine the reaction if Washington made a similar demand of Moscow?
Putin and his diplomats rely on a popular myth to ring the bell of betrayal and paranoia. They claim assurances were made to USSR president Mikhail Gorbachev that Nato wouldn’t expand its membership east. But, as the New York Times showed this week, no such assurance was given. Indeed, Gorbachev has acknowledged this many times.
So it was in discussions between former presidents Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin. Yeltsin did asked for such an assurance but diplomatic memos from the time show this was rejected by the US. The promise of no further expansion east is a Moscow-authored myth.
The demand that a handful of European countries be barred from ever obtaining Nato membership, should they wish to apply, is an attempt by Putin to erect a new Iron Curtain across Europe.
Such a demand should be unacceptable to any western democracy, not just because it would violate the principle of national sovereignty, but because it would set back Europe’s security posture by decades.
Nato is by no means perfect, and the broader European security architecture, encompassing the European Union, is a work that is very much in progress, albeit slow. But if Nato didn’t already exist, we’d want to create it, and Ukraine would have as much right as the UK, France or Germany to join.
So as diplomatic efforts to prevent a new wave of conflict in Ukraine continue, we must consider the options open to the West, which is not impotent, to prevent further bloodshed. Talk of expelling Russia from the Swift international payments system would indeed have a major impact on Russia’s ability to do international commerce.
But it cannot be ignored that, in the long-term, granting Ukraine Nato membership is the only way for the West to stabilise relations with Russia and put a final full-stop in the re-emerged Cold War tension.
True, of course, such a step will bring the Moscow bear further out of hibernation and cause a roar of threats and propaganda to erupt. Yet once the deed is done, there is no way back.
Accepting Ukraine into the alliance will once and for all put a stop to all territorial claims and attempts to turn a sovereign country into a Russian satellite. Once the choice is made and the side is picked, there is nothing more to fight for. Putin, of course, knows this well and it is this full-stop he fears most.
Back in Geneva, Western diplomats managed to withstand Russian ultimatums.
At the same time, Ukraine continues to modernise its army and work to meet other Nato requirements. The military, technical and personnel assistance provided by the UK and other Western nations has become indispensable for Ukraine. This assistance has played a key factor in the build-up of public confidence, resilience and support for Nato and the EU in the country.
There should, however, also be a clear understanding that Ukraine’s ability to withstand and counter Russia has allowed Nato countries to steer clear of direct military involvement in the region. Since 2014, Ukraine continues to stand guard at the eastern border of democratic, European values.
For this partnership to continue, it is imperative that all forms of civil and military cooperation with Ukraine continue. Mutual training, contribution of equipment and other technical assistance are all steps that can de facto integrate Ukraine with Nato standards, while a de jure acceptance takes place.
Such cooperation is a clear message to Russia: Ukraine picks its alliances, nobody else.
It is also important that all negotiations about Ukraine, its territory, people, and sovereignty must only take place with Ukraine in the room. It must be clear that Russia is the cause of the conflict, and, thus, a party to the conflict. It must be equally clear that Russia is not a peacekeeper. To reach any feasible solution, both sides of the conflict must sit at the table and talk as equals.
Ukraine has shown immense resilience over the past eight years. Ukrainian public opinion favours Nato and EU membership at levels never seen before.
Putin’s fear isn’t really of the West’s security posture but instead Ukrainian democracy. After all, who would look at the way Putin governs and think that preferable to a democratic Ukraine? His attempt to erect a new Iron Curtain has met something he didn’t expect: the steely resolve of a nation that values freedom.
Stewart McDonald MP is SNP defence spokesperson, a Foreign Affairs select committee member, and deputy chair of all-party group on Ukraine.
Lesia Vasylenko is a Holos MP in Ukraine and co-chair of the Ukraine-UK Parliamentary Friendship Group.