Nato's inadequate response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine: All thunder and no rain?
On February 24, 2022, the world woke up to the news of a fully fledged, large-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine. Russian President Vladimir Putin says the attack is aimed at "demilitarising" and "denazifying" Ukraine. There have been reports of attacks on Ukrainian military posts and the airport in Kyiv. Russian military convoys have been seen pouring into Ukraine. An attack in a residential area has left at least 10 people dead (at the time this article was being written), along with many injured.
While the attack on Ukraine does not come as a surprise, given the apprehension of the West of a mass-scale attack on Ukraine since December last year—the US and Europe, including the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (Nato), have been quite vocal about their fears and concerns, and have threatened Russia of consequences over the last few weeks—the response from these countries to the actual invasion has been stupefying, and not in a positive sense.
The Ukrainian crisis is essentially about the threat of Nato's potential expansion to the borders of Russia. Ukraine has been wanting to become a member of the alliance for some time—a pain point for Russia, given that it does not want Nato's presence in its backyard. And to give credit to Russia's concerns, these conversations have gained momentum in recent months.
Earlier this week, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy's spokesperson Sergii Nykyforov had reaffirmed his country's interest in joining the western security alliance. "This course is not only reflected in the constitution, but is also in the full consent of the authorities and society," Nykyforov said, perhaps hoping that admission to Nato would guarantee Ukraine's security, in the reality of the country's perpetual vulnerability to an attack from Russia.
And Nato and its members have only been encouraging Ukraine's aspirations to join the US-dominated alliance, suggesting repeatedly that Russia cannot veto Ukraine's admission in the group. In September 2021, US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin clearly said that "...no third country has a veto over Nato's membership decisions. Ukraine, as you heard me say earlier, has a right to decide its own future foreign policy and we expect that they will be able to do that without any outside interference."
No wonder, with such verbose and reassuring statements coming from the Nato members, Volodymyr Zelenskyy felt confident of the alliance's backup in the face of threats from Russia.
Unfortunately, Nato failed to respond adequately to the Ukrainian crisis. While in the wake of the invasion, the US, along with the EU, Japan and the UK, had imposed a series of sanctions on Russia, the US Department of State made it very clear that the Russian energy sector would not fall within its purview. "The sanctions that are being imposed today, as well (as those) that could be imposed in the near future, are not targeting and will not target oil and gas flows," said a senior state department official. This is because the West cannot risk its energy supply chain—Russia is the second-largest oil exporter and the third largest oil producer in the world, and feeds the world's demand for energy significantly.
It is not surprising that between the lives in another country and the livelihoods in one's own, one would choose the latter.
While the West, Nato, and their allies have been forthcoming in their condemnation of the invasion, mere words mean little to the people of Ukraine scrambling to find shelter from the constant Russian bombardment.
US President Joe Biden has assured that "the world will hold Russia accountable" for the "unprovoked and unjustified attack" on Ukraine. But how does holding Russia accountable help the Ukrainian people? Where are the US reinforcement troops now, who are supposed to be stationed in Nato's eastern flank? Where are the 8,500 American soldiers who were put on heightened alert? What are they doing to evacuate or shelter the Ukrainian people?
Where is the European "united front" that the British Prime Minister Boris Johnson had so confidently talked about after discussing this issue with his European counterparts back in December 2021? Were these assurances only hyperbolic?
One might ask European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen what they are doing to materialise their commitment to not allow "President Putin [to] tear down Europe's security architecture." Ursula von der Leyen suggested that, with a sanction package, they would "target strategic sectors of the Russian economy by blocking their access to key technologies and markets." But without targeting the energy sector, would these measures be of any use in pressuring Russia into withdrawing its troops?
Emerging from an emergency meeting, Nato Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg called the attack a "brutal act of war" that has "shattered" peace in Europe. Yet, he failed to outline a solution to the crisis.
And the UN has resorted to its stoic condemnation tonality, asking Russia to bring its troops back in the name of humanity. UN chief Antonio Guterres further said, "What is clear for me is that this war doesn't make any sense." When did war ever make any sense?
The vagueness of such statements underplay the significance of the humanitarian crisis that is unfolding in Ukraine right now. And if world leaders cannot come up with the right solutions, they should at least refrain from making irresponsible and meaningless statements. This is the least the people of Ukraine deserve right now.
Amid this cacophony of so many condemnations and sympathies, perhaps the most tangible "punishment" for Russia has been the UEFA's move to strip the country of the opportunity to host the Champions League final in St Petersburg. The decision might be confirmed after an extraordinary meeting of the body's executive committee on February 25.
Against the backdrop of the current reality in Ukraine, one cannot but blame Nato and its allies—especially the US—for hanging the country out to dry, and in its hour of need, too. The head-scratchings that are now going on around the Nato circle should have happened when the alliance had encouraged Ukraine to be bold. There is a good possibility of this invasion ending in Ukrainian submission before the Russian military's might. If that happens, it will be the collective submission of the country's provocateurs as well, and perhaps the world would not be surprised.
Tasneem Tayeb is a columnist for The Daily Star. Her Twitter handle is @tasneem_tayeb