United States President Donald Trump’s behavior at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) recent summit in Brussels (July 11–12) and in its aftermath has cast a shadow on this landmark event. Trump’s follow-up actions, including the meeting with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, continued hitting at NATO and the European Union from afar. Trump’s persona and his possible motivations furnished the main topic of analysis throughout these events, diverting attention from the actual results of the NATO Brussels Summit. Its agenda and decisions clearly identified Russia as the main source of threats and challenges to the Alliance. The summit’s balance sheet is a mixture of significant accomplishments and unfinished business left over from years past, notably in the Black Sea region and NATO’s eastern neighborhood (see EDM, July 25, 30, August 1, 2, 7, 8, 9).
NATO’s summit dedicated a special session at the presidential level to Ukraine and Georgia, in their capacity as partner countries aspiring to membership in the Alliance. The established rules would call for two distinct sessions—technically, the NATO-Ukraine Commission and the NATO-Georgia Commission—to be held with Ukraine and with Georgia separately. NATO treats each aspirant country individually, as each of them moves on its own track toward the declared goals of membership, and the needs and performance of each of them are assessed individually.
However, Hungary used its right of veto to block the NATO-Ukraine Commission’s ministerial-level sessions in the run-up to the summit, and finally the presidential-level session at the summit. Hungary invoked an issue totally extraneous to NATO—namely, Ukraine’s new education law affecting Hungarian-language schools in Carpathian Ukraine (see EDM, July 17). The Alliance circumvented Hungary’s veto on Ukraine by scheduling a presidential-level session dedicated to both Ukraine and Georgia, with Presidents Petro Poroshenko and Giorgi Margvelashvili’s participation. This meeting was Hungarian-veto-proof, but, as it turned out, not Trump-commotion-proof. The meeting was in progress when US President Donald Trump cast aside the agenda and forced a discussion on burden-sharing instead. The delegations of Ukraine and Georgia (as non-members of NATO) had to exit from the derailed meeting.
The meeting did nevertheless issue official documents strongly encouraging for Ukraine and Georgia. While the Georgia document is a NATO-Georgia Presidential Commission Declaration (Nato.int, July 12), approved by all NATO nations, the document on Ukraine is merely a Chair’s statement, issued by NATO’s Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, since the official NATO-Ukraine Commission’s meeting cannot be deemed to have been held because of Hungary’s veto (Nato.int, July 12). Prepared at staff levels in advance, these documents express the Alliance-wide consensus. They positively assess Georgia’s and Ukraine’s respective contributions as partners to NATO, their efforts toward the goal of membership, and the further steps planned by NATO with these countries for the year ahead.
Both documents include strong condemnations of Russia’s military interventions against Ukraine and Georgia and seizures of their territories. These ongoing conflicts (“frozen” in Georgia, active in Ukraine) are being addressed even more extensively by the allied heads of state and government in NATO’s Summit Declaration (Nato.int, July 11).
Never before had the Alliance expressed itself collectively with such clarity and forcefulness, and at such lengths, about these conflicts as it had just done at this Brussels summit. Beyond their rhetoric, the communiqué and the associated Georgia and Ukraine documents entail potentially far-reaching ramifications for Western diplomacy regarding these conflicts (see below).
NATO’s Summit Declaration “strongly condemns” Russia’s seizure of Crimea; it “urge[s] Russia to cease all political, financial support and stop intervening militarily in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions and to withdraw troops, equipment, and mercenaries from the territory of Ukraine”; it demands “full and unhindered access for the OSCE’s [Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s] Special Monitoring Mission, up to and including the Russia-Ukraine border.” NATO’s heads of state and government call on Russia to withdraw its forces from the “Abkhazia and South Ossetia regions of Georgia”; and, adding non-aspirant country Moldova to the same package, they “call on Russia to withdraw the forces it has stationed in all these three countries without their consent” (Nato.int, para. 7, July 11).
Furthermore, NATO recognizes that “for more than four years, Ukraine has defended itself against Russia’s aggressive actions; […] Russia’s ongoing militarization of Crimea, Black Sea and the Sea of Azov poses further threats to Ukraine and undermines the stability of the broader region; […] The ongoing armed conflict in eastern Ukraine, instigated and perpetuated by Russia, remains a major challenge to Euro-Atlantic security; […] Withdrawal of Russian-backed formations… and disarmament of illegal groups remain the first necessary steps to de-escalate the conflict (Nato.int, paras. 1, 4–6, July 12).
That language signifies far more than symbolic and moral support. Beyond this, it holds practical value by making it ever more difficult for certain political leaders or governments to pressure Ukraine into concessions to Russia (as Berlin, Paris, and the US State Department under the Barack Obama administration had done in 2014–2016); or for certain European governments to torpedo the sanctions on Russia (as Italian and Hungarian leaders have recently suggested in vain); or for the Kremlin to ensnare a “deal”-prone Trump into a settlement of that conflict on Russia’s terms (as President Vladimir Putin attempted in their July 16 Helsinki meeting—Interfax, July 17– 21). All those positions become even more difficult to promote after the Euro-Atlantic alliance at the highest level declared Russia culpable of military aggression in eastern Ukraine, as well as in Crimea. While NATO’s political documents are not binding on the member countries, they do function as guidelines, and can (as in this case) effectively restrain go-it-alone initiatives by one or another country in breach of the consensus.
Although paying some unavoidable lip service to the “established negotiating frameworks” (Normandy quartet, Minsk Contact Group, OSCE), the NATO Brussels Summit documents in effect change the Russia-dictated logic of the Minsk armistice. NATO calls on Russia to withdraw its forces from Ukraine’s east, and to disband the Russia-led military formations there, as the first necessary steps toward a political settlement (see above). This sequence reverses the sequence written by Russia into the Minsk armistice, which makes the political settlement (“special status” for Donetsk-Luhansk) into a pre-condition to the withdrawal of “foreign” troops, and entitles the Donetsk and Luhansk separatist regions to their own military formations after that.
By qualifying the conflict in eastern Ukraine as a “major challenge to Euro-Atlantic security,” the summit’s documents justify further steps to support the reform and modernization of Ukraine’s national security and defense institutions. The same documents map out such steps for the year ahead. NATO has long recused itself from projecting stability and security in its eastern neighborhood, allowing a chronic security vacuum to develop there, until Russia’s war against Ukraine effectively compelled NATO to engage in assisting Ukraine’s defense-capacity building. Promptly after the Brussels Summit, the US Defense Department announced that it would provide an additional $200 million in assistance to Ukraine, bringing the total to more than $1 billion since 2014 (DoD press release, July 20). While the United States leads the way with bilateral military cooperation programs, Ukraine takes the position—as summarized by Poroshenko following the summit—that “only NATO and nothing but NATO” can guarantee Ukraine’s independence in the future, and “Ukraine’s future is in NATO” (Ukrinform, July 12).