The recent NATO summit in Wales looked and sounded like a strong affirmation of the West’s willingness to counteract Russian intervention in Ukraine. With military tanks and a full-sized model fighter jet sitting on the lush green grass of the venue’s golf course, NATO’s Secretary-General, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, declared at the start of the summit that it would be one of the most important in the alliance’s history. There was no shortage of bold statements addressing Russia by the alliance’s attending heads of state, and the summit’s sharply worded official declaration summarizing the results of the gathering is reminiscent of the Cold War. However, behind the props and rhetoric, the substantive outcomes of the summit reveal a familiar lack of true solidarity with Ukraine.

The summit’s main result was the announcement of a 4,000 troop-strong “Very High Readiness Joint Task Force” which can be deployed rapidly to help protect Eastern Europe, especially the Baltic states, from potential Russian aggression. There was much talk about how the Ukraine crisis created the need for this task force, but no talk about actually deploying it to Ukraine, where it would desperately be needed. In fact, NATO leaders all agreed that joint military intervention is not an option to resolve the conflict in Ukraine, and instead called for more EU and bilateral sanctions.

Despite the tough statements, the most NATO is actually willing to do in Ukraine is to provide it with weapons, technical/logistical support and continue annual joint exercises dating back to 2006 – near the western Ukrainian city of Lviv, far from where the action is. The predictable result of this approach is that Russia is irritated, but not impressed, and that Ukraine feels grateful yet also let down by the West.

The Atlantic alliance’s reluctance to bring Ukraine under its wing of collective defense is a result of mainly Western European reservations, and is comparable to its hesitance to embrace a similarly Europhile nation, Georgia. Both countries’ populations have protested against Russian influence while holding European flags, and their governments have expressed a strong desire for Euro-Atlantic integration. But as unfair as it may be, no matter how many EU flags they wave, Ukrainians and Georgians are not (yet) perceived by most Western Europeans as really belonging to the European orbit. History, culture and geography place them too close to Russia for Western Europe to feel responsible for their security, especially at a time of growing Russian assertiveness.

It will take time for attitudes to change, but they can and have. The fact that most of the former Eastern Bloc was included in the EU and NATO shows that Western Europe is even willing to integrate countries that share a border with Russia – but only once it is clear enough to them that they really are a part of the family.

By Marco Funk

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