NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg put NATO’s hypocrisy on display while talking to reporters ahead of the meeting of NATO foreign ministers in Brussels on November 28.
Asked by a reporter about American and European struggles to continue providing Ukraine with weapons and ammunition, Stoltenberg replied, “It’s our obligation to ensure that we provide Ukraine with the weapons they need. Because it will be a tragedy for Ukrainians if President Putin wins.”
The tragedy for Ukrainians has already happened. Their infrastructure and economy are destroyed, their population is dispersed, their relatives are dead or injured and their land is lost. The greater tragedy to come is not the war ending, but the war continuing. In the first weeks of the war, Ukrainians could have kept almost all of their land and lost almost none of their lives for a promise not to join NATO. The political West ordered them to walk away from the negotiating table and onto the battlefield. They promised them – directly or indirectly – as much military and financial support as it takes for as long as it takes. Nearly two years later, Ukraine will likely have to make the same promise, but they have lost that land and they have lost those lives.
Russia brought tragedy to Ukraine; the United States, United Kingdom, and their NATO allies bloated and magnified that tragedy. The tragedy now would not be ending the war even if it means “Putin wins.” The tragedy now is that NATO is willing to continue feeding a war that they know Ukraine can’t win. “When Ukraine launched its big counteroffensive this spring,” The Wall Street Journal reported, “Western military officials knew Kyiv didn’t have all the training or weapons – from shells to warplanes – that it needed to dislodge Russian forces.” Ukrainian Commander-in-Chief Valery Zaluzhny has said that the war has reached a “stalemate” that over time can only favor Russia.
The tragedy for Ukrainians would not be negotiating an end to the war, it would be NATO exercising the “obligation” to continue the war.
Stoltenberg gave a second reason for continuing to provide Ukraine with the weapons they need; so that Ukrainians can go on dying for NATO goals and NATO security. If the war ends now, “it will be dangerous for us,” Stoltenberg said. The United States “will continue to provide support” to Ukraine “because it is in the security interest of the United States to do so.” NATO must “stay the course” because “[t]his is about also about our security interests.”
Stoltenberg know this war is not being fought because Russia wanted to conquer other territory; Stoltenberg knows this war is being fought because Russia wanted to defend its territory. This war did not happen because Russia was a threat to NATO territory, it happened because NATO was a threat to Russian territory. How do we know that Stoltenberg knows this? Because he said so.
Putin “sent a draft treaty that they wanted NATO to sign, to promise no more NATO enlargement,” Stoltenberg said on September 7, 2023. “That… was a pre-condition for not invade Ukraine.” He then said that when “we didn’t sign that… he went to war to prevent NATO, more NATO, close to his borders.”
“President Putin,” Stoltenberg concluded, “invaded a European country to prevent more NATO.”
Stoltenberg has publicly stated his awareness that this war was fought, not over American or NATO security concerns, but over Russian security concerns.
U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin also recently said that the United States must go on supporting Ukraine or Russia would win and steamroll on over the Baltic countries, Poland, and beyond. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov mocked Austin, saying, “This comes from a man who holds a high-ranking position and cannot but receive expert views…and who cannot but understand what is going on in Ukraine and that Russia has never had and can never have any aggressive or expansionist plans.”
Ukraine’s chief negotiator in the Belarus and Istanbul talks with Russia has also recently said that stopping NATO from expanding to Ukraine and Russia’s borders was the “key point” for Russia and that “[e]verything else was simply rhetoric and political ‘seasoning.’”
Stoltenberg says that if Russia is allowed to win “the message to all authoritarian leaders – not only in Moscow, but also in Beijing – is that when they violate international law, when they invade another country when they use force, they get what they want. So this is about the whole idea of a rules-based international order, where territorial borders are respected.”
Stoltenberg transitions from “international law” to “rules-based order” because his case cannot be made without hypocrisy on the former. International law applies equally to everybody. But the United States or NATO have frequently invaded other countries by force and disrespected their territorial borders: Panama, Grenada, Libya, Kosovo, Iraq and Syria. Before Ukraine, modern Russia had not. But the rules-based order, unlike international law, allows Stoltenberg to make the case that Russia has violated the rules but the U.S. and NATO have not because the rules are made up as you go along so that the United States is always within them and Russia is always without. Under the unwritten rules-based order, rules are applied when they benefit the U.S. while the U.S. is exempt when they don’t.
American and NATO support for Ukraine may be about U.S. insistence on enforcing the rules-based system, but the United States is not an enforcer of international law.
Stoltenberg’s third reason for continuing to press the war in Ukraine is read right off the U.S. script; “…we need to continue to support them also knowing that the stronger Ukraine is on the battlefield, the stronger the handle will be on the negotiating table.” That point has passed. Ukraine is in a weaker position on the battlefield than they were before the counteroffensive. Russia is winning the war of land, the war of attrition on weapons, the war of attrition on lives, and the technological war. Ukraine had a better seat at the negotiating table in the first weeks after the invasion when the political West ordered them to stop negotiating. They were in a better position a year ago when they recaptured areas of Kherson before the counteroffensive. Far from strengthening Ukraine’s position on the battlefield or at the negotiating table, supporting the continuation of the war seems to be putting Ukraine in a weaker and weaker position. The terms that will be offered Ukraine today are likely much worse than the terms they were offered at the start of the war. And they will likely be worse tomorrow.
Stoltenberg says that “if you want a negotiated, peaceful solution, which ensures that Ukraine prevails as a sovereign, independent nation, then the best way to get there is to continue to provide military support to Ukraine.” But it is not war that will guarantee Ukraine sovereignty. As Lavrov recently pointed out, Russia recognized the sovereignty of Ukraine based on a declaration of independence and a constitution that declared Ukraine’s neutrality and non-membership in NATO, and Russia will continue to when those conditions are reinstated. The best way to ensure Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty is not to help it fight for the right to be in NATO but to encourage it to promise not to join NATO.
Finally, Stoltenberg put NATO’s hypocrisy on display not only by what he said, but by what he did not say. If the words that Stoltenberg said were meant to rally Western ears, the words he did not say will be the loudest in Ukrainian ears. Though Ukraine is fighting, in part, for the right to be in NATO, that is the one thing that Stoltenberg, hypocritically, did not offer Ukraine. The “Allies have stated again and again the last time at the NATO Summit with all the leaders present in Vilnius” that they will “provide support to Ukraine,” that they “will step up” their support for Ukraine, that they will “help them…to modernize their army” and that they will “ensure full interoperability between the Ukrainian forces and the NATO forces.” The one thing Stoltenberg did not say that NATO has offered Ukraine is membership in NATO.
Ukraine should fight to defend NATO’s insistence on the right of a country to choose its own alliances and to join NATO without being offered membership in NATO. That is the final hypocrisy put on full display in Stoltenberg’s comments to reporters.
Ted Snider is a regular columnist on U.S. foreign policy and history at Antiwar.com and The Libertarian Institute. He is also a frequent contributor to Responsible Statecraft and The American Conservative as well as other outlets.