June 11, 2023

The War in Ukraine is between NATO and Russia

Vijay Prashad

IN the first half of this year, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky has travelled to eleven countries, twice to two of them (France and the United Kingdom). Last year, in 2022, Zelensky only went to three countries (Germany, Poland, and the United States). This year’s trips began with a visit to the United Kingdom, where Zelensky addressed the UK’s parliament and visited Ukrainian troops who are training at Lulworth Camp in Dorset. After that, Zelensky went to several European capitals to seek weapons and political support against Russia. In May and June, Zelensky went to three important meetings (the Arab League summit in Saudi Arabia, the G-7 meeting in Japan, and the European Political Community Summit in Moldova).

The European capitals welcomed Zelensky and showered money and diplomatic support on him. The mood at the Arab League summit was emblematic of the reception to Zelensky in the Global South, where there is a coldness to his cause. In Jeddah (Saudi Arabia), Zelensky tried to invoke the language of imperialism and colonialism, begging the Arab states not to ‘turn a blind eye’ to the war; the reaction of the leaders, who had just welcomed Syrian president Bashar al-Assad back to the fold after the failed attempt to overthrow him, did not flinch. Rather than promise weapons and diplomatic support, the Arab leaders – in line with the general orientation in the Global South – called upon Zelensky to enter a peace process to end the war.


On May 31, France’s president Emmanuel Macron addressed the Globsec conference in Chişinău (Slovakia), where he said that France would not object to Ukraine being given a ‘path’ to NATO membership. Ukraine, he said, needed ‘strong, concrete, and tangible security guarantees’ and it would need ‘something between the security provided to Israel and to full-fledged membership’. This is a serious departure for Macron, who called NATO ‘brain-dead’ in 2019 and who – along with Germany – had said during the July 2022 NATO summit in Madrid that Ukraine must not be offered NATO membership. Now, Macron says that the issue of Ukraine’s membership must be taken up at the July 2023 NATO summit to be held in Vilnius, Lithuania. Zelensky said he will not attend the summit if NATO does not put Ukraine’s membership on the agenda.

In May, Zelensky attended a one-day summit of Nordic heads of state. He went to Helsinki (Finland) a month after Finland joined NATO, becoming the 31st member of the military alliance. Finland’s membership of NATO meant that the alliance’s border with Russia was doubled (the three other countries that border Russia are the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania). Of the five Nordic countries, Denmark, Iceland, and Norway joined NATO in 1949 as founding members, while Finland joined in 2023 and Sweden has a pending application to join. At the Nordic summit, Zelensky said that the leaders talked about ‘the NATO alliance and what we can and must do together for strengthening NATO’. One of the elements of ‘strengthening NATO’, Zelensky noted, was Ukraine’s membership into the alliance.

From Helsinki, Zelensky travelled to Germany, where he met Chancellor Olaf Scholz to discuss Germany’s hesitancy about Ukraine’s membership into NATO. For the past year, Germany and France refused to allow Ukraine’s entry into NATO for many reasons, partly because they said that such an act would prevent any possibility of a European brokered peace deal with Russia. At the NATO ministers meeting in Oslo, a few weeks later, Germany’s foreign minister Annalena Baerbock said, ‘NATO’s open-door policy remains in place, but at the same time, it is clear that we cannot talk about accepting new members (who are) in the midst of a war’.

On June 1, Zelensky went to the 2nd European Political Community (EPC) Summit in Bulboaca (Moldova) and said, ‘This year is for decisions’. The 1st EPC summit was held in Prague (Czechoslovakia) in 2022, with the EPC being set up as a body to ensure solidarity with Ukraine during this war. In May 2022, Macron proposed the formation of the EPC, which is separate from the European Union (EU) and the Council of Europe, although why a new body was necessary was not made clear (since both the EU and the Council could be doing what the new EPC does). Zelensky came there asking for decisions. But what decisions? At neither the Prague nor Bulboaca summits did Ukraine gain any clarity about its potential membership in NATO. Both Germany and the United States are realistic enough to know that if Ukraine was permitted to join NATO during the war, then NATO would directly be involved in hostilities against Russia. That has been the hesitancy, but only for now while the conflict is ongoing. There is no principled objection to the absorption by NATO of both Ukraine and Georgia, two countries that border Russia.


All those who look closely at the war in Ukraine recognise that Russia’s military is far more powerful than that of Ukraine. That is the reason why the western states have been eager to shore up Ukraine’s forces, both by training its troops and by arming them. Thus far, Ukraine has received weapons and military equipment from 28 countries. Of these 28 countries, 25 are NATO members. Almost all combat vehicles and almost all ammunition have come from NATO countries. The United States has, by itself, provided about $50 billion in military aid, with other NATO countries providing about $30 billion more to Ukraine. There is no doubt that the largest military support received by Ukraine has come from NATO members, including Germany.

In December 2022, Russia’s foreign minister Sergey Lavrov told reporters to be aware of NATO’s role in the war. ‘You shouldn’t say that the US and NATO aren’t taking part in this war’, he said. ‘You are directly participating in it. And not just by providing weapons but also by training personnel. You are training their military on your territory, on the territories of Britain, Germany, Italy, and other countries’. In April 2023, Lavrov pointed to an even more dangerous development in Europe. The European Union and NATO had formed a ‘strategic partnership’ in January 2023, which brought the 31-member NATO military alliance into a new kind of relationship with the 27-member EU economic and political body. Because of this new alliance between NATO and the EU, Lavrov said, the EU is ‘becoming militarised at a record rate’ and there is now ‘very little difference’ between these two bodies. Only a handful of EU members (Austria, Cyprus, Ireland, Malta, and Sweden) are not in NATO, although the largest of these – Sweden – has applied to join NATO. Both Georgia and Ukraine are on the fast track for EU membership.

Ukraine does not really need to be added to the membership rolls of NATO. NATO members are already treating Ukraine as a NATO member, arming it to the hilt and training its troops on their own soil. The only direct benefit to Ukraine from formal membership to NATO (and the EU) could mean that it would draw NATO states into direct, not indirect, military conflict with Russia due to Article 5 of the NATO Charter.

In May, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres told El Pais that no peace deal is possible at this time because both Russia and Ukraine believe that they can win. Neither the Chinese nor Brazilian peace initiatives, he felt, have any possibility of being taken seriously. A few weeks later, China’s peace envoy Li Hui visited Lavrov in Moscow. After their meeting, Lavrov said that Russia is committed to a resolution of the conflict but noted ‘serious obstacles to the resumption of peace talks created by the Ukrainian side and its western mentors’. The ‘serious obstacles’ refer to the increased NATO-European backing for Ukraine that seeks to prolong the war – as the United States has said – to ‘weaken Russia’, a goal that seems improbable. In February 2022, former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton compared Ukraine to Afghanistan, suggesting that Russia’s entry into Ukraine will mirror the situation faced by the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in 1980. ‘It didn’t end well for the Russians’, she said. ‘The fact is that a very motivated and well-funded and armed insurgency basically drove the Russians out of Afghanistan’. This is the general US attitude: continue to fund the Ukrainians and let them fight Russia till the last Ukrainian, to damage Russia fatally. This is the kind of callousness that defines the character of imperialism.

One reason that Zelensky has met with stone-faces from leaders of the Global South – including India and China – is that these leaders are eager to see an end to the conflict for their own national reasons. They are unwilling to back a war that is not really between Russia and Ukraine but is between Russia and NATO. Wars such as this that are lingering in a stalemate can only end with a peace agreement. Perhaps that is why Brazil and China have been trying to prevent the prolongation of the war, to put in place a ceasefire, and restart the peace process. Zelensky is not interested in these manoeuvres. He has adopted the view that his country will be saved by NATO. In fact, rather than Ukrainian salvation, NATO is the author of the further destruction of Ukraine in a war that it has fuelled. The only reasonable option is for Russia and Ukraine to re-enter a peace process and find a way – as neighbours – to settle their mutual problems, which should not be entangled with NATO’s own designs to ‘weaken’ Russia.