The war in Ukraine is entering its fifth month, with minimal prospect of an early end to the fighting and with Western unity looking increasingly fragile. This brings the Nato summit, starting today in Madrid, into sharp relief. NATO governments must use this opportunity to restore their united front; to replenish Ukraine’s military arsenal; to warn their citizens of the likelihood of a long and bitter war; and to prepare for the risk that Vladimir Putin may at some point resort to nuclear weapons.
Why are the prospects for peace so bleak? Putin’s ambition to restore an imagined past and the determination of Ukrainians to decide their own future cannot be reconciled. Putin has been clear that he has no intention of settling for the limited gains he has made so far. President Zelensky has been equally clear that the only basis on which talks can replace combat is a return to the positions occupied on February 24. There is no middle ground – only one can succeed, the other must fail.
Some observers find refuge from this desolate reality with predictions of a “frozen conflict”. This is an illusion. Putin is not going to settle for a wedge of territory in eastern Ukraine. It would pause, not resolve, the collision at the heart of the war. Time is now the critical factor. Putin cannot indefinitely replace personnel and hardware as fast as he is losing them. Demoralization is seeing up his chain of command. Sanctions are squeezing the purchasing power of ordinary Russians. Awareness of the reality of this war is spreading, quietly but inexorably, from bereaved family to bereaved family.
Before these pressures overwhelm him, Putin will seek to undermine Ukraine’s will to fight and erode its economic viability. But above all, he needs Nato to fall. He will hope that horror at his forces’ atrocities turns to weariness at the effort of maintaining sanctions and accommodating refugees. And he will ruthlessly exploit any sign of division within Nato.
Some European leaders are reportedly urging an early ceasefire, with a view to a negotiated settlement, including territorial concessions. Such talk plays into Putin’s hands. Zelensky could never agree to such terms. Putin could never be trusted to stick to them. Instead, he would use any pause to rebuild his depleted forces so that he could press on again at a time of his choosing. This is a recipe for prolonging the war, not shortening it. The only way to move towards a stable settlement is for Nato to reinforce his actions and positions. So the summit should conclude with three outcomes.
First, Zelensky will address the summit. He will repeat the request he has already made this week to G7 leaders for more and better weapons and equipment. Nato should give him an overwhelmingly generous and speedy response. The West should also commit to comprehensive and sustained support for Ukraine’s economy, and shelter for the five million refugees who have fled the country.
Secondly, however bleak the immediate prospects of serious talks, there needs to be a Nato proposition on the table. This should be predicated on prior and complete Russian withdrawal at least as far as the February 24 line, and be based on rebuilding the architecture established around the end of the Cold War, including on conventional and intermediate forces in Europe. Putin has shunned the diplomatic path to security. But we must continue reminding Russians that it remains wide open.
Thirdly, Nato must prepare itself and its citizens for every possible consequence of remaining resolve – in particular, the use of nuclear weapons. As sanctions take their toll and if his military ambitions are thwarted, Putin will feel increasingly cornered; with his personal survival resting on turning the tide of the conflict. As CIA director William Burns has warned, the Russian president may decide that his only remaining option is the nuclear one – possibly tactical nuclear weapons to break through Ukrainian defensive lines in the Donbas. Russian nuclear doctrine allows for this. There have been reports of the country’s nuclear forces conducting exercises in Ivanovo Province, north-east of Moscow. And Putin has placed his nuclear forces on high alert, threatening to use “the tools no one can boast of”.
Nato needs to be ready. The summit should address the threat and conclude with a stark warning of the swift, devastating and decisive consequences of such a decision, while leaving all options open, whether conventional, cyber or nuclear. Only by preparing can we reduce the likelihood of Putin making such a catastrophic choice.
Kim Darroch is a former British Ambassador to Washington and National Security Advisor. He is now chairman of Best for Britain. John Ashton is a former diplomat and co-founder of the E3G think tank. He was the first UK climate change envoy