Blinken promises commitment to lasting aid. But Stoltenberg warns: “Let’s prepare ourselves, the fight will be long and hard. Kuleba: “Let’s keep fighting, nothing will stop us”
Almost two years after the start of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, NATO reiterates its commitment to supporting Kiev in the defense against Moscow, but the narrative is starting to change, adapting to the evolving situation along the 1,200 km long front in the east of the country. All the allies gathered in Brussels for the Foreign Ministerial, explained US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, “expressed a strong commitment to lasting support for Ukraine” in the face of the Russian invasion. Kiev, added general secretary Jens Stoltenberg, “is closer to NATO than ever. We will continue to support them on the path to membership. And we will continue to support their fight for freedom”.
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kulebawho came to Brussels to participate in the NATO-Ukraine Council, noted that by now his country’s army is practically a NATO army, given the progress made in the transition to Atlantic standards (Stoltenberg said Kiev will benefit from a dedicated multi-year support program). The Norwegian social democrat, who summarizes the political line of the Alliance, included a new consideration in his speech on Ukraine: he noted that Kiev has “liberated 50%” of the territory invaded by the Russians and that it has “prevailed as an independent nation, free and sovereign”, which already constitutes “a great victory”. It is too early to say what this consideration which appeared in the NATO narrative, repeated three times by the secretary general, will lead to and will probably depend on the evolution of the situation on the battlefield.
Stoltenberg then admitted, in practice, that the war between Ukraine and Russia has reached a stalemate, which Kuleba flatly denied: “There is no stalemate”, said the minister. For the Scandinavian politician, however, “no significant changes have been observed on the front line in recent months”, even if “intense fighting is underway” and military progress can be measured “in different ways”, not just in “square kilometres” conquered. He also counts “the fact that they were able to carry out deep strikes, destroying key Russian capabilities, including fighter planes, heavy bombers and helicopters,” he said.
It should also be considered, Stoltenberg added, that the Ukrainians “were able, without a real Navy, to push back the Russian Black Sea Fleet to Novorossiysk, so that they can now transport grain on ships from Odessa, across the Black Sea”. A NATO source confirms that “on the front the situation has become relatively static as we approach winter”. Both sides, Russians and Ukrainians, “encounter entrenched defenses” and “struggle to assemble strike forces capable of making decisive progress.”
The fact is that the Russians strengthened their defensive lines, undermining the terrain, sometimes to a depth of “tens of km”. This type of war, often compared to the slaughter of the First World War, involves very high human losses. It’s a description that goes hand in hand with that of the commander in chief of the Ukrainian armed forces, Valery Zaluzhny, who told the Economist earlier this month that the war had reached a stalemate, something that President Volodymyr Zelensky flatly denied it. According to the NATO source, both are right, given that they start from different points of view: the first military, the second political. Stoltenberg, who from the beginning of the war in Ukraine had recalled that Russia is a “formidable military power”, reiterated that Moscow should not be “underestimated”, given that the Russian economy “is on a war footing” and produces for support the war effort.
Furthermore, he stressed, President Vladimir Putin has “a high tolerance for victims.” The treatment given by the commands to the Russian troops sent to the front, observes the senior NATO official, is “horrible”. Poorly trained soldiers are often “sent to their deaths.” Moscow’s objectives in the invaded country, Stoltenberg warned, “have not changed.” AND Ukraine’s enemy “has accumulated a large missile reserve before the winter”, which he will probably use “to hit the country’s electricity grid and energy infrastructure”, with the aim of leaving the population “in the dark and cold” during the harsh Ukrainian winter. Minister Kuleba, not at all intimidated by the Russians, arrived in Brussels with a very clear message: “We must continue to fight – he chanted – Ukraine does not retreat”. Kiev’s “unchanged” goal is to restore “territorial integrity within the internationally recognized borders of 1991. And nothing will stop us,” he warned.
Stoltenberg reiterated that NATO will continue to help Ukraine militarily and praised the Netherlands, Denmark and Norway for the decision to deliver F-16 fighter jets to Kiev, but also warned that we need to prepare for a “long and hard fight”, since “there are no magic solutions” that can, in themselves, determine decisive turning points on the battlefield. According to the NATO source, the Ukrainian armed forces “have a plan and are executing it”, but “it is really hard to fight against Russia”. Nonetheless, the progress made by the Ukrainians against Moscow can only be described as “humbling”, he says, that is, that it commands respect and causes one to lower one’s self-esteem.
The situation on the ground in the coming months, during the winter, will also determine how NATO, the North Americans and the Europeans, will regulate themselves. Stoltenberg underlined that the Alliance’s tasks in the face of this conflict are essentially two: to support Ukraine in its defense against the Russian invader, but also to prevent the war from escalating by involving NATO. In all this, the EU, which is an economic giant but still a geopolitical dwarf, finds itself in difficulty, as seen in the affair of the million artillery ammunition promised to Ukraine, which should have been delivered by the end of March 2024. Objective that will not be achieved. Kuleba confirmed that around 300 thousand pieces have arrived in Kiev so far. For the NATO source, the EU’s delays on this promise are not decisive, given that Ukraine also obtains ammunition elsewhere.
The Ukrainian minister said he did not doubt the will of the West, and of the EU, to help Kiev. The problem, he noted, is “technical” and “people who know” how production chains work must dedicate themselves to solving this problem, also because, otherwise, Europe risks remaining “defenseless” . Perhaps never before has the distance between the promises of the Union as a whole and the actions of its individual member states been measured as in this case. The problem, High Representative Josep Borrell recently admitted, does not concern production capacity so much as the fact that European defense companies “operate on the free market”, with the result that as much as 40% of the production of munitions that would be used to the Ukrainians to defend themselves from the Russians it is exported to other countries. We will see whether Europe will be able to demonstrate with facts that Angela Merkel was wrong, in 2015, when she observed that, in her opinion, the West did not have the will to win a war in Ukraine and that Russia was not willing to lose it.