The recurring motif in discussions on the sidelines of the NATO summit taking place on September 4–5 in Wales is this: “But what can NATO do for Ukraine?” The presence of Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko at the gathering seems to indicate that the Western alliance has somehow made itself Ukraine’s guarantee power.

But this is only true in a largely symbolic sense. In real terms, the West has made it clear from the beginning that it would not extend its security guarantee to Ukraine. Just as no one in the West was willing to go to war over Crimea, no one will go to war over eastern Ukraine. The West has been consistent on this, and a Western military intervention is unthinkable even for those who loathe Russia with every fiber of their being.

Jan Techau
Techau was the director of Carnegie Europe, the European center of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Techau works on EU integration and foreign policy, transatlantic affairs, and German foreign and security policy.
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This summit is just as much about strategy as about tragedy. On the one hand, it is the meeting that marks the rebirth of realism in the West’s relationship with Moscow and the reemergence of territorial defense as a key NATO task. The alliance has covered enormous ground in a short period of time to make its security guarantee credible.

On the other hand, this summit clearly delineates where the European peace order ends: at NATO’s eastern border. Ukraine is not part of that territory. Neither is Georgia.

A few months ago, my colleague Ulrich Speck said that it is now clear that the only safe border in Europe is the one guaranteed by NATO’s Article 5 mutual-defense clause. This summit proves that big claim right. The organization goes to great lengths to boost its deterrent power on its eastern flank. But beyond that, it is powerless—and NATO does not aspire to change that.

The tragedy lies in the fact that it could not be any other way, and that the West must still pretend otherwise. Because just as going to war with Russia over Ukraine is unthinkable, leaving a country in the lurch that has risked so much to achieve a Western perspective is unbearable.

So at both the NATO and the EU level, the West claims to be fully on the side of Ukraine when it already knows that it would not be able to sustain that position if push came to shove. In the end, Ukraine is just not important enough. All agree with that assessment. With clenched teeth, I agree with it too. But it leaves a big lump in everyone’s stomach.

In a typically sharp and clear-sighted piece, Edward Lucas has just offered a list of policy suggestions for the West. Lucas, who is a journalist at the Economist, has been one of the most outspoken critics of Russia and an advocate of a very robust Western position vis-à-vis Moscow.

But even his list illustrates that the Western position on the Ukraine issue is empty at the core. If Russian President Vladimir Putin decides to accept the costs bestowed upon him by Western sanctions, the territory east of the Article 5 border is his. Such a course of action would be very expensive for him, but it is eminently possible.

NATO prides itself at this summit that is getting serious on the threat in the East. And it has much to show for its efforts. But the meeting also marks the territorial and political limits of Western power. None of this is really new. And yet this is a clarifying moment.