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After the Ukraine war, what comes next? NATO allies don't agree

NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg pledged the alliance's support for Ukraine.
Sergei Supinsky/AFP via Getty Images
NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg pledged the alliance's support for Ukraine.

BRUSSELS — In nearly a year of war in Ukraine, NATO allies have tried to present a united front.

"It is in our security interest to support Ukraine," NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg told NPR last month at the organization's headquarters in Brussels. "If you look across the alliance, there's a strong, continued support on both sides of the Atlantic."

That's true. There are also some big divisions. The most obvious is disagreement over what kind of weapons to send Ukraine. But there are also differences over how the conflict should end and what role — if any — Russia should play in a post-war Europe.

In December, French President Emmanuel Macron made waves when he said NATO would eventually have to address Russia's security concerns.

"How do we protect our allies and member states?" Macron said in an interview on French TV. "By giving guarantees for its own security to Russia the day it returns to the table."

East and West see the endgame very differently

For NATO allies in Eastern Europe, the notion of making security pledges to a nation that has relentlessly shelled Ukrainian cities is stomach-churning. It's also personal. They spent decades under Soviet domination.

"This kind of rhetoric coming from the Western leaders plays into the Kremlin's narrative," says Linas Kojala, who runs the Eastern Europe Studies Centre, a Lithuanian think tank.

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Part of President Vladimir Putin's narrative is that Russia sent troops into Ukraine to prevent the country from joining NATO, which at the time was — at best — a distant aspiration.

Instead, Kojala and others say, Putin's goal was broader: stop Ukraine's continued drift from Russia's orbit into the embrace of the West.

Putin "clearly stated that there shouldn't be Ukraine as a state, because it's simply a part of Russia," Kojala says. "His war is not because of NATO, it's because of Russia being an imperialist power in today's Europe."

Bruno Lété, a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund in Brussels, says NATO allies are also split on their ultimate goals after the war. Countries in Scandinavia, central Europe and eastern Europe want a decisive Ukrainian victory.

People hold flags and posters during a February 2022 protest against Russia's invasion of Ukraine, near the Lithuanian Parliament in Vilnius, Lithuania.
/ Paulius Peleckis/Getty Images
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Paulius Peleckis/Getty Images
People hold flags and posters during a February 2022 protest against Russia's invasion of Ukraine, near the Lithuanian Parliament in Vilnius, Lithuania.

He says major powers in western Europe also want Ukraine to win, "but are probably also interested in some sort of deal, some peace settlement, too."

Russia's grievances define its view of Europe

Kristi Raik, deputy director of Estonia's International Centre for Defense and Security, says these different approaches are partly a function of distance and history. Countries that border Russia and were once a part of the Soviet Union, such as Estonia and Latvia, "sense the threat," she says.

Raik says great-power privilege plays a role as well.

"France and Germany are used to seeing Russia as one of the major powers in Europe." She says they are used to thinking that, ultimately, "European security matters are settled and decided among the big powers."

But NATO didn't follow that principle after the breakup of the Soviet Union. Russia insists the U.S. promised not to expand NATO and then went back on its word. Many analysts say NATO failed to take Russia's historical anxieties into account.

"If the United States had not spent the past ... 14 years openly declaring that Ukraine would become a member of NATO one day, and not spent the past several years openly talking about Ukraine as if it were a de-facto ally, I think we wouldn't be here right now," says Zach Paikin, a researcher at the Centre for European Policy Studies, a Brussels think tank.

Paikin expresses horror at Russia's brutality in Ukraine, but also says the vast country is a geographic reality that has to be a part of any lasting peace.

"Whether we like it or not, at some point, we will have to address the question of finding an adequate place for Russia in Europe that provides Russia's declared security concerns with a modicum of legitimacy," Paikin says. "Otherwise, we may be forced to inhabit an unpredictable and uncontrollable escalation spiral in our relations with Russia for years to come."

Outreach to Russia is a non-starter for the NATO alliance — for now

With Russia continuing to target Ukraine's energy grid and pummel small villages, there is no appetite among the Western alliance for a public conversation on this now. Some say as long as Putin remains in power, there shouldn't be one.

"There will be very, very loud debates in both Germany and France and other West European countries between those who are saying no, with Putin, we cannot make a deal anymore," says Roland Freudenstein, who heads the Brussels office of the GLOBSEC think tank.

A man uses a flashlight as he walks down a dark street during a blackout in Lviv on Dec. 16, 2022, after Russian strikes targeted the power infrastructure.
/ Yuriy Dyachyshyn/AFP via Getty Images
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Yuriy Dyachyshyn/AFP via Getty Images
A man uses a flashlight as he walks down a dark street during a blackout in Lviv on Dec. 16, 2022, after Russian strikes targeted the power infrastructure.

He also says others in Europe will argue "diplomacy is about talking to people we don't like." Freudenstein thinks those who say "no peace with Putin" will win the day.

Olga Oliker, program director for Europe and Central Asia with the International Crisis Group in Brussels, says managing Europe's future with Russia is the biggest challenge in the coming years.

Some NATO allies want to keep arming Ukraine to weaken Russia's military further and frighten Moscow by continuing to build up their own arsenals. Oliker says the problem with that tack is that Russia is already scared of NATO — and it has nuclear weapons.

"The other option," she says, "is that you talk to them and you figure out ways of limiting activities like [military] exercises, weapons deployments and so forth that make it harder to start a new war."

As Russia's invasion grinds into its second year, any such negotiations seem a long way off — but officials across Europe are already thinking about them and how to make sure that when the war in Ukraine finally ends, it's for good.

NPR London Producer Morgan Ayre contributed to this story.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Frank Langfitt is NPR's London correspondent. He covers the UK and Ireland, as well as stories elsewhere in Europe.
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