Two days ago, in a commentary on the Ukrainian crisis, I invited to leave aside historical, moral or legal arguments to focus on the core of the issue. The question is essentially strategic and can be summed up as: will Ukraine ever be in NATO? Moscow considers this an existential threat (rightly or wrongly, it hardly matters) and is acting accordingly. And what about us?
The Atlantic diplomacies have tried to evade the issue, either by saying it was not on the agenda (of the present, but what about the future?) or by entrenching themselves behind the empty and hypocritical formula of "each State must be free to choose its alliances" (but the alliances can always refuse to accept it...). And they have been evading it for decades, actually.
First in 2004-05 ("Orange Revolution") then in 2013-2014 ("Euromaidan") our media and politicians got excited about the Ukrainian popular uprisings that were pushing the country towards the EU and NATO. They even went beyond cheering: tangible support was given to the success of those uprisings and their organization. However, when the new "pro-Western" leaders in Kiev approached their supporters in Washington, Rome, Berlin, London, and Paris, asking to actually join them in the EU and NATO, the response was negative.
It was a pity that, in the meantime, the delicate balance that had made Ukraine a "buffer state" between NATO and the Russian Federation throughout the 1990s had been broken. Poor, but neutral enough not to fear invasion and halfway enough to be able to try to collect as much as possible from the two suitors. We, NATO countries, helped and encouraged the Ukrainians to give up neutrality and antagonize Russia, but always halfway across the ford we left them. Thus, when in 2014 Moscow reacted to regime change in Kiev by annexing Crimea and occupying half of Donbass through proxies, NATO did not lift a finger. In the eight years since, Ukraine has not been admitted to either NATO or the EU. The consolation prize was military aid, which today will serve to exact a higher cost from the Russian invader, but certainly not to save Ukraine from defeat.
When the Russian willingness to threaten Ukraine became apparent weeks ago, European countries and the U.S. were quick to denounce it, deplore it, sympathize with Kiev and ...assure that they would not defend Ukraine. "No military intervention by NATO." This is how Kiev was rewarded, after pushing it to the wall-to-wall with Moscow.
All this is recapped not only to better clarify the terms of the issue, nor to highlight the terrible wrong we have done to the Ukrainians - seduced and abandoned. It also serves to understand the strategic mistake we made and the damage we are receiving.
The first damage is the likely loss of Ukraine. Putin will not want to occupy it and annex it in its entirety, but he will take a slice of the southeastern part and practice a kind of regime change in Kiev.
The second is the break with Russia itself. Sanctions and counter-sanctions will hurt Russia the most, but they will hurt us too. Having a confirmed enemy in the East will force NATO to concentrate its resources there, leaving few for the Mediterranean theater that most interests us as Italians. Moreover, it will deliver Putin's (the same one that around the year 2000 would have wanted to bring it into NATO) Russia to the full alliance with China, that is the real strategic rival of the West.
Many in these hours are accusing Putin of being "stuck in the nineteenth century", of isolating Russia and exposing it to harsh sanctions. But one detail escapes them: while they have been preoccupied with occupying the impalpable moral high ground, in the plain of reality Putin is seizing Ukraine. In other words, he has won and they have lost.
A defeat should be an opportunity to rethink our overall strategy.
Founder and President of Centro Studi Machiavelli. Graduated in Historical Sciences (University of Milan) and PhD in Political Studies (Sapienza University), he is professor of "History and doctrine of jihadism" and "Geopolitics of the Middle East" at Cusano University. From 2018 to 2019 he was Special Advisor on Immigration and Terrorism to the Undersecretary of Foreign Affairs Guglielmo Picchi. His latest book (as editor) is Topicality of sovereignism. Between pandemic and war.