Commentary. After the Ramstein summit, the United States and NATO ask to what extent should Ukraine be armed? Already the balance of military strength is shifting eastward across Europe.

The Ukraine dilemma dividing NATO and rewriting European militarization

After Friday’s Ramstein summit with the “support group” for Kyiv, the dilemma of the Americans and NATO remains: up to what point should they arm Ukraine? Above all, doubts remain among the members of the Alliance in the face of a dangerous military escalation that now seems to be a foregone conclusion. Perhaps too much so, as the Germans are still refusing to send Ukraine their Leopard tanks.

The U.S. has allocated another $2.5 billion in weapons; overall, Washington has armed Kyiv to the tune of about $30 billion. But it is also true that the issue of German Leopard tanks is exacerbating divisions between an “Atlantic” NATO, that of Berlin, which for now is very hesitant to send its tanks to Ukraine, and a “Baltic” NATO, where Poland is eager to deploy Leopards and train Ukrainians.

As newly appointed German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius has hinted, Germany seems willing to approve the export of the Leopards it sold to Poland (more than 300) and other countries such as Finland (still awaiting the Turkish green light to join NATO), but is conditioning sending its own tanks (which would not be operational for a few months) on a U.S. decision to do the same. Moreover, the Americans themselves are unwilling to give Kyiv their sophisticated and powerful Abrams tanks, which they don’t want to ever see end up in Moscow’s hands, as happened when fighting the Iraqis in Baghdad in 2003. The Leopards, while fast and powerful, are also vulnerable without protective support: ISIS took out a few dozen Turkish ones in the siege of the Syrian city of Al Bab in 2017. Those seem like wars from a century ago, but they were the bloody and now-forgotten early previews of the world disorder that has taken us to the present point.

But when are we going to see the new Ukrainian army ready? On his way to the Ramstein defense summit with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, U.S. Chief of Staff Mark Milley said he thought it was possible the Ukrainians would conduct an offensive and take back more of the territory occupied by Russia. The general made no mention of Crimea; Zelensky recently stressed that it was on the table, setting as a condition for negotiations the withdrawal of Russian troops to the 1991 borders.

And while at the beginning of the conflict the Ukrainian president himself had opened the door to a neutral status for Ukraine and a limit on military cooperation with NATO, he is now explicitly aiming for the closest ties between Kyiv and the Atlantic Alliance, as Stoltenberg is insisting. Such an outcome would be a checkmate that the Kremlin does not seem willing to accept, especially now, in a jittery phase of the war that is difficult to read, marked by the replacement of General Sergei Surovikin with Chief of Staff General Valery Gerasimov and the rise in prominence of the Wagner Group and Chechen militias.

The Pentagon, more than the White House, has been a proponent of diplomacy on the part of Washington. According to Milley’s recent statements, during the winter a slowdown in the fighting could have opened “a window of opportunity for negotiations.” For the time being, this does not appear to have materialized, while the U.S. military is sticking with its view that neither side can inflict a definitive defeat on the other, emphasizing the determination on both sides to continue the fighting. Speaking in November before the Economic Club of New York, General Milley had been quite explicit: for negotiations to begin, “there has to be mutual recognition that military victory, in the true sense of the word, is probably not achievable, not through military means. And, therefore, you need to turn to other means.”

What then could be the Pentagon’s “strategy,” if any? Perhaps the failure (or rather the containment) of offensives by both sides, turning the conflict into a war of attrition and creating the conditions for a freeze of military operations with a subsequent ceasefire.

The examples of the Korean War, Cyprus or the Iran-Iraq conflict now come to mind, where the U.S. adopted the policy of “double containment”: nobody was supposed to win on the Shatt al-Arab. But the problem today is that Russia has forcibly attempted to redraw borders in gross violation of the U.N. Charter, for which there has been general condemnation, even from Moscow-linked powers such as China, India and Iran.

And so we reach the topic of us Europeans. Perhaps the most interesting point was made on Friday, on France Inter, by our colleague Pierre Haski (whom we’ve published in translation in the International section): which European country will have the most powerful military in the coming years? Under normal conditions, the answer would be France, the only nuclear power after London’s exit from the Union. But things are changing. If we set nuclear capabilities aside, the Union’s most powerful army will soon be that of Poland, which recently invested €15 billion in defense.

But this is not the only consequence of the war in Ukraine. All the EU’s internal balances are undergoing profound change, with an imbalance in favor of its eastern part. This is one of the topics that Scholz and Macron will have to talk about when they celebrate the 60th anniversary of the 1963 Franco-German reconciliation in Paris on Sunday. There is little to celebrate at the moment.

And as for Italy, what will it do? Defense Minister Crosetto has confirmed that we will help Ukraine with missile defense systems (Eurosam), adding, however, that “everything, as before, will remain secret.” Seasons pass, governments change but the methods remain the same.

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