Trapped in NATO antechamber, Kyiv eyes ‘military Marshall plan’
July 27, 2023
Strategy is a matter of choice. Turkey’s in extremis blessing of Sweden’s bid to join NATO, two days before the organisation’s Vilnius summit kicked off on 11 July, did not conceal the difficult equation that diplomats had to solve in the Lithuanian capital city: what status should Ukraine be granted? How could NATO get this war-torn European country out of its never-ending “in between” position, a grey zone and a strategic no man’s land that have left it vulnerable to those who deny it the right to exist? At the close of the meeting, it’s important o acknowledge that the circle has not been squared.
The dangers of a conditional accession
In the summit’s communiqué, NATO members stated that “we fully support Ukraine’s right to choose its own security arrangements and declared that its "future is in NATO”. This is, of course, welcome and even Henry Kissinger, a famous proponent of realpolitik who was long opposed to Ukraine’s membership, shifted views earlier this year.
Kyiv did not expect to immediately become the 33rd member of an organisation, which had been jolted back to life with the “worst of electroshock”, as French president Emmanuel Macron phrased it, by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022. However, US president Joe Biden cut the enthusiasm short: a “prematured” accession would thrust NATO into a direct military conflict with Russia, which sees the Alliance as an existential threat. Volodymyr Zelensky himself admitted that his country could not join as long as the war was still being fought.
Yet in Vilnius, the purpose was to draft a clear and coherent roadmap for Ukraine, bold enough to dispel any attempts from the Kremlin to drive a wedge between the Allies; a springboard for Ukraine’s NATO membership rather than an alternative. All this, without taking the risk of extending the conflict.
Unfortunately for Kyiv, the final communiqué postpones Ukraine’s firm and final membership until the Greek calends: “We will be in a position to extend an invitation to Ukraine to join the Alliance when Allies agree and conditions are met.”
The “infamous” sentence of the 2008 Bucharest summit – “We agreed today that [Georgia and Ukraine] will become members of NATO” – was a red flag for the Ukrainian authorities, the status quo negotiated in Vilnius is hardly more ambitious. As the former secretary-general of the alliance (2009-2014), Anders Fogh Rasmussen, warned, conditioning Ukraine’s accession to the cessation of hostilities can only encourage Vladimir Putin to pursue an endless war, de facto granting him a perpetual veto on Ukraine’s entry into the Atlantic Alliance.
Even once a ceasefire is agreed, nothing ensures that all Allies will unanimously sponsor Ukraine’s candidature. Thus, Russia’s illegal occupation of Crimea becoming permanent – something that many regard as inevitable – could provide skittish member states with a convenient excuse to keep on blocking it. Diverging views before Vilnius – from Erdoğan’s unexpected nihil obstat (“Ukraine deserves NATO membership”) to Berlin’s lukewarm position – are weaknesses that Moscow could exploit. As Zelensky warned: “We must remember that every doubt we show here in Europe is a trench that Russia will definitely try to occupy.”
How to deal with the “interim” period?
In the absence of a prompt integration of Ukraine into NATO, much will depend on the political and military support delivered by the Allies, individually and collectively. This will be decisive to dissuade Russia from engaging into a new escalation and to place Ukraine in a strong negotiating position when time comes for a peace settlement.
The debate about “security guarantees” erupted right after the launch of the Russian “special operation”. In March 2022, following several rounds of Russian-Ukrainian talks in Istanbul, the head of the Ukrainian delegation, David Arakhamia, came up with an official proposal for a new mechanism of security guarantees for Ukraine: his country would opt for a status of permanent neutrality if an “international treaty” would be signed by countries as guarantors of its security. Since then, however, neutrality for Ukraine has been relegated to the dustbin of history.
A group of eminent experts chaired by Andriy Yermak, head of the office of the president of Ukraine, and Rasmussen, grabbed the idea to suggest an ambitious “security compact”. The report, submitted to the Ukrainian president on 13 September 2022, contains binding security guarantees that would allow the country, without renouncing an eventual adhesion to NATO, to conduct its own defence until it could benefit from the protection under the 1949 North Atlantic Treaty. France and the UK – both of which are nuclear powers – would be guarantors, having previously declared that they stood ready to “help Ukraine defend itself in the long term”. The United States, Canada, and Poland would also sign on, committing to assist Ukraine with all the means in their power in the event of an aggression, based on bilateral arrangements.
A military ‘Marshall Plan’
This kind of military “Marshall Plan”, as Eric Ciaramella, senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, coined it, would keep Ukraine under “qualitative military edge”, the technological and tactical advantage to deter and, if necessary, defeat a numerically superior adversary. The “Kyiv Security Compact” draws its inspiration from the “hedgehog theory”, under which a state becomes so well armed that its enemies will not try to swallow it. Hence, Russia would be “deterred by denial” from any further aggression. A framework modelled in part after the US government’s relationship with Israel, which has influenced the Ukrainians from the beginning and which Emmanuel Macron mentioned during his speech at the Globsec forum in Bratislava, Slovakia, on 1 June.
Today, the “Kyiv Security Compact” is embodied into the assurances offered, on the margins of the Vilnius summit, by the G7 members. The world powers commit themselves to “launch[ing] negotiations with Ukraine to formalise – through bilateral security commitments and arrangements aligned with this multilateral framework […] their enduring support to Ukraine”. This includes:
- security assistance and modern military equipment;
- support to further develop Ukraine’s defence industrial base;
- training for Ukrainian forces;
- intelligence sharing and cooperation;
- support for cyberdefence, security, and resilience initiatives, including to address hybrid threats.
The European Union could follow this path, and complement the G7’s offer with its own set of assistance measures. Since 23 June 2022, Ukraine is officially a candidate, and the meeting of the council on 29 June 2023 confirmed that the European Union is “ready to contribute, together with partners, to future security commitments to Ukraine, which will help Ukraine defend itself in the long term, deter acts of aggression and resist destabilisation efforts”.
At the second summit of the European Political Community in Moldova, one month before the Vilnius NATO summit, Zelensky asserted that “Ukraine is ready to be in NATO”. His partners decided otherwise. The Ukrainian leader, who attended the inaugural meeting of the NATO-Ukraine Council in the Lithuanian capital, does not leave with empty hands, however. His country will have access to a simplified and expedited procedure for NATO accession, which acknowledges the progress made by Ukrainian forces. However, the president’s frustration was perceptible, which did not escape the attention of Moscow’s media.
Jens Stoltenberg, the Secretary-General of the Atlantic Alliance, stated that Ukraine is “now closer to NATO than ever before”. More realistically, one could say that the martyred country remains trapped in the antechamber of the new European security order.