Much has been said about post-war security guarantees for Ukraine. One idea is a massive armament program to make Ukraine a “porcupine” — too difficult to attack and swallow. This could be combined with a bilateral security guarantee from the United States — such as with Israel — or other individual NATO and non-NATO member states. One recent Foreign Affairs article proposed an alliance-led multinational stability force, including US boots on the ground.
All of these suggestions for security guarantees, however, have their own major problems. At root, they are all efforts to work around what is the most obvious conclusion: Ukraine should be a member of NATO.
At the end of the current phase of the war, Ukraine will have the largest, most experienced, and best-equipped Western military in Europe. Under any circumstances, Ukraine and the West will want to maintain this level of capability to deter future aggression. There is no reason why this de facto NATO membership should not become an actual treaty commitment. This would deter aggression even more effectively.
We have a track record with non-NATO security guarantees in Europe, and it is not a good one. In the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, Russia, the UK, France and the United States pledged to guarantee Ukraine’s security within its internationally recognized borders. But when Russia violated this agreement in 2014, the pledge meant nothing. In 2008, NATO said Ukraine and Georgia would one day become NATO members, but decided not to offer them a Membership Action Plan. In August 2008, Russia turned its so-called peacekeeping forces in Georgia into occupiers, and neither NATO nor the EU did anything to overturn this.
In the wake of Russia’s all-out 2022 invasion of Ukraine, Sweden and Finland — Europe’s most powerful neutral states — decided that they needed to join NATO to assure their security in the future. “Porcupine” status (which Finland could be said to possess) was not enough. How could anyone ask Ukraine to accept a security arrangement that Finland and Sweden both determined was inadequate?
As for a new multinational force in Ukraine, there is no reason to think it would have the structure, leadership, or unity of purpose to be effective. Nor would it win any greater acceptance from a Putinesque Russia than Ukrainian NATO membership itself. NATO is a known quantity, and we know from experience that Russia takes alliance security guarantees seriously.
NATO membership should not stop with Ukraine. NATO should encompass all the states currently stuck in Europe’s “grey zones.” Putin has demonstrated he is willing to attack non-NATO states and seize territory if he can. He did so in Georgia and Moldova even before attacking Ukraine. Serbia, with Russia’s direct support, seeks to do the same in the Balkans. Future security in Europe demands an end to grey zones.
From a purely domestic US political perspective, the arguments for Ukrainian NATO membership are even more persuasive.
To keep Russia out, there must be an ironclad US commitment to defend Ukraine. Yet to win Congressional support, America’s other NATO allies will have to share the burden. The only security guarantee that makes sense is the one we offer through NATO, with all other NATO allies equally committed.
On the economic side, the European Union (EU) has declared that Ukraine is a candidate for membership. Yet this is still perceived in Western Europe as a long-term, generic proposition, with no clear commitment or timeline. Advancing Ukraine’s EU accession process should be an immediate task for both Ukraine and the EU.
As reconstruction assistance and foreign investment flow into Ukraine to rebuild the economy, the West should insist that Ukraine adopt the EU rulebook, the acquis, especially in the economy, energy, and rule of law sectors. This has to be done as swiftly as possible. Foreign investors are likely to require this, and the wartime situation in Ukraine provides ample justification for “shock therapy” economic and rule of law reforms.
The EU and US have their own reasons to support such an accelerated process: together, they are covering €3bn ($3.25bn) per month in assistance to Ukraine’s state budget. The sooner Ukraine’s economy starts growing robustly again, the greater Ukraine’s tax revenue will be, thus diminishing the amount of Western budgetary assistance required.
As with NATO, the European Union should accelerate accession talks for Moldova and Georgia. While both have significant work to do, it is vital to send a clear signal that these states will fully be a part of Europe, alongside Ukraine. Withholding candidate status for Georgia would only relegate it to the Russian sphere of influence: exactly the opposite of what the Georgian people want and what the West should support.
Russia must withdraw from the lands it has occupied beyond its borders. That will mean both Moldova and Georgia offering citizenship and zero-retribution policies to the population in occupied territories, provided they accept citizenship and agree to be part of those states in the future. Those populations will not accept such an offer today, but it is important they know the goodwill is there when Russia is ultimately defeated in Ukraine.
These policies to extend NATO and the EU will deter future war, and make Europe stronger and safer. This alone is a good reason to pursue such policies.
But a further reason is the message to China. China needs to see that Russia’s war of aggression has failed to extinguish Ukrainian statehood, weakened Russia, unified the West, and closed pre-existing security gaps in Russia’s neighborhood. These outcomes would all tell China to avoid an ill-considered military campaign against Taiwan.
Looking ahead, the United States and EU must do more to strengthen their own joint leadership in a Western, economic, and law-based global order. With the possibility of a still-revanchist Russia, as well as a growing threat from China, further steps will be required to strengthen the transatlantic bond. NATO does this in the security sphere. In the economic sphere, a new Transatlantic Investment, Growth, and Resilience (TIGRE) Pact is needed to strengthen the collective Western economy and law-based international order.
Ambassador Kurt Volker is a Distinguished Fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis. A leading expert in US foreign and national security policy, he served as US Special Representative for Ukraine Negotiations from 2017-2019, and as US Ambassador to NATO from 2008-2009.
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.