What does the West want for Ukraine?

There were times when it felt like the preference was for a Ukraine that simply vanished. My country was too often seen as an irritant, an inconvenience that complicated relations with Russia.

The beginning of enlightenment came in 2014, when Putin and his forces seized and annexed Crimea. This made the US and Europe uncomfortable, if not yet alarmed. Changing borders by force was supposed to be a thing of the past. That unease deepened when the Kremlin infiltrated Eastern Ukraine and tried to tear off large chunks of the country. Although this failed, it started a war that has continued to this day.

The West has been on a long journey since then. Ukraine has evolved from an irritant to a flagbearer of democratic heroism, its people are recognized and admired throughout the world. Our flag represents something across the free world; blue and yellow are now such potent symbols that Russians are questioned and arrested simply for wearing these colors.

This change in outlook is great, but it doesn’t answer the most important question — what happens next? When can Ukraine make good on the alliance’s 15-year-old promise of membership? Our friends – who have generously sent arms, munitions, and financial aid — face this issue as NATO’s 31 member states meet in Vilnius on July 11-12.

The answer, from a Ukrainian point of view, is inconsistent. In April, Ukraine’s expectations regarding practical steps for its NATO membership and “security guarantees on this path,” were reinforced by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, who emphasized that “Ukraine’s rightful place is in the Euro-Atlantic family” and declared the agreement of all NATO countries its Ukraine’s membership.

But the recent signals from the capitals of major NATO members indicate less commitment. The German Chancellor Olaf Scholz recently stated that future security guarantees for Ukraine will amount to less than fully fledged NATO membership. This approach was reiterated by the British Minister of Defence Ben Wallace (“not right now”) and by various non-attributable leaks from the US administration proposing “mutual defense pacts or security memorandums.” The US ambassador to NATO Julianne Smith stated that Ukraine will not acquire full-scale membership, but will get support from the organization.

This provokes obvious and painful parallels with the notorious Budapest Memorandum of 1994, which turned to be a useless piece of paper issued to Ukraine in exchange for its huge nuclear arsenal. It is extremely hard to believe that the ongoing game of words like “assurances,” “guarantees,” “warranties,” “commitments,” and so on would deter anybody (Russia) from another round of cross-border thuggery. Nor can Ukrainians forget other historical parallels, like the 1939-40 “Phony War” or “Sitzkrieg” in German, during which the Anglo-French alliance declared war to save Poland and then did nothing at all to aid it.

Thus, the hardest question is not the words the West chooses, but the military muscle it is prepared to pledge. Will it mean nothing — like Budapest — or will it mean boots on the ground, tripwire forces, and planes in the air sufficient to deter Putin and his successors?

An answer might be the establishment of another defense union – some kind of Eastern Flank subsidiary of the alliance; a Ukraine-NATO Council has been mentioned. Besides Ukraine, this defense alliance could include Poland, the Baltic countries, the democracies of the Black Sea region, as well as any other countries like the Nordic states and the UK, that either feel a security dependence on Ukraine’s ability to constrain Russian aggression, or place their commitment to the rule-based international order higher than individual political risks.

From a practical perspective, such a union would provide Ukraine with more than just guarantees, but a framework of assistance in case of another Russian assault and legal grounds for foreign troops to join the battle against Russians on Ukrainian territory. Although notionally independent, this new union would have the backing of the mighty NATO alliance but without its formal involvement.

There is, however, a more serious question that seems not to have been considered. Speaking to the BBC in March, the British former Deputy Supreme Allied Commander, General Richard Shirreff, said he had recently visited Kyiv and spoken to members of the government who reflected that had Ukraine kept its nuclear weapons, it would never have been invaded.

He pointed to the clear risks that Ukraine outside NATO would draw the same conclusion as another Western ally, Israel, which decided that it must have nuclear weapons to guarantee its survival (and remember, Ukraine already has an advanced civil nuclear industry.) In addition, the country’s military Main Intelligence Directorate under Major General Kyrylo Budanov has a significant track record of audacious acts inside Russia. Outside the alliance, it may feel the need to continue these to hamstring the enemy. If stability is what NATO wants, it will find that Ukraine is a better partner inside the organization.

A NATO decision not to offer membership will do nothing to prevent military escalation in Europe but, on the contrary, will provoke a return to nuclear rhetoric and saber-rattling.

In the end, in one way or another, Ukraine needs to join so that Russia understands that a forever war against its neighbor will not be allowed in 21st-century Europe.

Oleksandr Moskalenko is an academic researcher  focusing on European politics. He is  an In-resident Fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA, Washington, DC). He is a Ph.D. in European Law  and previously lived in the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv. 

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.

Europe's Edge
CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America.
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