As the NATO summit in Vilnius in mid-July approaches, an idea is gaining ground. Instead of alliance membership, Ukraine should be offered strong security guarantees and military assistance, as the United States provides to Israel. An unnamed senior administration official told the Wall St Journal that the US is considering something “loosely” based on this model. French President Emmanuel Macron told the GLOBSEC security conference in Bratislava last week that NATO must “build something between the security provided to Israel and full-fledged membership”. His Polish counterpart Andrzej Duda agrees.
More arms for Ukraine, closer intelligence cooperation, and technology transfer are all welcome. But it would be a serious mistake for Ukraine (and its allies) to settle for anything short of full NATO membership. And the geographical, historical, and political differences between Ukraine and Israel render the model all but meaningless. Ukraine (population 40m) has one bad neighbor; Israel (10m) has no good ones. Israel has only one friend that matters: the faraway United States. Ukraine has many, mostly close at hand. Yes, both countries have internal rifts, but they are on a different scale. War has diminished Ukraine’s linguistic and other divisions. Israel’s polarisation is increasing. It is highly unlikely (thank goodness) that any post-war territorial settlement in Ukraine would create the equivalent of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.
It is true that both countries face existential threats, from neighbors who blithely use the rhetoric of extermination. The result in Israel’s case is that the country does its own thing. It has an undeclared nuclear weapons arsenal. Its formidable Mossad intelligence service spies on everyone, everywhere. It conducts a successful long-range assassination program, from Nazi war criminals and Palestinian terrorists to Iranian nuclear scientists. When necessary, Israel strikes its foes by air, land, and sea. Is that really what NATO wants to see in post-war Ukraine?
NATO enlargement primarily guarantees the military defense of its new members. But another, often overlooked benefit is that it also instills security within them. The Baltic states in the first ten years of their restored independence, for example, were not short of exuberance, ingenuity, and determination when it came to dealing with external and internal threats. But the results were sometimes hair-raising. Secrets leaked. Highly unsuitable people gained high positions. Boundaries blurred between politics, business, public administration, and intelligence work. Meeting NATO standards involved unlearning these bad habits and acquiring some good ones. Life after accession in 2004 became duller as a result, though plenty of unpleasant excitements remained. The Estonian official in charge of defense secrets (and meeting NATO standards in handling them) was an ex-policeman called Herman Simm. He was arrested as a Russian spy in 2008, four years after Estonia joined NATO, and only after a tip-off from another country. He had escaped scrutiny in the slipshod 1990s.
However the war ends, it will leave Ukraine in a state of post-traumatic stress and shock. Russia, whether victorious, defeated, or exhausted, will be in an even graver state. This dangerous, murky landscape will test Western nerves, unity, and diplomatic skill. NATO membership is the best guarantee that Ukraine’s defense, security, and intelligence services are under proper political control — and that politicians give them the right orders. Spectacular semi-freelance operations across the Russian border by ragtag independent outfits may be justified as cunning stunts in wartime, distracting and demoralizing the enemy. They have no place in peacetime.
Ambiguity and half-measures are always tempting. But postponing hard decisions rarely makes them easier. The safest course for NATO, Ukraine, and everyone else is to bring it as swiftly as possible into the alliance.
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.