NATO Summit: The Conundrum of Security Guarantees for Ukraine
By Sigita Struberga and Matej Kandrik
Originally published in “Visegrad Insight”, www.visegradinsight.eu
The NATO Summit poses an opportunity for the West to show continued support for Ukraine against Russian aggression. While NATO members have clearly led the way with the supply of armaments and munitions, Kyiv continues to look for the ultimate guarantee, membership in the alliance.
Next week is the NATO Summit in Vilnius, and debates over security guarantees for Ukraine are intensifying.
At the centre of often rather heated discussions is the issue of Ukraine’s membership in the alliance or different security guarantees arrangement of equal value. Aside from the moral arguments and sentiments, which are naturally part of such debates, there are also assumptions, uncertainties, conditions, conflicting interests and caveats intrinsically connected to each option.
When issues of high statecraft and strategy are considered, rarely is it a clear-cut matter.
Security guarantees for Ukraine mean deterrence of any future armed aggression against the country by Russia or another actor. They are vital prerequisites for Ukraine’s reconstruction, development, prosperity and full integration into the EU as well as critical for broader regional security and stability.
The logical starting point of the security guarantees, therefore, is the last day of the current war. When and how the war will end will define the scope of possibilities regarding guarantees.
Another starting point might be a creative interpretation of what the West would mean by “security guarantees”. In this case, it would open opportunities for the continuation of existing rhetoric in order to provide strong verbal signalling against the aggressor while balancing to prevent NATO from being drawn into the war.
Israel on steroids but with no nukes
One way, at least theoretically, how to deter Russia from future aggression is through a massive buildup of Ukraine’s defence capabilities and capacities with no commitments of help in a case of attack. This would entail turning Ukraine into a porcupine able to give a considerable punch.
Such a strategy would involve considerable spending, which will drive up the cost of a war for the aggressor while increasing investment in non-conventional areas. Its primary aim is to make the invasion difficult and costly for the enemy. Under certain circumstances, this might be called “new security guarantees” for Ukraine and might become one of the ways the West could communicate strategically to Russia about their united commitment against any aggression.
At the same time, a massive build-up of non-nuclear strategic capabilities –such as long-range precision strikes, missile defence and electronic and cyber capabilities – enable Ukraine to defend its territory and hit Russia or any other opponent hard on its own soil.
It is already clear that the West will increasingly continue to supply long-range weapons. There are various conditions for such an action – from Ukraine’s clear necessity up to the real possibilities of the West to continue supporting the resistance.
Under such circumstances, the Western incrementalist approach to decision-making only creates additional unnecessary complications since critical and meaningful decisions in this regard will be made anyway.
The argument against escalation due to the lack of Western supplies does not hold water for two main reasons. First, Ukrainian incursions into Russian territory for Ukraine would mean self-defence and nothing else. Second, the logic of escalation is not determined by the types of weaponry supplied by the West or Ukraine’s possible activities on Russian territory; it is purely a political choice.
The defence posture for Ukraine would need to combine a whole-of-the-society commitment – or a “total defence” style – with an abundance of hi-tech weapons systems.
This option would unavoidably mean turning Ukraine into a highly militarised society and needing foreign military aid worth tens of billions for decades. To tilt the conventional asymmetry in favour of Ukraine vis-a-vis Russia is not impossible but certainly extremely demanding in financial, political and societal terms both for Ukraine and the countries delivering the aid.
This does raise the question of whether the West even theoretically has the capacity to arm Ukraine in such a manner. The second question is how this kind of process could be affected by the disillusionment between the West and Ukraine, which might (again theoretically) appear at a particular moment.
Another, again at least theoretical option, in line with deterring Russia by its own means, would be Ukraine gaining nuclear weapons. Many pundits perceive the “original sin” of Kyiv giving up inherited Soviet nuclear arsenal on its territory for the Budapest Memorandum agreements and its security assurances with no legal obligations of military assistance on signatories. Today, contemplating Ukraine’s nuclear capabilities is just an intellectual exercise and in no way a real option, as it would alienate the US and the rest of its partners.
Gloomy NATO perspectives
The second option for Ukraine is multilateral or bilateral formal treaty commitments, eventually including allied troops’ presence in the country. The most discussed option is naturally NATO membership and viable solutions for the period until formal ascension.
One such solution mentioned recently is the removal of the Membership Action Plan for Ukraine. Ivo Daalder, the U.S. ambassador to NATO from 2009 to 2013, sees it as a significant step. In his interview with Politico, he said. “It tells the Ukrainians they are moving closer.” Does it really mean anything significant but strategic communication?
Less frequent but present are also other suggestions for acceptable alternatives.
It is generally acknowledged that during the war, membership is impossible, as Allies have little stomach to officially escalate the Russo-Ukrainian War into a full-blown war between Russia and NATO. Yet, the end of war is not a sufficient condition, even if it is indeed a necessary one. Allies must have a very clear idea of the borders they must defend, which sets a precondition of membership for resolving all territorial disputes.
If Ukraine will succeed in fully liberating all occupied territories, including Crimea, this precondition will be easily solved.
Yet, in a more pessimistic scenario where some territories remain disputed and assuming Ukraine retains the goal of reuniting the country, NATO and Kyiv might find themselves between a rock and a hard place. Membership would most likely be contingent on a formal law binding Ukraine to seek reunification by peaceful means only.
That’s not a small thing to ask from people who committed everything to complete victory and a career-breaking task for the administration of a war-time president like Volodymyr Zelenskyy. For Ukraine itself, agreeing to such invitations is not only a moral question but also a question of potentially further territorial losses and latent conflicts in the long term.
For the West, on the other hand, this essentially means a scenario close to the one played out in Georgia in that it sends the wrong signals to Russia in regard to the territorial integrity and sovereignty of its neighbours.
To continue sending the right signals would mean to define publicly that Ukraine’s victory means the complete restoration of the Ukrainian territory according to the borderlines set before 2014. Unfortunately, this most likely will not happen.
Article V misconstrued
While it is analytically correct to read the heart of the Washington Treaty as leaving space to act individually or collectively as deemed necessary, it devalues and underestimates the political purpose of the article.
NATO is a collective defence organisation committed to defending every inch of Allied territory. It is in no one’s interest to suggest that sending individual thoughts and prayers would be considered legitimate fulfilment of the commitment enshrined by the Article.
Would Ukraine even seek membership in an Alliance built on such a flexible understanding of the principle? What’s there to gain with all the training, equipment, intelligence and other support already going into the country from NATO membership, if not rock-solid collective defence commitment?
Such attempts to downscale the likelihood of a Russia-NATO war made Allies keener to agree with the Ukrainian membership before resolving the current war and territorial issues, which is profoundly understandable but also dangerous.
The strategic consequence of watering down the Article V commitment would serve only the Kremlin’s interests. This is well understood by NATO officials as well. NATO Secretary Jens Stoltenberg underlined last week: “We all want this war to end, but a just peace cannot mean freezing the conflict and accepting a deal dictated by Russia”.
Under such circumstances, the most likely scenario is an attempt to balance between a “firm” position that Ukraine is and will be part of the Western hemisphere and a part of NATO in the future without any real steps towards granting membership.
This can mean new, creative formations for strengthening partnership or the accession process, while both parties know that actual membership is neither a short- nor medium-term issue.
At the same time, this whole situation reveals profound schizophrenia in our deterrence posture as the Alliance. We don’t want a war with Russia; therefore, we build nuclear and conventional arsenals with the promise of collective defence to deter the Kremlin.
At the same time, we fear war with Russia so much that we deny Ukraine the same mechanism now and promise it only for the future if the risk for us is acceptably low. Isn’t this also telling us something very important about our commitment between members?
Thinking outside the box
There is one more option, sometimes discussed as the “Korean scenario“.
Some even consider it the most likely long-term outcome if no significant shift in the war will occur until 2024/2025. This is based on the evolution of the war into a frozen conflict with no formal peace agreement but just an armistice.
The situation between conflicting parties would undoubtedly be fragile, yet it also can be stable enough to preserve lives and transform the war effort into restoring the economy.
It’s important to mention that the Korean armistice, which took two years to negotiate, was followed in just two months by a Mutual Defense Treaty between the United States and the Republic of Korea.
The agreement commits the two countries to provide mutual aid if either faces external armed attack and allows the United States to station military forces in South Korea in consultation with the South Korean government.
Seventy years of US-ROK alliance has allowed South Korea to develop into a stable democracy with a thriving economy, technological leadership in many cut-edging areas and a mighty military despite ever looming threat from WMD-armed North Korea. Crucial for upholding the truce was arguably the US commitment present in the form of tens of thousands of troops stationed in Korea, massive military aid and robust assistance programs for ROK’s armed forces.
The “Koreanisation” of the Russian-Ukrainian war would ask for a similar level of guarantees, while the number of actors capable of such commitment is fairly limited; only the US could be capable of bearing the costs alone.
For domestic, diplomatic and economic burden-sharing reasons, Washington would seek an “alliance of willing” to cast a security umbrella over a divided yet rebuilding Ukraine.
Clear support from the G7 countries and beyond would be a necessity, including those with divergent strategic interests like China.
Still, the problem stays the same, and it’s the underlying fear of getting to war with an actor possessing nuclear weapons, which undoubtedly is a terrifying prospect.
It is worth remembering that Russia enjoys far more strategic depth and industrial capacity than the West might hope, and the Russian nation’s readiness and ability to “пережить тяжелые времена” (go through hard times) surpasses that of the West.
A slow, incremental approach in providing support to Ukraine or a slow pace in strengthening the alliance itself can grant Russia the opportunity to rebuild its capabilities for further aggression against the West.
The Gordian knot of security guarantees for Ukraine has no real solution in well-designed action plans or endless diplomatic negotiations. Those can provide some more time and more space for negotiations with the unspoken hope for some significant change in the current situation.
Yet, wishful thinking is no substitute for statesmanship willing to make risky choices, not just safe ones.