Ukraine wants credible security guarantees
History has taught the Ukrainian leadership to be suspicious of Western promises to guarantee security. On December 5, 1994, the then leader of Ukraine, Leonid Kuchma, met in Budapest with Boris Yeltsin. Their talks were closely watched by US President Bill Clinton and British Prime Minister John Major. Then Ukraine exchanged its nuclear power for financial compensation and firm promises of non-aggression from the signatories of the memorandum. Because of the risk of international isolation and the exorbitant costs of storing such weapons, Ukraine had little chance of maintaining its nuclear arsenal. Then the Ukrainian authorities came to the conclusion that the Budapest agreements would significantly increase the country's security. Thirty years later, in 2022, a few days before the start of the Russian invasion, Zelensky at the Munich Security Conference criticized the failure of the Budapest Memorandum and the precarious position in which it had placed Ukraine. “We don’t have these [nuclear] weapons. And we have no security,” he stressed.
In addition, in 2008, at the NATO summit in Bucharest, Ukraine and Georgia were promised membership in the alliance. However, this did not happen. And in 2014, no one stopped the Russian military who entered Crimea and the Donbass. The status of a NATO enhanced partner, granted to Ukraine in 2020, also did not protect the country from further full-scale aggression from Russia.
The status of a NATO partner with enhanced capabilities did not protect the country from Russian aggression
Given the unfulfilled promises of the West and Russian aggression, Ukraine's arguments in favor of an urgent increase in security guarantees are more serious than ever. Regardless of the success of the current counter-offensive, Ukrainian troops have already demonstrated their combat capability and saved Europe from the dangerous approach of Russia to its borders.
Ukraine wants credible security guarantees from the West to do three things: convince Putin not to attack Ukraine again; not let him start a big war in Europe; to establish permanent support for Kyiv from the West, which will consist not only in the supply of weapons.
The last point is especially important for Ukrainians. The treaty will help them avoid radical changes in the policy of Western states to support Ukraine, regardless of who is in power. After all, it is not known what the contribution of Washington and Paris in support of Kyiv will look like if Donald Trump and Marine Le Pen win the elections. Long-term security guarantees would ensure greater continuity of course towards Ukraine and avoid instability due to a change in political leadership.
The prospect of joining NATO
At the moment, Kiev has managed to achieve most of the key tasks necessary for joining NATO. In addition, the Ukrainian army is actively developing weapons and NATO standards. The mutual benefit of such an alliance is undeniable: for the alliance, cooperation with Ukraine, which now has one of the most experienced armies in Europe, will also be an important strategic acquisition.
And yet, despite the fact that former and current politicians are much more likely to speak positively about this idea, Ukrainians still have little chance of joining the alliance. The main obstacle in the way of Kyiv is at the same time the main advantage of NATO. According to Article 5 of the NATO Charter, "an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be regarded as an attack against them as a whole." Meanwhile, NATO members seek to avoid a direct confrontation with Russia and do not want to extend protection to Ukraine until the end of hostilities. Their task is precisely to avoid direct intervention in the conflict.
Despite the fact that many politicians speak positively about this idea, Ukraine has little chance of joining NATO.
In addition, Ukraine's borders must be clearly defined in order to qualify for membership. Kyiv needs to indicate which territories are under the protection of the alliance. And this will inevitably raise the question of the status of the occupied territories. In turn, NATO will have to plan for response in case Ukraine tries to return the lands seized by Russia after gaining membership.
Finally, Turkey's and Hungary's opposition to Sweden's accession to NATO highlights the difficulty of reaching consensus on candidates. And the case of Ukraine is certainly even more sensitive. Even Germany is reluctant to propose a Membership Action Plan (MAP) to Ukraine. Although Ukraine is no longer interested in this. The example of Bosnia and Herzegovina, in respect of which the MAP was put into effect 13 years ago, proves that this is far from a guarantee of joining NATO.
Alternative Models of Security Assurances
Western leaders are actively discussing various alternatives to joining NATO. For example, membership in the EU implies the provision of assistance in accordance with the article stipulating mutual protection (42.7) in the treaty of the European Union: “In the event that a member state is subjected to armed aggression on its territory, other member states must provide it with assistance and assistance by all means available to them."
The EU countries also agreed to make "future security commitments" to Ukraine in the run-up to the NATO summit. The European Union is committed to continuing to fund arms supplies to Ukraine through the European Peace Fund and to expand training initiatives for Ukrainian troops, no matter what the alliance decides on its own security guarantees for Kiev. However, without the US, the EU will not have the resources to give Ukraine enough support to contain Putin's army.
Without the US, the EU will not have the resources to give Ukraine enough support to contain Putin's army
In addition, Ukraine's accession to the European Union will take a long time due to legal and economic requirements. Perhaps it will be even longer than joining NATO. In addition, if Poland and the Baltic countries support the accelerated accession of Ukraine, then among other EU countries there is no consensus on this issue.
Yet this does not mean that the EU should not play any role in providing security guarantees to Ukraine. These can be strengthened within a larger multilateral structure: organization of reconstruction works, military missions in Ukraine after the end of the conflict, and implementation of economic projects, for example, support for Ukrainian maritime exports, through the involvement of observers.
Another alternative model is a formal mutual defense treaty. Such agreements have been concluded between the United States and the Philippines, the Republic of Korea and Japan. According to them, if one of the parties is subjected to aggression by a third power, the other party to the treaty must provide assistance. However, in the case of Ukraine, such actions will increase the risk of a war between the United States and Russia. Therefore, Washington does not want to sign a formal mutual defense treaty with Ukraine.
Washington does not want to sign a formal mutual defense treaty with Ukraine
Another way of cooperation is the example of US support for Taiwan. It is based on the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA), passed in 1979 by the United States after it recognized the PRC government as the sole legitimate government of China. Under the TRA, the United States is committed to providing "defense items and services in such quantity as may be necessary for Taiwan to maintain a sufficient self-defense capability." In the same place, Washington emphasizes that it will experience "serious concern" if China attacks Taiwan.
At the same time, the US maintains a “strategic ambiguity” about its intervention in the event that China decides to go to war. The purpose of the act is precisely to prevent Taiwan from declaring independence and to keep China from being attacked. Ukraine, on the other hand, faces another challenge: to put an end to the ambiguity that has characterized the policy of the Western powers towards it in recent years. Zelenskiy wants to secure long-term credible official commitments.
Cooperation on the Israeli model
The United States is considering offering Zelensky an "Israeli model" of cooperation without joining NATO. Ukraine has long been interested in this form of cooperation. Back in 2018, one of the leading Ukrainian think tanks held a conference called “The Experience of Creating the State of Israel: Lessons for Ukraine.” In March 2022, Zelensky expressed his desire for Ukraine to develop its defense and security sphere along the lines of Israel. And in September of the same year, former NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen and head of the Office of the President of Ukraine Andriy Yermak presented the Kiev Security Treaty, a draft document on international guarantees to Kiev, which they compared with Israel.
Israel has received massive financial aid and military transfers from the United States since the 1973 Yom Kippur War. There is no formal defense treaty between the United States and Israel, but US obligations are regulated by law. Washington allocates $3.8 billion annually to Israel for defense, for a total of $158 billion. Israel receives about 60% of all US military assistance programs provided to foreign countries. This allows Israel to defend itself as well as develop its own military industry and technology to become increasingly independent of outside support. For example, the Iron Dome system was developed with US money. In addition, over the years, Israel has become one of the world leaders in the field of military technology and exports its systems abroad.
Israel receives about 60% of the total volume of all US military aid programs
America's support is also aimed at securing Israel's Qualitative Military Edge. This implies technological, tactical and other advantages over the countries of the Middle East. Thus, Israel gets the defense technology of the United States earlier than its neighbors. In addition, more advanced versions of weapons are supplied to the country. Israel became the first country to import a single-seat F-35 fighter jet from the United States. The promise of "qualitative military superiority" to Ukraine could lead to a more simplified and faster delivery of new weapons, such as long-range ATACMS missiles and fighter jets.
Of course, the Israeli system of security guarantees is far from flawless. For example, one of its shortcomings is the excessive militarization of society to the detriment of certain democratic standards. Nevertheless, such a military alliance with the United States allowed Jerusalem to largely neutralize the threats from its neighbors and keep them from aggression. Of course, there is a danger from Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah, but still the situation has improved significantly compared even to the early 2000s.
And most importantly, despite the fact that there is no formal defense treaty between the United States and Israel, support for Jerusalem is regulated by law, and its terms are renegotiated every decade. This helps to insulate Israel from policy fluctuations due to changes in American leadership. Both US political parties remain loyal to Israel under different administrations. Similarly, Ukraine enjoys, for the most part, the support of both Democrats and Republicans in Washington. But it would be wise to consolidate this cooperation for the long term.
Some experts draw parallels between the 1948 war in Israel and the current conflict in Ukraine. Indeed, there are common features - in both cases, at first everyone believed in the victory of a stronger and more numerous enemy. But in the end, the Ukrainians, like the Israelis more than half a century ago, achieved stunning military successes, which are accompanied by the strengthening of national identity. A military alliance with the United States could support Ukraine before it joins NATO and the EU. And they, in turn, could provide the defense of Ukraine and, at the same time, counter certain shortcomings inherent in overly militarized societies such as Israel.