It’s time the West committed to Ukraine for the long haul, says Fabrice Pothier
ITS CAFES may be buzzing, but the mood in Kyiv is downbeat these days. True, Ukrainians have made it through a winter that brought the economy and society to the brink. The Ukrainian army is holding against grinding Russian pressure. Yet the message from some Western leaders, that Ukraine cannot expect much more support after its spring offensive, seems to have sunk in. Russias war against Ukraine is reaching a crucial moment. In the short term, Ukraine is set to launch its much-anticipated counter-attack. In the longer term, Western leaders need to take hard decisions to address the fact that a democratic and sovereign Ukraine is now part of the Wests fundamental security interest. So far, most Western leaders have managed their support to Ukraine step by step, responding to Russias escalatory moves, while dodging the question of what kind of security the people of Ukraine should have over the long term. They seem gripped by two outdated notions: that neutrality or ambiguity over Ukraines security status can lead to stability, and that some form of strategic relations with Vladimir Putins Russia can be restored. Instead, the focus should be on how to embed Ukraine firmly in the Euro-Atlantic security architecture. For that there are two choices: bespoke security guarantees or NATO membership. However, these are not mutually exclusive. They are potentially complementary, with the former being a bridge to the latter. Security guarantees can be a loaded term. In Kyiv it sparks memories of the disastrous Budapest Memorandum of 1994, in which Russia and Western powers pledged to protect Ukraines sovereignty and territorial integrity in exchange for Ukraine giving up its nuclear arsenal. In Washington the notion of binding American power to foreign obligations riles many in Congress. However, the concerns can be overcome. The security guarantees that form that core of the Kyiv Security Compactproposed by Anders Fogh Rasmussen, a former NATO secretary-general, and President Volodymyr Zelenskys chief of staff, Andrei Yermakrest on the notion that the best defence is Ukraines self-defence. In contrast to a mutual-defence pact like the one binding America with Japan, Western guarantors would not be required to put boots on the ground. The model would be similar to the commitments made by successive American administrations to Israel since 1979. It would involve mobilising a broad range of national-security resources to help Ukraine defend itself against foreign aggression. To be credible those guarantees would need support from a coalition of states. This would be composed mostly of NATO members but could also include other partners committed to Ukraines self-defence, such as Australia and Japan. All signatories would agree to provide defensive support to Ukraine, ranging from weapons supply and training to intelligence-sharing. This formula would, in effect, codify the Ramstein Group, an American-led alliance of some 50 countries that supports Ukraine militarily, into an established international framework. Although this format may be politically more acceptable than NATO membership, both within the alliance and in China, it would be more resource-intensive. Were Ukraine covered by NATOs Article 5, which deems an attack on one member an attack on all, its security would be assured without necessarily involving a significant defence transfer from the alliance. The German and American governments have repeatedly argued that admitting Ukraine into NATO would trigger war with Russia. However, although Ukraine joining the alliance is a red line for Mr Putin, the potency of Article 5 should not be underestimated. All the indications are that the Russian leader takes it seriously. The second major worry within the alliance over Ukrainian membership concerns admitting a country whose borders have been trampled over by a neighbours army and are contested. While legitimate, this concern can also be overcomeby drawing on the precedent of West Germany, which was allowed to join NATO in 1955 on condition that it put its goal of German unity on hold. Similarly, Ukraine could be invited to join the alliance subject to the security situation being resolved. Under this arrangement, only the unoccupied, free part of the country would initially fall under NATOs provisions. The status of occupied territory would be left to be resolved later. The bilateral defence treaty binding America to Japan is another useful model. While akin to Article 5, it does not cover Japans Northern Territories, which Russia occupies but America does not recognise as Russian territory. The arguments used by some Western officialsthat a conditional invitation is an invitation to endless war, while an unconditional one would trigger another world warare no longer tenable. Russias second war against Ukraine in less than ten years shows that strategic ambiguity is a cause of, not a solution to, instability. NATOs summit in Vilnius in July is the moment when these two approaches could converge. Leaders could issue a conditional invitation for Ukraine to join the alliance. At the same time, those NATO countries willing to commit to Ukraines self-defence could sign an agreement on security guarantees. These would be effective until Ukraine joined NATO, similar to the approach taken with Sweden and Finland. This would give Mr Zelensky some of the key parameters for negotiations with Russia, when he considers the time right. Moscow could face a choice between Ukraine joining NATO, but with possible restrictions on the presence and activities of NATO forces on Ukrainian soil (similar to the NATO-Russia Founding Act for eastern members), or security guarantees that allow unlimited build-up of, and foreign support for, Ukrainian forces. The remaining, occupied territories would be left for a longer political resolution. Committing firmly for the long term would also help ease political headaches on both sides of the Atlantic. Proposing Ukrainian membership of NATO could help President Joe Biden turn the table on domestic critiques of his policy of support: with Ukraine inside the alliance, the cost of building its defence could be more evenly shared with European allies. In Europe, the strategic autonomy that President Emmanuel Macron of France craves will only mean something when Ukraine is fully part of the continents security order. Until then, Europe will continue facing instability and remain reliant on America to do the heavy lifting. We should not underestimate Ukrainians resolve in defending their nation. But nor can we underestimate Mr Putins willingness to stay put, use his own people as cannon-fodder and wait for disorder to spread. That is why the best way to end this war is to end any remaining doubt about Ukraines place in the Euro-Atlantic security architecture. The sooner that happens, the sooner Mr Zelensky can negotiate a just peace and give his citizens the future they have so bravely fought for. Fabrice Pothier is the chief executive of Rasmussen Global, a political consultancy, and a former NATO Director of Policy Planning.