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How can NATO protect Ukraine?

July 14, 2023

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy left the recent NATO summit in Lithuania with pledges of support and weapons from the defense alliance. What does the long-term security situation look like for Ukraine?

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy didn't get everything he wanted in Vilnius, but he got a lotImage: Kay Nietfeld/dpa/picture alliance

After this week's NATO summit in the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius, the question of how to ensure Ukraine's long-term security remains a source of heated debate — just as it was before and during the gathering. Various conceivable approaches to preventing Russia from launching further attacks on the country after the current war have been put forth, from bilateral agreements to full NATO membership.

Long-term security guarantees

At the NATO summit on July 11 and 12, G7 states agreed to clear the way for long-term security guarantees and also committed to supplying more weapons to Ukraine. But political scientist Aylin Matle, a research fellow at the German Council on Foreign Relations' (DGAP) Center for Security and Defense said these "guarantees" were not comparable to those provided by Article 5 of NATO's founding treaty in case of an attack on a member state, wherein NATO partners promise to provide a joint response.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy (left) and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg (right) at a press conference during this week's NATO summit in Vilnius, Lithuania
Zelenskyy tried hard to force the issue of alliance membership, but the best he could get was Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg's promise that 'Ukraine's future is in NATO'Image: Mindaugas Kulbis/AP Photo/picture alliance

Nonetheless, she said, they are important measures that would strengthen Ukraine as a sovereign state and would include, for example, cooperation between secret services, support of the Ukrainian defense industry, the training of soldiers and more general economic support. Though the West has already been supporting Ukraine in the war with Russia, she explained there were a number of new elements in the most recent agreements. "The political West is signaling to Russia that it is willing to support Ukraine not only now, but in the medium and long term," Matle said.

This was an important signal, she added, because long-term support is the opposite of what Russian President Vladimir Putin is hoping for, which is that the states providing support to Ukraine eventually give up.

But Benjamin Tallis, also a security expert at the DGAP, pointed out that "these are not the kind of security guarantees that will reassure the Ukrainian people. They have the Budapest Memorandum of 1994 in mind, when Ukraine gave up its nuclear weapons in exchange for security guarantees from the UK, the US and Russia. And that was clearly not enough to deter a Russian attack."

'Israel model'

Ukraine is quite often compared to Israel these days, but one decisive difference is that the Eastern European state does not have nuclear weapons. Tallis said the "Israel model" — which sees the US provide significant support regarding security and weaponry to Israel, which is not part of NATO — works largely because Israel has nuclear weapons, unlike its neighbors.

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NATO-Ukraine Council

Both Tallis and Matle said the new NATO-Ukraine Council was a positive outcome to the NATO summit. Matle explained the body would allow for discussions between Kyiv and the defense alliance's 31 heads of state and government on an equal footing.

NATO membership

The strongest guarantee of protection from Russia would be if Ukraine were to join NATO, as the founding treaty's Article 5 would consider Russia's attack on one member as an attack on all member states of the alliance. Members would then be obliged to provide assistance.

But that is why Ukraine could only conceivably become a full member of NATO after Russia's war of aggression has come to an end.

Though there was mention of Ukraine becoming a member of the alliance in the declaration issued at the end of the summit, the wording was vague and there was no concrete road map.

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Other possible scenarios

"Supporting Ukraine is not charity," said Tallis. "It's an investment in Europe's secure future. We need to ensure we have a European security model that works." Since he sees the G7 security arrangements as inadequate, and Ukraine becoming a member of NATO is unlikely in the near future, Tallis has proposed an interim solution.

"Essentially, an effective security offer should include three things. First, it must protect Ukraine, in order to deter Russia from further attacks. Second, it must pave the way for NATO membership in the medium term. Third, it must strengthen European security on a broader basis."

"Finally," said Tallis, "it must also be in the interest of the states providing the guarantees or the offer."

In concrete terms, he elaborated, this could mean expanding the Joint Expeditionary Force, a multinational military alliance that has existed since 2014, and is led by the UK, which is a so-called Framework Nation. If it were enlarged to include Ukraine, Poland and France, for instance, it would "become a pretty nasty fighting machine that could deter Russia."

This article was originally published in German.