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Time to make new alliances?

Andreas Noll
February 20, 2022

European countries are using various dialogue formats to resolve the Ukraine conflict. The Normandy Format, established in June 2014, is one; and now the British prime minister has suggested a new military pact.

Four Ukrainian soldiers carrying weapons, in white camouflage against snow
Image: Pavlo Palamarchuk/AP/dpa/picture alliance

The Ukrainian parliament witnessed an unusual scene recently. A group of representatives gathered around the lectern and held up flags of NATO and allied countries for the cameras — a demonstration of gratitude for foreign support for Ukraine in the confrontation with Russia. The flag of the United Kingdom, the Union Jack, featured twice.

It was also on display in the streets of the Ukrainian capital when the British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, visited Kyiv earlier this month. Ukraine is clearly grateful to the beleaguered Johnson, who is under considerable pressure on the domestic front. His government supplied Ukraine with anti-tank weapons in recent weeks, the British army is training Ukrainian soldiers, and now the British Conservative leader is holding out the prospect of financial support equivalent to 100 million euros to assist Kyiv in the current crisis.

Johnson also discussed another proposal with his partners in Kyiv: a military pact between the UK, Poland, and Ukraine.

Dream of a mini-NATO

Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy sees this "little alliance," as he calls it, as a "sign of hope." His foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, set out the reasons why. The main goal of the alliance, he explained, was to consolidate a security belt and strengthen the Baltic–Black Sea axis. This was a reference to the presence of the Polish Navy in the Baltic Sea — already very important for Ukraine — and of British forces in the Black Sea, where they are supporting the Ukrainian forces. "We cannot wait for security and prosperity at some future date, when we become a member of the EU and NATO. We need this now," Kuleba said.

Oleksandr Merezhko, the chair of the Ukrainian parliament's foreign affairs committee, sees Poland and the United Kingdom as Ukraine's most reliable strategic partners at the moment. "Perhaps it is also worth thinking about the creation of a kind of mini-NATO. Which could be viable, not least because the UK is one of the leading countries in Europe, although it's not a member of the EU," Merezhko told DW.

British prime minister Boris Johnson, in a black suit and green tie, walks past masked soldiers on the airport tarmac after arriving for talks in Kyiv
British prime minister Boris Johnson has proposed a military pact between the UK, Poland, and UkraineImage: Peter Nicholls/AP Photo/picture alliance

The British press takes a much more skeptical view of the proposed military pact. The left-liberal Guardian newspaper writes that Johnson wants to prove he can "show statesmanship" in the Ukraine crisis as a means of countering criticism at home, from within his own ranks.

However, Hans-Dieter Heumann, a former president of the Federal Academy for Security Policy who now teaches at the University of Bonn, believes the proposed alliance is motivated by more than just domestic politics. "The 'tripartite alliance' is unlikely to become a formal alliance," he told DW. "What we're seeing is an attempt by the British prime minister to prove the UK's claim to be 'Global Britain,' meaning: a global player outside the EU."

Poland sought as a partner

It is no surprise that, along with the British premier, Poland has also got involved. Warsaw is Kyiv's closest ally in NATO and the European Union. The Polish leadership is keen to back Ukraine whenever it can.

Polish president Andrzej Duda in front of red and white Polish flags against a blue background
Polish president Andrzej Duda is being asked to join in efforts to resolve the crisis in UkraineImage: Leszek Szymanski/PAP/dpa/picture alliance

However, the Polish government has also made the limits of the pact very clear. "It is not in our interest to undertake activities on our own. Our strength lies in NATO. If it were necessary to send troops to Ukraine, we will be able to do so, with NATO's agreement," said General Waldemar Skrzypczak, former commander of Poland's land forces and a former deputy minister of defense, in an interview with the Polish Press Agency, PAP.

Skrzypczak also used the interview about the new military pact to criticize Germany's Ukraine policy in no uncertain terms. "Sending 5,000 helmets from Germany to Ukraine has the character of satire. The German stance is baffling."

This assessment is not unproblematic for the German government, as Germany and France, as well as the United Kingdom, are seeking Poland's support in the diplomatic efforts regarding Ukraine. French President Emmanuel Macron, German chancellor Olaf Scholz and Polish president Andrzej Duda met in Berlin earlier this month, seeking to present a united front.

Washington calls the tune

Whether it's the Normandy Format, under which German and French negotiators are currently negotiating with Russia and Ukraine, or the Weimar Triangle, or the new tripartite alliance being promoted by London, European governments are approaching the crisis in several different constellations in an effort to make headway. The security expert Hans-Dieter Heumann doesn't believe the new alliance will play an important role in managing the conflict; the "mini-NATO" some Ukrainian politicians are hoping for appears to be an illusion. Heumann says there will be no new alliances entirely outside NATO, not least because they would weaken the defense alliance, which at the moment is strongly united.

US president Joe Biden sitting at a table on a video call with Russian president Vladimir Putin, who is seen on a screen in the background
The US government appears to have created new room for negotiation with RussiaImage: The White House/REUTERS

At the diplomatic level, Heumann is looking to Washington in particular. The Spanish newspaper El Pais published letters sent by NATO and the US in response to Russia — and if they are indeed authentic, the US government appears to have created new room for negotiation. As a former diplomat, Heumann finds the US government's reply remarkable, and notes that it was sent separately from the NATO letter.

In it, the US accepts for the first time that security should not come at the expense of other states. Until now, NATO has insisted on the principle of the freedom to choose one's allies, specifically: that no state would be prevented from joining NATO, even if it bordered Russia. Moscow, on the other hand, insists on guarantees of its undivided and undiminished security.

Heumann considers the letter from Washington a major step forward. "There are now even concrete proposals on the table for the joint withdrawal of the Russian troops on the border with Ukraine and American infrastructure within Ukraine. Serious negotiations can now begin."

Opportunity for the Normandy Format

At the moment, it looks as if, for the most part, the strategic questions concerning security in Europe will be decided bilaterally by Washington and Moscow. Britain, France, Germany, and Poland will exert their influence through NATO.

Volodymyr Zelenskyy, Angela Merkel, Emmanuel Macron and Vladimir Putin (left to right), the leaders of the Normandy Format states Ukraine, Germany, France and Russia, at a meeting in December 2019
There may be opportunities for progress in the Normandy Format talks Image: Alexei Nikolsky/TASS/picture alliance

However, Heumann believes that the Normandy Format, where negotiators are currently working to find solutions, could achieve progress both for people in Ukraine and on the situation in the separatist areas.

If this forum should subsequently achieve a breakthrough under the leadership of French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, perhaps the German and French flags will be included in the next photo taken in the Ukrainian parliament building. Earlier this month, they were notable for their absence.

Editor's note: This article, which was originally written in German, was first published on February 4, 2022.

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