NATO, the Only Real Guarantee of Security for a Free and Independent Ukraine

After heavy tanks and long-range missiles, the lifting of the ban on the delivery of F-16 aircraft marks a new stage in the strengthening of the Ukrainian armed forces. In military and operational terms, this army is on a par with those of the main NATO member countries. When it comes to the art of warfare, the Ukrainian army is arguably one step ahead. What other army has experience of such a conflict?

However, concern to give Ukraine the means to wage this war must not be a pretext for overshadowing the higher part of the strategy, i.e. the political aims of the conflict: the full independence of Ukraine and the restoration of its territorial integrity, in a united and free Europe. Over and above the strength of our armed forces and the success of our military operations, such a goal implies the integration of Ukraine into Euro-Atlantic bodies: NATO and the European Union are the two pillars on which the freedom, prosperity, and security of Europe rest, from the Atlantic to the Don basin (the Tanais of the Ancients).

The spectre of Bucharest

Despite some people’s hopes of using the European Political Community (EPC) as a way out, Ukraine’s application to join the European Union is now official (Brussels European Council, June 24, 2022). The question of joining NATO remains unresolved. At the Atlantic Summit in Bucharest (April 2-4, 2008), France and Germany turned down applications from Ukraine and Georgia, which were supported by the United States and several Central and Eastern European countries. Failing that, NATO reiterated its open-door policy, but without setting a deadline for the two candidates (see Article 23 of the Bucharest Declaration).

The concern of Paris, Berlin and a few other European capitals was not to upset Vladimir Putin, who, since his speech at the Munich Security Conference on February 10, 2007, had been openly displaying his anti-Western geopolitical project. This policy of appeasement, or “accommodation”, was a failure. After Bucharest, the master of the Kremlin felt he had the green light to mistreat Ukraine and Georgia, which remained in a dangerous gray zone (Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty does not cover them).

In August 2008, Russia attacked Georgia, depriving it of one-fifth of its territory and, ultimately, of a system of government genuinely free to make its own external choices. In February 2014, it was the start of a long war in Ukraine, to which the offensive of February 24, 2022 gives a new dimension (from hybrid warfare to high-intensity warfare). In the meantime, Russia conducted coercive diplomacy, decreed several energy embargoes, instrumentalized the Party of Regions, and infiltrated the Ukrainian state and its security forces, which explains the lack of reaction when Crimea was seized manu militari (the Ukrainian army took over the Donbas).

At the time, Ukraine withdrew its application to join NATO, positioning itself as a “non-aligned state” (2010). On the other hand, it remained committed to the European Union, within the framework of the Eastern Partnership, with a free trade and association agreement on the horizon. This was the starting point for an economic war waged by Russia from the summer of 2013, a conflict followed by a real war that started at the beginning of the following year, after the fall of Viktor Yanukovych (February 22, 2014). At the time, however, there was no question of Ukraine joining NATO.

In fact, neutrality and non-alignment, presented by the diplomats of the main European countries as a “wild card”, proved illusory. This solution was based on the false idea that Russia’s strategy in Ukraine, and in what Moscow considers its “near abroad”, had only negative aims: to counter NATO and prevent Ukraine from turning toward the West. However, its goals were primarily positive: to regain control of Ukraine and, through the Eurasian Union, reconstitute the Soviet geopolitical envelope (the USSR, without the Communist utopia). The goal is not one of middle ground, but of possession.

Yet some insist on explaining Russian aggression in Ukraine by the latter’s application to join NATO. It doesn’t matter that it was raised four years before the start of the war; the mere fact of having thought of it would constitute a kind of original sin. And point 23 of the Bucharest Declaration – i.e. Ukraine’s theoretical vocation to join NATO but the indefinite postponement of its application – would be the worst kind of compromise. In fact, the Allies had merely reaffirmed the validity of Article 10 of the North Atlantic Treaty (NATO is in principle open to all European countries).

Since the extension of the sphere of warfare from February 24, 2022, Ukraine and its de facto allies have been searching for a politico-diplomatic “formula.” After briefly exploring the possibility of a neutral status, albeit with more substantial security guarantees than the Budapest Memorandum (1994), President Zelenski and his government have renewed their application for NATO membership. This position is far more logical and coherent.

{% picture /images/mongrenier-otan-ukraine.jpg alt=”Le président Leonid Koutchma et le secrétaire général Javier Solana signent une Charte de partenariat spécifique entre l’Ukraine et l’OTAN au sommet de Madrid le 9 juillet 1997″ –link /images/mongrenier-otan-ukraine.jpg %}
{% include caption.html caption=”Le président Leonid Koutchma et le secrétaire général Javier Solana signent une Charte de partenariat spécifique entre l’Ukraine et l’OTAN au sommet de Madrid le 9 juillet 1997 // nato.int” %}

Deadly hesitation

NATO is still hesitating, and with only a few weeks to go before the Vilnius summit (July 11-12, 2023), the Allies have not yet reached agreement. The Baltics and Poland are the most enthusiastic. They support Ukraine’s accession, not in the midst of the war, but once it’s over. The French and Germans are more reserved, believing that it would be possible to negotiate a third solution, within the framework of an elusive “pan-European defense architecture.” The Biden Administration says it is concentrating on providing military support to Ukraine and ensuring that the counter-offensive goes smoothly (it’s putting resources into it).

For the time being, various alternatives to NATO are being discussed. According to some analyses, an accelerated accession to the European Union would ensure Ukraine’s security. True, the Lisbon Treaty introduced a mutual defense clause, but this vast, cowardly pan-European commonwealth lacks the substance, the will, and the military means to protect Ukraine from future aggression by the Russian armed forces, after a more or less lengthy strategic pause. In such a scenario, since most EU member states are also members of NATO, it would be hard to imagine the latter not becoming involved in a new war in the heart of Europe.

Another geopolitical scenario is to imagine the formation of a coalition of the willing (“like-minded countries”) that would bring together some of NATO’s member states, hypothetically reinforced by allies from the Asia-Pacific region. But doesn’t this exercise miss the point, namely the actual content of the security guarantees they would have to provide to Ukraine?

Even if NATO as such is not officially involved, several of its members will be, and this is likely to be the case in the event of Russian aggression. Unless, of course, a coalition of the willing is a roundabout way of providing security guarantees that fall short of the North Atlantic Treaty’s mutual defense clause: political, diplomatic, and financial support, arms supplies and military advice, but without the promise of direct intervention, as in the case of the alliance between the USA and Israel (which has no “Article 5”).

This would more or less perpetuate the current situation, with Ukraine as a second-tier ally outside NATO. But it is hard to see how such a status would be compatible with full membership of the European Union, since the defense of the vast majority of its members, especially those most exposed geographically, is organized and assured within the framework of NATO.

On the other hand, the ambiguity of Ukraine’s politico-military status could once again lead Russia into temptation, with its leaders believing they can dissociate its case from that of its allies and partners. It is the fact of having left this country in a gray zone that has exposed it to the Kremlin’s subversive maneuvers and warlike ventures. It is therefore important to learn from the strategic and geopolitical mistake made in Bucharest fifteen years ago.

U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley with Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and Minister of Defense of Ukraine Oleksiy Reznikov // nato.int

From Ukraine to the Taiwan Strait

In short, playing with words, concepts, and various scenarios cannot hide one certainty: NATO is irreplaceable, and woe betide anyone who remains outside its security perimeter. What’s more, Ukraine’s destiny will have repercussions as far afield as the Far East, the Taiwan Strait, the “Asian Mediterranean” (South and East China Seas) and North-East Asia. The United States does not have to make a mutually exclusive choice between the Russian threat and the European theater, on the one hand, and the Chinese threat and the Indo-Pacific theater, on the other: it’s all a question of resource allocation, burden-sharing, and geopolitical pace. In return, Euro-Atlantic strategic solidarity must be extended to the risks and threats posed by China. This is fortunate, since the United States’ European allies are present in the Indo-Pacific, and their prosperity depends on the freedom of the seas. Finally, Beijing’s shadow reaches as far as Europe.

Associate professor of history and geography and researcher at the French Institute of Geopolitics (University of Paris VIII). Author of several books, he works within the Thomas More Institute on geopolitical and defense issues in Europe. His research areas cover the Baltic-Black Sea region, post-Soviet Eurasia, and the Mediterranean.

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