On February 24, news outlets reported on alleged conversations between White House national security advisor Jake Sullivan and experts about what possible security guarantees could entail for Ukraine. If reporting is accurate, the takeaway is that there is no definitive plan for what postwar security guarantees look like for Ukraine.
In the absence of any fully developed plans, there are three potential tiers of security guarantees for Ukraine. Each entails different levels of importance and feasibility. However, if a layering effect can be implemented, there is a strong possibility such a “security blanket” approach may both provide for Ukraine’s direct security as well as give Moscow second thoughts about any future direct aggression toward its neighbor.
Tier 1: Provide Full NATO Membership
This bold track will take courage and commitment by the United States, but it would be a game changer. It can only be initiated and led by the United States—no other nation can do this. It requires the agreement of all 30 existing NATO allies and their parliaments, including the U.S. Congress. It needs to be unanimous and bipartisan. It needs to happen, but it cannot happen overnight. It can, however, happen in theory by April 4, 2024, when NATO will celebrate its 75th anniversary, which would be a highly relevant way to commemorate that occasion.
Tier 2: Create Interlocking Western Commitments
This category includes multiple, reinforcing actions that could both deepen and broaden the West’s postwar commitment to Ukraine:
- The United States should immediately declare Ukraine a major non-NATO ally (MNNA). This is an easy lift with significant optical and material benefits. Indeed, for all intents and purposes, Ukraine has this title but not the official legal status. Since this designation was created in 1987, 19 countries have received it, including Israel, Australia, New Zealand, Taiwan, and Qatar. Ukraine was first proposed for MNNA status in 2019. Such status tells the world that the United States considers these countries major allies and partners. It also provides access (sometimes priority access) to resources such as training, munitions, and reserve stockpiles. Ukraine currently receives most of these benefits. However, when the war ends, such a designation would keep the pipeline open for Ukraine.
- Washington and allied capitals should continue to provide advanced weaponry of all types to Ukraine so that it can protect its airspace and coastline. In a postwar era, this means ensuring Ukraine has capabilities such as modern jets, attack helicopters, integrated air and missile defense systems, coastal defense capabilities, and long-range fires. Plus, the United States should provide enabling (training) processes and maintenance systems—a key lesson the United States has learned. This action should occur regardless of MNNA status.
- Europe and the United States should publicly commit to put trainers on the ground to assist with weapons training. It will require political will, but NATO member states do both well and already have been helping Ukraine since 2014 with most of these tasks. This action would signal to Russia that the West is willing to risk having a ground presence in Ukraine. Furthermore, having U.S. forces alongside the Ukrainians would be a win-win, providing insight into modern warfare and Ukraine’s innovative tactics at the tactical and operational levels.
- NATO should formally create a NATO Training Mission for Ukraine. Such a mission would enable Western trainers to operate on the ground and would serve as a demonstration of NATO’s invested interest, as they did in Iraq and Afghanistan. While Ukraine is different from those missions, this action will underscore that NATO will help Ukraine provide for its own self-defense.
- The West should begin the process now of determining a postwar Ukrainian defense industrial base. This includes what such a base would consist of and how it can both be self-sufficient and complementary to Western production capabilities. Ukraine will need factories, supply chains, technologies, and, importantly, investors and partners to bring this online. The West’s traditional defense contractors as well as the new emerging technology entrants should start partnering discussions as soon as practicable. Licensed manufacturing and co-production are two ways in which the West can partner with Ukraine. This will require three things: (1) legal frameworks, (2) eased restrictions by European regulators on companies seeking financing for defense projects, and (3) corruption reform in Ukraine.
Tier 3: Urge Expedited EU Membership
While U.S. policymakers cannot control whether the European Union expedites its membership process for Ukraine, such a move would legitimize Kyiv’s efforts to integrate with the West. Non-EU member state has been attacked by Russia, and most EU nations are NATO members. Additionally, rule of law is a key criterion for EU membership. If President Volodymyr Zelensky and team continue reforming Ukraine’s graft practices, the act of embedding Ukraine in the EU fabric could be a very strong deterrent for possible Russia action. Again, EU membership by itself does not equate to a future security guarantee for Ukraine. Yet combining and layering it with the other recommendations above would strengthen Kyiv’s hand and create another wrinkle in the strategic dilemma for Putin.
The Road Ahead
In five months, NATO leaders will meet in Vilnius, Lithuania, for the second NATO summit since the Ukraine war began. At last year’s summit in Madrid, leaders adopted a Comprehensive Assistance Package (CAP) for Ukraine, which included a series of short-, medium-, and long-term measures to assist Ukraine with military capacity and institution building. To date, NATO has only formally defined the short-term list, which has included mostly nonlethal support. It is appropriate, if not necessary, for NATO to work with the Ukrainians before the Vilnius summit to define what enduring NATO-centric support via the CAP entails for Kyiv.
If NATO is united in its support for Ukraine in the current conflict, there is little sense in waiting for the war to end. Prudent postwar planning should start now. Otherwise, the West’s collective words can be perceived as hollow.
As allied nations prepare for the Vilnius summit, they should consider endorsing this tiered options list, as it would be consequential for supporting Ukraine’s sovereign right to defend itself and for putting Russia on notice that the Ukraine of 2014 or even of February 2022 will not be the Ukraine of the future. Layering the military and economic tools at the West’s collective disposal will provide Ukraine with a considerable security blanket.
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