Partnership plus: the future of the NATO-Ukraine relationship

By Markus Kaim | June 11, 2014

February’s political turmoil and March’s loss of Crimea to Russia have weakened Ukraine politically, economically, and militarily. To complicate matters, Ukraine suffers from a lack of cohesion in its society and continuing unrest in its eastern regions. Consequently, the country will require foreign assistance to safeguard its territorial integrity and political sovereignty.

This situation could open up an opportunity for NATO to play an important role, although the alliance is currently unclear about precisely what it should do to realign its relationship with Ukraine. Nor does Ukraine seem clear about what it wants.

Faced with this uncertainty, it is tempting for all parties to procrastinate. From the Western perspective, the questions of the kind and the amount of support that NATO should give to help provide for a secure Ukraine can be delayed a while longer. And for its part, Ukraine’s government has announced that it does not see full-fledged membership in NATO as a priority.

But the current situation is proving untenable. Ukraine has not benefited from its position of non-alignment. Living in a security no-man’s land between NATO and Moscow did not have the stabilizing effect that the country’s leaders had hoped for. In light of these facts, NATO member-states have no choice but to revise their ideas about order and security on their eastern periphery.

NATO-Ukraine relations. Relations between Kiev and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization have been lacking substance and dynamism in recent years, a predicament for which both sides share responsibility. Although Ukrainian membership in NATO was formally possible under the “open door policy” announced by the alliance at the April 2008 Bucharest summit, Ukraine refrained from pursuing it at the behest of individual members—notably Germany and France—and out of consideration for Russia.

After that, Kiev’s relationship with NATO continued to muddle along, Ukraine content with a status below the minimum required for membership. Relations seemed to reach a nadir in 2010, when Ukraine’s newly elected president, Viktor Yanukovych, formally renounced plans that even tried for any sort of NATO membership, replacing them with an official policy of non-alignment.

Both sides then downgraded their relationship to a largely technical level, in which Ukraine was described as a loosely affiliated “partner state.” NATO and Kiev, however, took comfort in a previously signed 1997 agreement known as the Charter on a Distinctive Partnership, which formed the political and legal basis for possible collaboration of a more concrete kind. In recent years, this cooperation consisted largely of attempts at reform of Ukraine’s security sector by NATO to bring it up to Western standards, and Ukrainian contributions to NATO operations—principally in Kosovo but also Afghanistan. These efforts also had the beneficial effect of enhancing interoperability between Ukrainian and NATO forces.

NATO’s immediate response to the Ukrainian crisis. On April 1, 2014, NATO foreign ministers agreed in Brussels to continue this policy of technical cooperation at a level below membership. They reiterated their responsibility to Ukraine and announced “immediate and longer-term measures in order to strengthen Ukraine’s ability to provide for its own security.” Any close observer would note, however, that although the ministers cited the existing partnership format, they failed to mention the policy of keeping the door open to NATO membership.

The agreed-upon measures are also rather vague: NATO intends to lend support to the reform of the Ukrainian armed forces, and NATO experts traveled to Kiev in April to assess “tactical military equipment” and “critical infrastructure.” But despite expectations in Kiev, NATO has to date excluded direct military support, such as arms deliveries. Through this cautious approach, NATO members hope to demonstrate immediate solidarity with Ukraine without offering Russia any pretext for further escalation. The goal, apparently, was to avoid disrupting diplomatic efforts to contain or resolve the crisis.

A paradigm shift on security. Russia’s recent annexation of Crimea has challenged two fundamental tenets that have long guided Western security policy with respect to Ukraine and Russia. First, the 1994 Budapest Memorandum and the anchoring of neutrality in Ukrainian law in 2010 had previously seemed sufficient in themselves to guarantee the country’s political sovereignty and territorial integrity.

Second, by stopping its pursuit of Ukraine as a fully fledged NATO member, the alliance thought it had secured Russia’s cooperation in the European-Atlantic region, and on questions of international security in general.

Both these assumptions were now voided.

The question is still open: What will NATO’s future Ukrainian policy be built upon? Four principles should guide the decision-making process.

Self-determination. Whatever else is discussed in Western capitals, the right of the Ukrainian population to freely choose its own security orientation must be placed firmly front and center. While Western governments must work to reach an understanding with Russia on the ethnic and territorial conflict in eastern Ukraine, this process must not create a situation where an outside “concert of great powers” agrees to or excludes alliance options over the heads of the Ukrainians and stakes out spheres of influence, something akin to what the Yalta Conference did in 1945 when it drew the borders of postwar Europe.

Western governments cannot accuse Russia of being stuck in outdated 19th-century foreign policy notions while at the same time seeking to arbitrarily assign Ukraine a specific security status—or granting Moscow veto power over the question of Kiev’s alignment.

The Finnish model, not Finlandization. Some US academics have floated the idea of a Finlandization of Ukraine, meaning it would have its neutrality anchored by treaty or even enshrined in its constitution. This status, say its proponents, would take into account Russian concerns and interests, and thus have a de-escalating and stabilizing effect.

Such proposals draw their inspiration from Finland’s security status during the Cold War, which was characterized by formal non-alignment and political equidistance to Moscow and Washington. As the price of its territorial integrity, Finland ultimately accepted strong Soviet influence, manifested for example in the Finno-Soviet Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation, and Mutual Assistance of 1948.

But after Russia’s annexation of Crimea in violation of the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, any basis for the Finlandization of the rest of Ukraine has evaporated. Preserving the territorial status quo—a key principle of Finlandization—is clearly not part of current Russian policy.

Accordingly, Ukraine could instead opt for a modern Finnish model and follow the specific, concrete steps of Helsinki’s security policy since the 1990s. Under this scenario, although Finland continues to remain outside all military alliances, it is not neutral politically. During the past two decades Finland has left no doubts about its security orientation and Western ties. Helsinki has participated very actively in NATO’s Partnership for Peace program since 1994, and Finland is part of the Nordic Defence Cooperation organization with NATO members Denmark, Norway and Iceland (along with Sweden). Finally, Finland has been an European Union member since 1995, participates in the EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy, and is obliged by the solidarity clause of the Lisbon Treaty to come to the aid of any member-state that suffers a terrorist attack in its territory. These principles—continuing non-alignment, deeper cooperation with NATO members, and a clear Western political orientation—could form the three decisive pillars of Ukraine’s future security policy.

Preserving the status quo regarding full NATO membership. While it might be tempting to respond to Russia’s actions in Crimea and eastern Ukraine by reviving—or forcing—the issue of full NATO membership for Ukraine, there is doubt as to whether NATO’s member-states possess the political will and military capacity to honor the mutual defense clause.

Two other arguments are also significant. At this time, Moscow would probably look at a move toward NATO membership as a deliberate escalation, and might respond by stopping all cooperation with the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe and other mediators aimed at containing or resolving the Ukraine crisis.

In addition, the pursuit of NATO membership for Ukraine risks further polarizing Ukrainian society. Therefore, it is advisable for NATO to leave that option to one side for the moment. But at the same time there is no reason to fall behind the 2008 Bucharest assurances; to do so would call into question NATO’s credibility and signal to Russia that the alliance was willing to cave in to Russian pressure.

Exporting stability. Ukraine does face the danger of losing more territory to Russia through secession or annexation, with Kiev’s control over the countryside’s armed forces eroding further, or the country spiralling into civil war. Such scenarios would have immediate unhappy security implications for Ukraine’s four NATO neighbors: Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, and Romania. And indirectly, such destabilizing would affect all the alliance’s members, not just Ukraine’s immediate neighbors.

Therefore, the main task in the coming months must be to reassure NATO’s eastern members that the alliance’s security promises remain valid, while at the same time “exporting” stability and security to its eastern periphery. The objective now is to seek institutional and political arrangements that contain both the strife within Ukraine and the conflict between Kiev and Moscow, as rapidly as possible.

Over the longer-term, the objective must be to offer Ukraine stability and security. The alternative is a politically fragile and disoriented country that would be a source of permanent instability.

A partnership-plus format. NATO’s existing formal cooperative arrangement with Ukraine needs to be upheld, albeit in modified form. While efforts to date have concentrated on supporting the country’s internal transformation, NATO must now reach further, to encompass re-building and further strengthening and modernizing of the country’s security forces. In view of the present circumstances, the Ukrainian government will have to ensure its own political sovereignty and territorial integrity in the short-term—but NATO can provide assistance longer-term in two respects.

Militarily, NATO should continue to support reform of Ukraine’s defenses and push for the political and financial choices necessary to create effective armed forces. This means that the upcoming large-scale Western aid payments should be tied to progress on good governance. Any aid package should also be complemented by joint maneuvers, support in training Ukrainian armed forces, and access to modern defensive weapons systems.

Politically, the alliance should upgrade the NATO-Ukraine Commission. Article 4 of the NATO Treaty provides for consultations if a member believes its territorial integrity, political independence, or security are threatened. Even without full membership, an analogous arrangement for Ukraine would be an important sign of NATO’s willingness to secure security and stability on its eastern periphery.

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