Ukraine builds a NATO-lite while it waits for the real thing

  09 July 2024    Read: 714
Ukraine builds a NATO-lite while it waits for the real thing

Non-binding pacts are “second-best” to belonging to the alliance, but they’re the best Kyiv can get for now.

Ukraine won't get an invitation to join NATO during this week's Washington summit — or indeed anytime soon — so Kyiv is building its own network of alliances it hopes will offer some security against Russia.

Ukraine has so far signed 20 bilateral security deals with its allies. They include concrete provisions of long-term military and financial aid and training for Ukrainian troops as well as weapons deliveries, but no deployment of foreign soldiers to fight in Ukraine.

The 21-page agreement with the U.S., signed last month, shows Washington's "strong and enduring support for Ukraine," U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said this week.

But those deals are weak beer compared to what NATO allies get. The alliance is built around Article 5 — the all-for-one and one-for-all provision that an attack on a member is treated like an attack on everyone. It obliges NATO countries to provide support, including troops, to protect a fellow member.

The NATO guarantee is a treaty — meaning countries have ratified it and its provisions are law.

Ukraine's deals offer no such protection. The agreements have no pledge that Kyiv's allies will send troops to help — instead offering a consultation within 24 hours to discuss the appropriate response in case of further Russian aggression.

They're also not treaties, so they aren't binding on the governments that signed them.

“[Ukraine has] got to win this war first. And we’re doing everything we can to make sure they can do that. That is why our president signed a bilateral security agreement as well as some other countries did. Those agreements will help them to defend themselves as they work on necessary things they have to do to get into NATO,” said John Kirby, White House national security communications adviser, at a press briefing last month.

Because the agreements aren't binding, a future leader like Donald Trump in the U.S. or Marine Le Pen in France could choose to ignore them. However, they do signal political and economic backing for Ukraine from its allies.

“There are elections in some countries that have signed agreements with us. And if it is clear that the change of the leader in the U.K. will not affect support, can we guarantee the same with the U.S., France, or some other European countries?” asked Hanna Shelest, security studies program director at the Ukrainian Prism Analytical Center.

Officials argue that historical precedent and the sheer number of countries that signed agreements still gives them some strength no matter who takes power in future. Even if a country or two withdraws, Ukraine would still have over two dozen backing its war efforts.

“What Ukraine can count on is that the United States has always been very consistent in the implementation of agreements of this nature across administrations,” a senior U.S. official who was only permitted to speak on condition of anonymity told POLITICO.

Alliance members also plan to reinforce the agreements next week in Washington.

“At the NATO summit we will roll out an integrated framework into which all of these bilateral security agreements are brought together and set up into [a] mutually reinforcing system that magnifies the impact of each agreement into a common whole,” the U.S. official said, without providing details on how that process would work.

Security guarantees

Last year, 32 countries pledged to sign individual security agreements with Ukraine. As of today Kyiv has signed 19 bilateral deals with various countries and one with the European Union.

There is a recognition that such agreements are only a way-station to getting into NATO.

"We believe that it is important there be a bridge to Ukraine’s membership in NATO," Vedant Patel, a spokesperson for the U.S. State Department, said at a briefing this week. "Of course, this bilateral security agreement is not a replacement for that, but it is one of the things that we view as part of that bridge to one day Ukraine being able to join NATO." 

Most of the deals state that Ukraine should become a NATO member and that signatories will help it achieve that goal — from reforms to military training to interoperability.

“The deals are an additional element on Ukraine's way to NATO membership, but not as a substitute for it,” Shelest said. “Everyone understands there’s nothing stronger than Article 5. But Ukraine is looking for additional security guarantees. There are no guarantees in these agreements, but there are commitments, and this is an additional step forward from just [the] assurances we've had before.”

Not so binding

Although the non-binding nature of the deals makes them potentially fragile, they do enshrine support for Kyiv, said Ed Arnold, senior research fellow for European security at the London-based Royal United Services Institute.

“The deals are all pretty substantial, though, and they are valuable in a sense that they deconflict a lot of the support that is being provided. But Ukraine needs more, they need Article 5 to deter further Russian aggression, and I don’t think any of these agreements are going to do any of that deterrence,” Arnold said.

Ukrainian and U.S. officials insist that the agreements are strong.

“It is not a memorandum of understanding. It is a legally binding executive agreement which means the commitments the United States and Ukraine make in this agreement are bound by a memorandum of law,” the senior U.S. administration official said.  “It is something Ukraine can count on for 10 years into the future.”

Getting more for Ukraine is politically tricky, they admitted.

“It is not a treaty ratified by the Senate it is true, but in a current environment getting a treaty of this nature would be rather difficult and time-consuming, so there would be risks of not being able to provide Ukraine with security assurances that it requires,” the official added.

The agreement with the U.S. states that the administration will press Congress to ensure stable financial and military support for Ukraine for a decade, Igor Zhovkva, deputy head of the office of Ukraine’s president, told the Interfax news agency.

The other agreements also oblige governments to run Ukraine funding through their local parliaments first.

Ukrainian officials claim the security agreements will secure significant additional cash that will help the country stand against Russia. Over the next four years, Ukraine is counting on getting $60 billion in support annually, PM Denys Shmyhal said during a government meeting last week.

Arnold, however, admitted that covering Ukraine with NATO's Article 5 would be more effective and cheaper.

“It is very much the second-best option Ukraine could have," he said. "Allies could not agree on Article 5, but they will do all these things instead. They want to make a political point by the volume of agreements. But there’s still no guarantee that countries would not start withdrawing as administrations change.”



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