Ukraine Wants to Be NATO’s Friend—With Benefits

Spearheaded by a former NATO chief, the Kyiv Security Compact would put Western security guarantees in writing—but it might be too much for Washington to stomach.

By , a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy, and , a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
A fighter in a territorial defense unit, supporting the regular Ukrainian army, holds a Kalashnikov rifle decorated with a Ukrainian flag ribbon during a combat training exercise near Bucha, Ukraine, on June 17.
A fighter in a territorial defense unit, supporting the regular Ukrainian army, holds a Kalashnikov rifle decorated with a Ukrainian flag ribbon during a combat training exercise near Bucha, Ukraine, on June 17.
A fighter in a territorial defense unit, supporting the regular Ukrainian army, holds a Kalashnikov rifle decorated with a Ukrainian flag ribbon during a combat training exercise near Bucha, Ukraine, on June 17. Sergei Supinsky/AFP via Getty Images

The Ukrainian government has teamed up with a former NATO chief to propose a new security pact between Western governments and Ukraine modeled in part after the U.S. government’s relationship with Israel. Former NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen traveled to Washington last week to lay the groundwork for pitching the plan to the United States and other prominent Western allies.

“They [the Ukrainians] are paying a high price in life and treasure. The least we can do is to assist them in all respects,” he said in a recent interview with Foreign Policy.

The plan, called the Kyiv Security Compact, seeks to secure legally binding security guarantees for Ukraine from a coalition of Western countries to bolster its ability to fend off Russian attacks through extensive joint training, the provision of advanced defense weapons systems, and support to develop the country’s own defense industrial base. Despite Ukraine’s recent success in pushing Russian troops out of large swaths of eastern and southern Ukraine, the country’s vulnerability was underscored on Monday as Russian missile strikes hit critical infrastructure and civilian sites in cities across the country, including the capital of Kyiv.

The Ukrainian government has teamed up with a former NATO chief to propose a new security pact between Western governments and Ukraine modeled in part after the U.S. government’s relationship with Israel. Former NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen traveled to Washington last week to lay the groundwork for pitching the plan to the United States and other prominent Western allies.

“They [the Ukrainians] are paying a high price in life and treasure. The least we can do is to assist them in all respects,” he said in a recent interview with Foreign Policy.

The plan, called the Kyiv Security Compact, seeks to secure legally binding security guarantees for Ukraine from a coalition of Western countries to bolster its ability to fend off Russian attacks through extensive joint training, the provision of advanced defense weapons systems, and support to develop the country’s own defense industrial base. Despite Ukraine’s recent success in pushing Russian troops out of large swaths of eastern and southern Ukraine, the country’s vulnerability was underscored on Monday as Russian missile strikes hit critical infrastructure and civilian sites in cities across the country, including the capital of Kyiv.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has pledged to accelerate his country’s application to NATO, but Western officials and experts doubt the bid will gain traction in the short term as the war continues. But the proposed pact would in effect serve as a form of interim Western protection for Ukraine as it seeks to become a full-fledged member of the NATO alliance.

Rasmussen characterized the pact as essentially a formal codification of Western support already extended to Ukraine since the invasion began in February. Rasmussen has worked with Andriy Yermak, Zelensky’s chief of staff, on the proposal since May and this month began formally pitching the plan to NATO governments, starting in Washington.

Rasmussen drew comparisons between the proposed security compact and U.S. security cooperation with Israel—countries that consider themselves close military and political allies with layers of bilateral defense cooperation and mutual defense agreements but which do not have a formal defense treaty. “We studied different models of security guarantees, including Taiwan, Israel, historical security guarantees, etc.,” Rasmussen said. “This one is pretty close to what you have seen between the U.S. and Israel.”

Former U.S. officials and European diplomats who have reviewed the compact acknowledged the need to address the thorny question of sustaining Western support for Ukraine for the long haul but were divided as to whether the document would successfully be able to fill that gap.

“I appreciate what they’re trying to do,” said Jim Townsend, who served as U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense for Europe and NATO during the Obama administration. He cautioned that trying to be too ambitious with the pact could undermine efforts to get it off the ground altogether. “It’s the perfect being the enemy of the good.”

With U.S. military aid to Ukraine dwarfing that provided by other countries, Rasmussen acknowledged that the plan hinged on U.S. support. “Without active support from the U.S., this is just theory,” he said. Between January and early August, according to the Kiel Institute for the World Economy’s Ukraine Support Tracker, Washington pledged more than $24 billion in military aid—more than six times that of the second-biggest donor, the United Kingdom.

Rasmussen characterized the proposed security pact as part of a long-term answer to the West’s long-standing challenge with Russia, rather than as an act of charity to Ukraine, as Washington tries to pivot more resources to geopolitical competition with China. “If we get this right, the security guarantees to Ukraine could fix the Russia problem, because it is in the interest of the U.S. to have a strong and stable Eastern European partner as a bulwark against Russian attacks.”

“If you have stability in Europe, the U.S. can devote more resources to what is the real global long-term challenge: China,” he said.

The proposed compact acknowledges that the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, in which Washington, London, and Moscow pledged security assurances to Kyiv in return for giving up its Soviet-era nuclear arsenal, has “proved worthless.” The compact would seek to codify Western support for Ukraine into law.

“The Ukrainians rightly say that [the Budapest Memorandum] was a completely useless piece of paper, that they don’t need another useless piece of paper to make everyone feel better,” said Heather Conley, the president of the German Marshall Fund of the United States. “They need commitments and capabilities to allow Ukraine to protect its people and infrastructure … but the devil is in the details on who is providing the systems and how those commitments are guaranteed, if they’re guaranteed.”

The current and former officials who have been briefed on the plan also acknowledge that while NATO is keeping the door open to eventual Ukrainian membership, it likely won’t happen in the short term as Russia continues to wage war on Ukraine’s soil. Top U.S. and NATO officials have repeatedly said they want to avoid the conflict spilling into a direct NATO-Russia military showdown, even as they continue to deliver weapons to Ukraine. A bedrock of the NATO alliance is the mutual defense pact, detailed in Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, which states an attack on one member is an attack on all members.

“Everyone recognizes that, going forward, Ukraine needs some commitments codified. It somehow needs to be less than Article 5 but more than the Budapest Memorandum,” said one senior Central European diplomat briefed on the plan, who spoke on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to speak publicly on the matter. “Everyone is willing to take a look at it, but it will be really difficult to work out on the substance so that all our governments agree.”

“Everyone, including in Washington, understands that Ukraine needs some guarantees and commitments, even if the word ‘guarantee’ seems to be a bit toxic,” the diplomat added.

While the United States provides robust military aid to other embattled partners such as Israel and Taiwan, those relationships are governed by congressional acts and memorandums of understanding. Other legally binding guarantees for Ukraine, such as full-fledged NATO membership, would require a treaty to pass a two-thirds vote in the Senate. “The bar is too high in terms of legally binding,” Townsend said.

Nonbinding agreements could, though, be overturned or watered down by future U.S. administrations, which may fuel Ukraine’s desire for iron-clad guarantees. “Think of the JCPOA,” said Townsend, referring to the Iran nuclear deal that was abandoned by the Trump administration, an abdication that supercharged Iran’s nuclear program. “That wasn’t legally binding, that wasn’t a treaty, and look what happened.”

As winter approaches and both Europe and the United States confront recessions and rising energy prices, fears have begun to mount that support for Ukraine could fade as domestic challenges take center stage. At the same time, Western countries have proved willing to give more sophisticated equipment to Kyiv as the war has dragged on.

“If you look at the West’s support for Ukraine from February to March and April, it was very disappointing,” said Kurt Volker, a former U.S. ambassador to NATO. “From May to where we are now, the West has become more supportive and assertive.”

Volker said the best way to secure Ukraine over the long term was to focus on the country’s eventual accession into NATO, rather than working out an interim option.

“It’s good to have this [Kyiv Security Compact] as an alternative that people can chew on,” said Volker, who also served as U.S. special envoy to Ukraine. “But when you start stacking it against actual NATO membership, and you start considering this as a possibility at a time when Russia will have been defeated and accepted to live within its own borders, NATO is better.”

Volker, who is optimistic about Ukraine’s NATO membership prospects once the war is over, said it was unlikely that the Biden administration would sign on to any legally binding stop-gap security guarantees.

“If the United States as a nation is committing to the defense of a country in Europe, then we would much rather do that through NATO, where 30 other countries are also committed to that defense,” he said.

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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