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NATO and Ukraine: recommendations and reflections

On April 25th 2023, New Eastern Europe hosted an expert roundtable discussion on the current lessons learnt from Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, and to prepare recommendations for NATO and its member countries ahead of the July 2023 summit in Vilnius. The summary of this roundtable, with some important lessons and recommendations, is presented here.

July 4, 2023 - Adam Reichardt Wojciech Michnik - Hot TopicsIssue 3-4 2023Magazine

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg (left) meets Ukraine’s defence minister, Oleksii Reznikov, with Lloyd Austin, US defence secretary, in the background, during a recent meeting of NATO Ministers of Defence in Brussels. Officially, NATO as an organisation as such provides only non-lethal aid to Ukraine. At the same time, there is no question that NATO member states provide the weapons, training and strategic consultations to the Ukrainian side. Photo courtesy of NATO

Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine has become a defining moment in European security for this generation. Not since the Second World War has Europe witnessed such aggression, destruction and devastation. For the second time in the post-Cold War period, Europe has witnessed a full-scale war on the continent, yet this time one of the belligerents (and the main aggressor) is a state possessing nuclear weapons. In February 2022, the Kremlin strategy was to quickly invade Ukraine and set up a pro-Russian government in Kyiv, which would not only end Ukrainian sovereignty but also further destabilise the security situation in the region and beyond. Russia’s actions, however, failed to achieve such a result. This was largely thanks to Ukrainian resistance but also the mass support, including weapons, money and humanitarian aid, provided to Ukraine by the West.

As the main organisation that represents military cooperation between countries in Europe and North America, NATO did not respond to Ukraine’s call for help directly as a whole. Instead, it has only provided medical supplies, as well as non-lethal and financial aid. However, NATO members are the largest supporters of Ukraine on a bilateral or multilateral basis. According to the Kiel Institute for the World Economy, the total amount of support, which includes military aid, amounted to 143 billion euros in government-to-government commitments from January 2022 to January 2023. This does not include the most recent commitments made since then. Yet, it does illustrate that external support – with almost all of it coming from NATO countries – for Ukraine has been a key factor in its defence against the ongoing Russian aggression. More than one year since the full-scale invasion, New Eastern Europe decided to gather a group of experts in security, geopolitics, international relations and political science, to sit around a table and discuss the key issues that have emerged as a result of this defining moment, and what recommendations should be put forward on behalf of the journal ahead of the 2023 NATO Summit in Vilnius. The results of these discussions are presented here and in the subsequent texts published in this thematic section.

NATO’s approach towards Russia and Ukraine

One key theme that emerged during discussions is that the West does not fully understand how Russia works and how it formulates its strategy. This is an important lesson for western governments, especially those that have been more “friendly” to the Kremlin in the past. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine should prove once and for all that there should be no return to “business as usual” as long as the current regime is in power. It is important to also keep in mind that the Russian authorities do not play by the same rules as the West. The Kremlin certainly believes that its conflict is not only with Ukraine, but with the so-called “collective West” – a term often used in Russian discourse to describe NATO and western countries. While the active and kinetic conflict is taking place in Ukraine and against Ukrainian troops, other battles and conflicts are taking place elsewhere, primarily in the information space. This will remain a challenge for NATO and its unity and cohesion, as it is difficult for the Alliance to both support Ukraine and avoid a direct military confrontation with the Russian Federation. There have definitely been some signs of wear and tear within some NATO member states with regard to maintaining a united front in the political and diplomatic standoff with Russia.

In many ways, NATO’s approach to Russia has been very delicate, as there are fears of escalating the conflict beyond Ukraine. That is why officially, NATO as an organisation as such provides only non-lethal aid to Ukraine. At the same time, there is no question that NATO member states provide the weapons, training and strategic consultations to the Ukrainian side that are needed to defend against Russian forces. This response to Ukrainian needs from many countries was initially slow. However, since the end of 2022 and the beginning of 2023 there has been a marked acceleration in providing certain types of weapons to Ukraine. This has enhanced the country’s abilities to not only defend itself – such as in the case of air defence systems – but also to carry out a successful counter-offensive strategy. There is no longer a question of providing main battle tanks, such as the German-made Leopards and American Abrams, to Ukraine. The next discussion relates to equipping Ukraine’s air force with F-16s, and at this moment it seems that that the main (diplomatic) obstacles to providing the Ukrainian military with these fighter jets have been resolved. As NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg underlined, “It is clear that we are in a race of logistics. Key capabilities like ammunition, fuel, and spare parts must reach Ukraine before Russia can seize the initiative on the battlefield. Speed will save lives.” If there are any lessons for NATO and for individual states supporting Ukraine to learn, it is that decisiveness in sending certain weapons to the Ukrainians could and should have been improved. NATO understanding its own limitations (political sensitivities and depleted military stockpiles) is one thing, but prolonging decisions out of fear of so-called escalation definitely did not serve the purpose of ending the war any quicker on Ukrainian terms. 

Many experts argue that these decisions should have been made a year ago. At the same time, this slow course illustrates the cautious approach by many larger NATO member states, who fear escalating the conflict beyond Ukraine. Unfortunately, the price of this approach has been paid by Ukrainian lives and territory. This might be even more important now as the Ukrainian counter-offensive is underway. It could last for weeks or even months and will likely encounter some setbacks that will definitely be used by Russia’s propaganda and disinformation campaign. That is why it is so crucial for NATO to stay resilient and maintain a unified response to the war in the months to come.

NATO unity and resilience can help Ukraine’s victory

Nevertheless, the NATO Alliance has shown a remarkable sense of unity in the face of Russia’s aggression in Ukraine. This unity, however, is being challenged by political pressures at home and possible battlefield challenges in Ukraine. That is why it is even more important that Ukraine’s counter-offensive is successful this summer. Symbolic victories, such as liberating villages and towns in the east and south of Ukraine, will validate the western public’s support and make it easier for political leaders to convince their populations that there are returns on their investments.

Detailing the reasons behind support for Ukraine is equally important in maintaining unity and is not discussed often enough. The argument should be crystal clear: support for Ukraine is support for its fight for freedom and democracy. NATO and its members have the credibility and clout to forge a strong narrative about why it is important to stand up for democracy – as an alliance of democratic and free states. As Ukraine has taught us, free and democratic societies are also resilient ones. Hence, NATO also needs to focus on tools for democracy building at home, including supporting investments in public diplomacy efforts, education, media literacy and teaching populations to understand threats and security better.

Defining victory

US President Joe Biden, together with other top officials in NATO states, including Stoltenberg, have all declared that they are going to support Ukraine for as long as it takes. However, there is no clear understanding as to what this really means. It can be assumed that such discussion refers to a victory for Ukraine. However, even this leads to further misunderstanding. If NATO declares that it supports a Ukrainian victory, then NATO should clearly define what that Ukrainian victory will look like. This victory could mean a recovery of territory matching the country’s 1991 borders. Yet, this victory could also mean a complete Russian defeat on the battlefield, or even the collapse of the current regime.

Defining and communicating NATO’s desired outcome can be tricky for some countries. As mentioned above, there are some member states who fear escalating the conflict with Russia beyond Ukraine. At the same time, Russia already believes that it is in a conflict with NATO, considering how much support Ukraine already receives from NATO member states. Therefore, clarifying the desired outcome related to this support should not be something to shy away from. Rather, we should talk about the general desired outcome – Ukraine’s regaining of its full sovereign territory. At the same time, there should be a discussion about “specific scenarios” and how NATO should address them and prepare its populations for these various scenarios. This is not to advocate for NATO’s confrontational stance towards Russia. Instead, we should advocate for strategic signalling and sending a strong and repeated message to the Kremlin that the Alliance is here to stay and defend the transatlantic realm. Unfortunately, as we have seen, only this kind of firm stance is understood by Moscow.

Defining NATO’s relationship with Ukraine

There is no doubt that Ukraine’s relationship with NATO will be at the heart of many conversations during the Vilnius Summit and beyond. This debate goes back to 2008 when NATO declared that Ukraine will one day be a NATO member, if it so wishes, while not providing any specific details as to how this process will work. NATO’s unclear approach to Ukraine’s membership has often been interpreted as a lack of political will at best, and political weakness in the face of Russian pressure at worst.

Today, the situation is completely different and NATO needs to acknowledge this fact by advancing the conversation about the future of Ukraine and NATO. While Ukraine does not have a chance to become a member while at war with its neighbour, these discussions can and should be started in the very near future. What is more, Ukrainian support for membership in NATO has reached a record high. According to a poll from earlier this year, 86 per cent of Ukrainians declared that they wanted to be a part of the Alliance. The same survey found that if Ukraine held a referendum on joining NATO now, only three per cent of Ukrainians would vote against it. Considering this, together with the fact that Ukrainians are fighting and dying on the battlefield to defend the same values NATO claims to uphold, it would be more than justified to concretely define the path for Ukraine’s membership. What NATO can do – at least for the time being – is to elevate its official relationship with Ukraine and form a NATO-Ukraine Council, which would reflect the very close and cordial relations that the Alliance has with Kyiv. And even though it would not be enough for Ukrainians, such a gesture would reinforce NATO’s commitment to working closely with Ukraine. It would also lay the foundations for the future incorporation of Ukraine into NATO’s political and military structures.

NATO should be supporting steps and initiatives to quickly integrate Ukraine when the time is right. For instance, Ukraine is a member of the Lublin Triangle – a regional cooperation platform made up of Poland, Lithuania and Ukraine – as well as the Three Seas Initiative. This could mean assisting some countries willing to enhance cooperation or providing certain guarantees between them and Ukraine. Turkey has a similar relationship with Azerbaijan, as does the United States with Japan, hence there are precedents for such approaches.

There are at least three major topics that NATO member states will discuss in Vilnius. Firstly, they will discuss NATO’s enlargement, especially in the context of Sweden’s accession. This still has to be ratified by Hungary and Turkey. Preferably for the Alliance, it would be great if Sweden could join during the summit. However, any possible timelines now do not leave much hope for that scenario. Secondly, Ukraine and its potential cooperation status with NATO are already the subject of intense talks. As providing Ukraine with the MAP (Membership Action Plan) does not seem to be a viable option at the moment, NATO might move – as we advocate – to strengthen cooperation in the form of a NATO-Ukraine Council. Last, but definitely not least, defence and deterrence will be at the centre of talks between the Allies, including boosting military spending and strengthening NATO’s military presence among front line states in the Eastern Flank.

The upcoming summit in Vilnius will be an opportunity for NATO to reiterate its support for Ukraine. However, more needs to be done so that NATO can clearly define what it believes is at stake in the conflict, as well as what outcome it sees as ideal and its future relationship with Ukraine in the Alliance. These recommendations together with the ongoing developments on the ground are crucial for shaping a comprehensive strategy and approach which will ensure a stable and more secure future for both NATO and Ukraine.

Wojciech Michnik is an assistant professor of International Relations and Security Studies at Jagiellonian University, the Transatlantic Project Coordinator of the Central and South-East Europe Programme at LSE IDEAS, and a contributing editor with New Eastern Europe.

Adam Reichardt is the editor in chief of New Eastern Europe and co-host of the Talk Eastern Europe podcast.

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