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NATO summit in Vilnius: waiting for a strategic roadmap for Ukraine

During the upcoming Vilnius summit, NATO will need to form a clear and consistent position and specify its own understanding of how the war will end. The Ukrainian side expects NATO to declare the steps necessary to guarantee its security and achieve the complete restoration of control over all its territories, ultimately leading to Ukraine’s membership in the Alliance.

July 4, 2023 - Anton Naychuk - Hot TopicsIssue 3-4 2023Magazine

Russia’s military aggression against Ukraine made the question of creating a new security architecture in Europe a priority. The stabilisation of the situation requires the development of a detailed strategy to contain the Russian threat on NATO’s eastern borders, with clear solutions and practical measures. Otherwise, the systemic threat of a constant escalation in the conflict will persist and a sustainable peace will not be ensured. The current statements and assessments regarding events in Ukraine by representatives of the political establishment and expert circles raise several fundamental questions. Without an answer to these, it will be impossible to find a common denominator.

Real prospects of Ukraine joining NATO

The discussion organised by New Eastern Europe between April 24th and 25th 2023 initiated a number of practical reflections regarding the upcoming Vilnius summit and Ukraine’s membership. First, Ukraine’s full integration into the Alliance will take place only after the end of the war – this looks like an axiom for Ukraine’s western partners. At the same time, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has put forward clear conditions for the cessation of hostilities and the final victory of the Ukrainian side – the restoration of Ukraine’s constitutional borders as of 1991. Hence, if we synchronise the indicated approaches and positions, the entry of Ukraine into NATO seems to be possible only in the case of the expulsion of Russian troops from the entire Ukrainian territory, including Crimea.

Second, the final victory of Ukraine over Russia requires the preservation of the consolidated military-technical and political support of the Allies, including overcoming barriers in the supply of long-range ATACMS systems and F-16 fighter jets. In this case, the United States and other countries of the Alliance need to demonstrate a clear readiness to “go all the way” and ensure the final success of Ukraine, or publicly admit that neither Ukraine nor the Russian Federation will achieve their strategic goals.

Third, from the side of Kyiv and Ukrainian society, there is a clear request for specifics – the provision of clear, official answers regarding the terms and conditions of full integration into NATO already within the framework of the summit in Vilnius in July 2023. Positive and detailed signals can play an important role for the Ukrainian nation in a state of war and outline a framework of true prospects. However, the political situation gives reason to believe that the partners are not yet ready for such important and principled steps in July.

Thus, NATO will have to find the necessary formulations or develop a long-term roadmap that will provide the Ukrainian side with an understanding of the Alliance’s approaches and NATO’s strategic vision for the country.

In search of a common understanding of how the war will end

While the position of Ukraine is clearly articulated, this is not the case in terms of many NATO members, who have yet to define their strategic vision. Analysing political and expert declarations, the following conclusion can be made: The US, the United Kingdom and the European Union will support Ukraine as long as the Ukrainian people are ready to fight for their own independence.

At the same time, such wording leaves room for interpretation. For example, if Ukrainian goals cannot be achieved within the framework of the 2023 military campaign, will the integrity of the positions of the NATO countries be preserved into the future? If a stalemate situation suddenly arises on the battlefield or after the counteroffensive, Ukraine will not be able to free all the temporarily occupied territories. Will the NATO coalition then increase support for Ukraine or unofficially call for the start of the negotiation process?

In this context, a clear agreement on the final goals and their definitions is required. In other words, is what Ukraine considers a victory (restoring the 1991 border) actually perceived as a single goal for the Allies, or can they potentially be satisfied with alternative scenarios? In particular, at the expert-political level, we can also find opinions about the need to stop hostilities after the 2023 military campaign and start negotiations with Kyiv in a stronger position. Sanctions on Russia will also not be lifted until a decision is made on the complete withdrawal of Russian troops from Ukrainian territory. Promoters of such proposals should remember that events may unfold in a similar way to what happened in 2014-15. As a result, the conflict could be “frozen” for a longer period, accompanied by the looming threat of a new escalation.

The example of the two Chechen wars demonstrates a threatening trend that may partially repeat itself on a much larger scale: if Russian troops do not achieve their goals during the first offensive, they may resort to aggression again.  Sanctions cause significant damage to Moscow’s technological potential, but do not block the work of the military-industrial complex. Russia retains the ability to modernise old military equipment and produce some new items. If we “freeze” the conflict now, with the preservation of the positions of Russian troops on Ukrainian territory, and without finding effective mechanisms to prevent the Russian threat in the future, a new stage of military actions in Ukraine will resume in a few years. Europe will once again have a war on its eastern flanks.

Security guarantees

The NATO summit in Vilnius should bring consolidation among the member states regarding the provision of security guarantees to Ukraine as a mechanism for deterring Russian aggression. If this fails to happen, we can expect not only new waves of escalation, but it will hardly be appropriate to talk about the implementation of programmes for the economic recovery of Ukraine. It is difficult to ensure sustainable economic development and foreign investment in the conditions of a constant military threat when Russian missiles can hit an infrastructure object or a factory in any part of the territory of Ukraine.

Guarantees could positively change the situation. Yet, given the current circumstances, one possible approach could be to divide them into those that will be formed after the end of the war (such as joining NATO) and those that are needed at the current stage of continuing hostilities. In the second case, an important practical step on the part of the Alliance could be the approval of a new “security formula”. This would be based on the ideas of the Kyiv group of international advisers, led by Andriy Yermak, the head of the Office of the President, and former NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen. Their draft document provides an adapted version of the “Israeli model” of guarantees, which consists of providing Ukraine with expanded access to the technologies and weapons of NATO countries. Such an approach would become the basis for the continuation of the active phase of hostilities.

Fixing the provisions of such a treaty at the level of the Alliance would be an intermediate step towards Ukraine’s expectations, but only if it would ensure the following: removing restrictions on the supply of new models of weapons, including aircraft and long-range missiles; establishing the large-scale production of ammunition for air defence systems and artillery for Ukraine; developing and financing the joint production and maintenance of military equipment, to be transferred to the Ukrainian side; searching for additional opportunities for new supplies of heavy weapons (for example, tanks) not only for a counteroffensive military campaign, but on a long-term basis; and systematic training of the Ukrainian military within NATO training programmes.

If a NATO country lacks the political will to “close the sky” over Ukraine due to fears of a direct conflict with the Russian Federation, it is necessary to provide Ukraine with all the opportunities to independently protect its own airspace. Undoubtedly, the current level of support from western partners represents significant progress, which was achieved thanks to long and joint diplomatic work. Overall, this is guaranteed to satisfy the minimum needs of the Ukrainian side when it comes to armaments, taking into account the continued superiority of the Russian armed forces in artillery, heavy weaponry and combat aircraft.

Roadmap

Victory on the battlefield and the implementation of a concept that would see Ukraine as the shield of Europe is possible only if the Allies expand the supply of military equipment. Otherwise, the Russian Federation will be able to conduct further military operations against Ukraine. Enshrining such guarantees at the official level would become a temporary compromise between the expectations of Ukraine and the capabilities of western partners.

From the point of view of Ukrainian expert circles, an important recommendation for NATO countries on the eve of the summit in July would be to determine the terms of Ukraine’s accession. If full-fledged integration is not possible in the current conditions of war, establishing the provisions for Ukraine’s accession the day after the war’s end would be a clear signal and the most effective reference point for the Ukrainian people.

Ukraine’s clear roadmap should include the following provisions:

  • Maximum support until the Ukrainian army reaches the 1991 border.
  • The implementation of programmes for the synchronisation of military potential and common technical standards.
  • The achievement of the goals declared by Kyiv, with the subsequent full accession of Ukraine to the Alliance as a guarantee of security in the post-war period, and the consolidation of the Ukrainian state as an outpost of the eastern flank of Europe’s defence.

If the specified strategy will not be agreed upon, this will only increase the risk of “freezing” the conflict with unpredictable consequences. The threat of a resumption of the active phase of military operations will only grow in the future. Thus, all members of the Alliance need to form a clear and consistent position and specify their own understanding of the accepted model of ending the war. The Ukrainian side expects that based on the results of the summit in Vilnius and in the future, NATO will declare and take as a basis one single scenario for the development of relations in Ukraine – the final and complete restoration of control over all territories.

In this case, Ukraine will count on the decisive actions of the NATO Alliance, which will be aimed at achieving a faster victory on the battlefield and consolidating its results. Of course, such an approach will provide additional arguments for political circles that fear an excessive escalation in relations between NATO and Russia, with the possible use of nuclear weapons.

However, the likelihood of such actions on the part of the Russian side still seems unlikely, so there are reasons to believe that the Kremlin has no real intentions to go beyond the conventional framework of waging war. Certainly, a lack of decisive actions will contribute to the war’s transition to a long-term conflict, which seems to be the best option for the Russian side. Moscow expects that over time Ukraine’s ability to resist will decrease due to the reduction of support from western allies.

Thus, it is important to emphasise that Ukraine expects strategic decisions from the summit in Vilnius and if full integration into NATO is not a real option during the war, it is important for the Ukrainian people to receive consistent guarantees, such as those that will ensure Ukraine’s ability to conduct offensive actions until its goals are achieved. The creation of a “Ukraine-NATO Council” will be an important step. But more importantly, at the organisational and tactical level, the Alliance needs to demonstrate its strategic vision for a new security architecture in Europe, including the participation of Ukraine as its eastern shield.

Anton Naychuk is the director of the East European Council, a think tank and public diplomacy club established to research and discuss current political, economic and social processes in Eastern Europe and Central Asia.

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