Bilateral Security Agreements as Part of Ukraine’s NATO Accession (Part Two)

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 21 Issue: 77

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and the President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelenskyy

Executive Summary:

  • Political agreements between NATO and Ukraine—including a multilateral security compact and a start to accession talks this year—are necessary additions to military measures in strengthening bilateral security agreements.
  • Accession talks will have to include the development of credible defense and deterrence plans between NATO collectively and Ukraine, with a 2028 target date for accession.
  • Turning “the end of the war” or some kind of “peace settlement” into a prerequisite for Ukraine’s NATO accession is unattainable in the age of hybrid wars.

Bilateral agreements on security assistance to Ukraine by North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) member states are of limited value in their scope, duration, and enforcement power. Nine such agreements have been signed out of almost 30 agreements planned by allied states individually with Ukraine. Those bilateral documents will, inevitably, differ widely from one another in their respective contents. Regardless of the intrinsic merits of each, however, bilateralism would keep Ukraine outside the alliance and ineligible for the latter’s security guarantees. That bilateralism, if prolonged, could morph into a replacement for Ukraine’s accession to the North Atlantic Treaty and serve merely as an ersatz for NATO membership.

With that risk apparently in mind, the International Task Force on Ukraine’s Security and Euro-Atlantic Integration recently released report recommends strengthening those bilateral security agreements and explicitly defining them as a temporary recourse to be accompanied by a collective commitment to Ukraine’s NATO accession at a predetermined date. Drawn up under the guidance of former NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the report insists that its proposals to strengthen the bilateral agreements militarily are not a replacement for Ukraine’s NATO membership. Rather, they are a set of interim measures until official membership is attained (“Ukraine’s Euro-Atlantic Future: Paving the Path to Peace and Security,”, May 14; see EDM, May 16).

To that end, the report offers the following political recommendations:

  • NATO should invite Ukraine to begin accession talks at the alliance’s July 2024 summit in Washington, with a clear timeframe for attaining Ukrainian membership by July 2028.
  • The measures to strengthen the bilateral agreements should be implemented between an invitation and full membership during the interim period.
  • A framework agreement, bringing together the bilateral agreements under an international compact, must be agreed to on the sidelines of the Washington summit, alongside the invitation to begin NATO accession talks. (Rasmussen’s task force had initially proposed a system of bilateral agreements under a framework agreement, or compact, between NATO states and Ukraine; see EDM, December 16, 2022).
  • Even as the war continues, accession talks will have to include the development of credible defense and deterrence plans between NATO and Ukraine (i.e., by the alliance collectively rather than by individual allies).
  • Ukraine, within its borders as recognized under international law, should be given an official invitation from NATO and enter into accession talks. Meanwhile, the North Atlantic Council should determine what parts of Ukraine would be covered by North Atlantic Treaty guarantees (potentially excluding Russian-occupied territories, thus addressing fears of clashing with Russia while still upholding Ukraine’s legal sovereignty over those territories in an eventual settlement).
  • NATO membership for Ukraine “must be part of the West’s strategy for ending the war—not something that can be considered only after the war is over.”
  • While the war is ongoing and afterward, “only NATO membership can reliably guarantee Ukraine’s sovereignty and its Western strategic orientation.”
  • “Certain security sector reforms … will continue after Ukraine becomes a NATO member” (obliquely alluding to post-1999 and post-2004 NATO entrants that struggled to complete their security sector reforms for two peacetime decades).

The report warns against the “risk of an open-ended war turning into a slow failure for Ukraine and its allies … that means heightened instability in the Euro-Atlantic area.” To forestall a protracted war ending in failure, the report argues that integrating Ukraine into NATO is the most effective way “to defend itself, control escalation, and bring this war to an acceptable conclusion.” It tells allies that inviting Ukraine to start accession talks could demonstrate to Russia that it will not gain anything from continuing its war. Conversely, further delaying an invitation would embolden Russia to escalate its war against Ukraine and test NATO’s resolve elsewhere.

The current debate seems to be dominated by those arguing that NATO cannot invite Ukraine to commence accession talks—much less to join the alliance as a member—so long as Russia wages its war against Ukraine.  This school of thought proposes a sequence of first “ending the war” and then considering Ukraine’s possible NATO membership. This logic, however, gives Russia an incentive to continue the war indefinitely to block Ukraine’s access to NATO membership. Conversely, integrating Ukraine into NATO is one way to ameliorate Kyiv’s and NATO’s respective negotiating leverage with Russia, should it ever come to negotiations.

Turning “the end of the war” or some kind of “peace settlement” into a prerequisite to Ukraine’s NATO accession would block accession with the alliance’s own hands. No clear-cut distinction is made between a state of war and a state of peace in the age of hybrid war. Russia is waging a permanent hybrid war against the West and an open-ended kinetic war in Ukraine as part of that war.

Current proposals in Western capitals to “freeze” the kinetic war or trade Ukrainian territories for “peace” or “negotiate terms of the settlement” with Russia would not achieve “peace” or “settlement” in any accustomed sense of those terms. The Biden administration, for example, withdrew US political support from Ukraine’s NATO membership quest in 2021, during the period of the Minsk “armistice” when no “war” was ongoing (the administration endorsed the political terms of that armistice). Many other NATO allies had withheld their support for Ukraine’s membership quest even earlier. Yet, the way to actual peace leads through Ukraine in NATO and the defeat of Russian forces in Ukraine if NATO prepares itself for the task of outlasting the Kremlin.