NATO in Ukraine: High Strategic Stake, Irresolute Engagement

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 15 Issue: 115

Rapid Trident exercise (Source:

United States President Donald Trump’s behavior at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) recent summit in Brussels (July 11–12) and in its aftermath has cast a shadow on this landmark event. Trump’s follow-up actions, including the meeting with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, continued hitting at NATO and the European Union from afar. Trump’s persona and his possible motivations furnished the main topic of analysis throughout these events, diverting attention from the actual results of the NATO Brussels Summit. Its agenda and decisions clearly identified Russia as the main source of threats and challenges to the Alliance. The summit’s balance sheet is a mixture of significant accomplishments and unfinished business left over from years past, notably in the Black Sea region and NATO’s eastern neighborhood (see EDM, July 25, 30, August 1, 2, 7, 8, 9).

The North Atlantic Alliance’s modest engagement with Ukraine is hardly commensurate with that country’s centrality to a secure Europe. Nor does this level of relations adequately respond to Ukraine’s aspirations for Euro-Atlantic integration. Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine—a country that defends Europe in the process of defending itself—seems to have inhibited NATO from a proper mentoring and advisory role in Ukraine, instead of stimulating such a role. The country’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations mainly rely on the engagement of the United States with Ukraine on a bilateral basis, and potentially a few willing member countries, rather than on NATO’s collective policies.

The Alliance adheres to its declared Open Door Policy regarding Ukraine in a nuanced way. The Brussels Summit Declaration recognizes that “an independent, sovereign and stable Ukraine […] is key for Euro-Atlantic security. We stand firm in our support for Ukraine’s right to decide its own future and foreign policy course free from outside interference. In light of Ukraine’s restated aspirations for NATO membership, we stand by our decisions taken at the Bucharest Summit and subsequent Summits” (, para. 62, July 11). The document, however, stops short of specifying what the 2008 Bucharest (and subsequently reaffirmed) decision was, namely that “Ukraine and Georgia will become members of NATO.” The 2018 Brussels Declaration makes this specification only with regard to Georgia, in the immediately preceding paragraph: “We reiterate the decision made at the 2008 Bucharest Summit that Georgia will become a member of the Alliance” (, para. 61, July 11).

NATO encourages Ukraine to make “full use of the Comprehensive Assistance Package [CAP], so that Ukraine can better provide for its own security” (, para. 62, July 11). Meant as a contribution to improving Ukraine’s defense capacity and interoperability, that package consists of six trust funds, set up at NATO’s 2014 Wales Summit and confirmed at the 2016 Warsaw Summit. Allied countries, individually or in groups, volunteer to provide financial support and expertise for the projects run by each trust fund. The six trust funds are designed to assist Ukraine with: C4 (Command, Control, Communications and Computers, led by a trio of Canada, Germany and the United Kingdom); Logistics and Standardization (led by the Czech Republic, the Netherlands and Poland); Cyber Defense (Romania); Military Medicine and Rehabilitation (Bulgaria); Military Career Transition (Norway); and Explosive Ordnance Disposal (Slovakia). (, July 14).

However, the funding is not up to the level of these tasks. In the run-up to the 2018 Brussels Summit, the budget planned for CAP’s six trust funds was reported to total only $9.5 million, not all of which was actually collected (, July 6). NATO officials have not released the CAP trust funds’ budget figures.

The Summit further encouraged Ukraine to make full use of the NATO-Ukraine Commission (NUC) and the Annual National Plan (ANP) in order “to reach its objectives of implementing NATO principles and standards.” The responsibility for implementation of ANPs falls primarily on Ukraine. (If an aspirant country receives a membership action plan, then NATO shares the aforementioned objectives and responsibility with that country). The NUC meets periodically at the presidential, ministerial, ambassadorial and expert levels (Hungary has vetoed NUC meetings since October 2017), while the ANP entails an annual review process coordinated by Ukraine’s deputy prime minister for European and Euro-Atlantic integration, Ivanna Klympush-Tsintsadze (highly respected in Brussels). The working groups under the NUC and under the ANP straddle the borderline between civilian and military domains, as is the case with CAP’s trust funds.

On the civilian side, albeit with national security implications, NATO and Ukraine jointly operate a Platform on Countering Hybrid Warfare; moreover, they have held a major exercise named Table Top, aimed at improving the resilience of Ukraine’s critical energy infrastructure.

The Brussels Summit “acknowledge[d] Ukraine’s interest” in the Enhanced Opportunities Program (EOP) within the Partnership Interoperability Initiative (PIP), but the summit deferred a decision on Ukraine’s twice-submitted application. Launched at the 2014 Wales Summit, the PIP aims to consolidate the interoperability gains achieved in NATO-led crisis management missions and operations (basically for peace support and stabilization), potentially to continue such operations in the future. The PIP includes 24 partner countries, including Ukraine. Only five of these countries have been selected into the Enhanced Opportunities Program (EOP—currently including Sweden, Finland, Georgia, Jordan and Australia). These benefit from enhanced access to planning, operations, and lessons-learned processes in connection with such missions (, Ukrinform, July 6).

Though a country involved in defensive war, Ukraine has nevertheless contributed to NATO missions and operations during the years 2015-2018. It sent an engineering unit to deal with improvised explosive devices (IED) for the NATO-led Kosova Force (KFOR); instructors within the NATO-led Resolute Support Mission to train, advise and assist Afghanistan’s security forces; and strategic airlift as well as a medical unit to NATO’s Response Force (NRF). At the Brussels Summit, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg welcomed Ukraine’s decision to increase its contribution to the Resolute Support mission and to the NRF (, July 12).

Ukraine currently hosts two periodical military exercises with Western forces on its territory. These are not NATO exercises. Both are US-led, and some allied countries participate in their own right, but not NATO as such, apparently due to objections from certain governments. These exercises are, therefore, designated as multinational, rather than NATO.

Rapid Trident is a US-led, annually recurring exercise, using the Yavoriv training range. The latest iteration, held in September 2017, involved a total of almost 2,000 personnel from Ukraine and 13 NATO member and partner countries. Rapid Trident serves primarily to validate the training of Ukrainian units and command staffs attending the US-led Joint Multinational Training Group–Ukraine Program (, accessed August 1).

Sea Breeze is also an annual multinational exercise, co-hosted by the United States and Ukraine, and held mainly in the Odesa area, with some activities in the nearby Mykolayiv province. Sea Breeze had its latest iteration on July 9–July 21, 2018, with the participation of sea, amphibious, land and air elements from 18 countries, totaling approximately 2,000 personnel. Some 800 of these were from the US Sixth Fleet, the staff of which led the exercise. Sea Breeze-18 was the most complex iteration of this exercise in recent years (, accessed August 1).

Visiting the main exercise site, President Petro Poroshenko remarked, “This is not only about protecting Ukraine’s territory. We are on the eastern flank of NATO, we are jointly defending Europe. Ukraine is practically the only state that stopped the invasion of the Russian aggressor state” (Ukrinform, July 16).

Looking ahead to the next round of NATO’s decisions (anniversary summit in 2019), the Alliance could, as minimum ambitions, increase the financing of the Trust Funds to adequate levels, add more NATO content to exercises in Ukraine, and hold the open door at least ajar, rather than just a crack. NATO (and Ukraine also) should debate not what NATO can do for Ukraine, but rather what NATO can do for itself as an alliance and for Europe in Ukraine.