The Leadership of Courage: Ukrainian Security Guarantees for Europe

By Roman Sohn and Ariana Gic, for European Pravda.

The modest results of the Vilnius NATO summit, the sour diplomatic “gratitude” scandal with Poland, the growing threat of Russian provocations from the territory of Belarus against NATO countries, and the progress of diplomatic negotiations regarding the Ukrainian “peace formula” in Saudi Arabia, show a profound demand for a new political and legal instrument to strengthen Ukraine’s international agency.

International relations experts Roman Sohn, Ariana Gic and Hanna Hopko, who since 2014 have been actively advocating the international community for rallying in defense of Ukraine, are convinced that the Ukrainian government can powerful policy to strengthen Kyiv’s status in international arena – Ukrainian security guarantees for Europe.

Historic moment of opportunity for Ukrainian leadership

Russia’s war against Ukraine, and Moscow’s expansion of its hybrid confrontation with the West have upended and reshaped the security environment on the European continent. This dramatic crisis has also created a historic moment of opportunity for Kyiv to assert its international agency.

Epic resistance of the Ukrainian people to Russia’s genocidal war gave Kyiv powerful moral authority in the international arena which helped impact the global political agenda.

It is crucial though, that Ukraine converts its moral leadership into the institutionalization of Kyiv’s new role in international relations.

This bears particular importance for Ukraine’s political battle to join NATO. NATO membership is a critical element of Ukraine’s vision for victory against Russia as it will embody Moscow’s strategic defeat. Yet achieving this goal is an uphill battle, which requires exceptional efforts.

Challenge to overcome NATO’s fears

The recent NATO summit in Vilnius highlighted the fundamental differences between Ukraine’s security interests and the basic consensus within NATO regarding its collective policy towards Russia, Russia’s war, and Ukraine.

Ukraine needs to defeat Russia. Ukrainians must win the war to protect their state and the nation. But NATO’s main priority is not to defeat Russia, but to avoid being pulled directly into the war. This is a firm political line that is drawn by both Washington and Berlin.

Western leaders emphasize the difference between “defending every inch of NATO territory” and their support for Ukraine as if the responsibility to fight the biggest modern threat to the world order stops at NATO’s eastern borders.

Western governments must be repeatedly reminded that NATO was created to deter the threat of Moscow’s aggression, not as a “panic room” for frightened politicians to hide. Not surprisingly, Moscow reads NATO’s policy of avoiding direct confrontation as an invitation to test Western red lines with more boldness.

The West is paralyzed by the debilitating thinking that Ukraine should not be able to join NATO as long as it remains threatened by Russian aggression. Consequently, Western governments avoid undertaking the resolute and binding commitments regarding Ukraine’s membership in the alliance. This naturally creates distrust, leaving ample room for speculations about using Ukrainian membership as a bargaining chip in “peace negotiations” with Moscow.

To overcome the roadblock of a real lack of leadership in the West to help Ukraine defeat Russia, Kyiv must take unprecedented steps. By asserting its international agency, Ukraine can help bridge the perceived gap between Ukrainian and western interests.

The Ukrainian government must act with fortitude to break the existing balance of interests in the West that protects Russia from a complete and humiliating defeat.

To receive invitation to join NATO while the war continues, Kyiv must generate truly disruptive initiatives.

Ukrainian security guarantees for Europe

If NATO is not prepared to guarantee Ukraine’s security, then Ukraine must find the resolve to offer protection to the European countries in the event they are attacked by Russia.

In this way, Kyiv can formalize its moral leadership and, without asking anyone’s permission, consolidate Ukraine’s role as the eastern pillar of European defenses.

Ukrainian security guarantees for Europe can be formalized by issuing a declaration announcing a unilateral commitment that, in the event of an illegal armed attack by Russia on Kyiv’s partners, Ukraine will consider such attack as an act of aggression against itself, and, upon receiving request, it will provide military assistance to the victim of the aggression.

Such commitment would resemble the unilateral obligations under Article 5 of the Washington Treaty. With many reservations, Ukraine’s security guarantees could be described as “self-integration” into NATO.

We can already hear skeptics questioning the advantages of such a move for Ukraine, or benefits for NATO countries. Here are ten simple reasons why this is a win-win for both Ukraine and its partners:

First, Ukraine will affirm that it is part of the collective West, and not a grey area that some in the West would still like it to remain.

Kyiv’s declaration will underline that Ukraine is manifestly on the side of free societies in the ongoing global struggle between democracy and totalitarianism. It will signal that Ukraine has chosen to defend the free world together with its partners.

This is a decisive step against the skeptics of Kyiv’s Euro-Atlantic integration, who still do not want to see Ukraine as a member of either NATO or the EU, and who believe that it is possible to appease Moscow if Ukraine is left remaining in the buffer zone.

Second, Ukraine will demonstrate that it is not just seeking protective cover under NATO’s umbrella at the expense of Western societies, but that Ukrainians are also prepared to fight for them.

Joining NATO (which Ukraine seeks to do) ultimately means an obligation to defend your allies. By showing readiness to make sacrifices for its partners, Ukraine can expect the same in return.

Third, Ukraine, as a country with a unique experience of direct military confrontation with Russia, will fill the security deficit in Europe.

NATO’s serious vulnerability is the challenge of protecting member states on its eastern flank from a large-scale, rapid, limited, or hybrid attack by Russia. Neither nuclear deterrence nor available conventional means in Eastern Europe can fully guarantee an effective defense against aggression.

A year ago, Estonian Prime Minister Kaya Kallas warned that her state and nation could be wiped off the face of the earth in the event of a Russian attack. She publicly criticized the weakness of NATO’s defense plan, which allowed for months of occupation by Russian troops of the captured territories. Callas warned that the alliance’s military forces in the region would simply be destroyed by the prevailing forces of the aggressor.

Since then, NATO has made a number of decisions to strengthen its eastern flank, but the problem has not disappeared. The armies of many European countries exist only on paper, and even the Russian Federation’s war against Ukraine did not force their governments to increase defense spending. The governments of Western and Southern European countries seem to be oblivious to the risk of Russia attacking NATO. Russia’s fast-moving militarization, scaling up of weapons production, massive hidden conscription, and fanatical social transition to an ideologically totalitarian state are quickly increasing the risks of direct confrontation.

Fourth, Ukraine has a direct military interest in ensuring the protection of arms supply routes.

In recent days, the threat of armed provocations, or even a hybrid attack on Poland and Lithuania, has increased substantially in connection with the Kremlin’s probable plans to carry out acts of sabotage from the territory of Belarus under the guise of the “Wagner group”.

At a bare minimum, the topic of a possible attack, which Moscow and Minsk have inserted into the public debate, may have an impact on the parliamentary election campaign in Poland. The Kremlin’s calculation may be to intimidate the Poles by an elevated risk of hostilities spilling over to Poland. This might help tip the electoral preferences towards political parties with a more “cautious” approach to military aid to Ukraine, or even anti-Ukrainian forces advocating the termination of such support.

Ukrainian security guarantees might have a “calming” effect on the public sentiments in Eastern Europe.

Moreover, it would be irresponsible to rule out the risk of Russia launching subversive operations against Poland. Moscow considers the supply of weapons to Ukraine a legitimate military target, and feels a pressing need to disrupt supplies. NATO’s deterrence efforts have not given Putin enough reasons not to feel tempted to test Western “red lines”. The Kremlin is likely betting on NATO’s permissive weakness in response to Moscow’s potential hybrid destabilization attacks on Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, or Estonia. The strength of the response to Russia’s adventurism will affect Putin’s aggressive plans vis-a-vis the West.

In the event of an attack on Poland, Ukraine will, in fact, have no choice but to come to Warsaw’s help in order to protect the supply of weapons for its own needs.

Fifth, the weapons supplied by Western countries to Ukraine may one day eventually protect the West itself.

It is no secret there are many skeptics in the West about the supply of weapons to Ukraine. Ukrainian guarantees will offer a persuasive argument that aiding Kyiv is a direct investment in one’s own security. The Ukrainian army convincingly proved that it is not afraid to fight a nuclear power in the largest armed conflict since the Second World War.

Sixth, Ukrainian guarantees will inspirit NATO to act decisively.

Despite any assurances from Washington, the countries of the NATO’s eastern flank have something to worry about. If the genocidal nature of the Russian war can be left unanswered; if its nuclear blackmail can be ignored; if Russia’s destruction of the Kakhovka dam can go overlooked; if there is no retaliation to attacks on American drones, how can anyone have confidence that when the time comes the interests of the “small” NATO countries will not be sacrificed for the sake of “avoiding a global nuclear Holocaust”?

Seventh, Ukraine will put an end to the destructive narrative of “gratitude”.

Many in the West perceive Ukraine exclusively as a beneficiary of aid, while they feel the West is providing security at the expense of high costs and risks.

The very exclusivity of the NATO club is the best illustration that this is the most significant commitment in international relations that one nation can offer to another. Hence, the discussion about “gratitude” can be closed once and for all, because there is no greater expression of gratitude than the willingness to protect your partners.

Eighth, Ukrainian guarantees will arm its partners advocating for Ukraine’s NATO membership with powerful arguments, and will improve bilateral relations with NATO countries in general.

The Ukrainian voice alone is not enough. Ukraine needs a coalition of partners advocating for its membership in the alliance. The shared interests are the best glue for such coalition.

Western governments must feel that their citizens support inviting Ukraine to join NATO. Ukrainian guarantees will help drive favourable sentiments and deal a serious blow to the hostile propaganda promoted by the political forces opposing Ukraine’s membership.

Ninth, Ukraine will persuasively consolidate its leadership role in the region.

Ukrainian security guarantees should be offered to the entire NATO’s eastern flank: Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Bulgaria, and Romania. It is reasonable to also include Moldova as the pro-Western course of Chisinau can be maintained only under conditions of security, and only the western orientation of Moldova provides additional security for Ukraine.

Ukraine’s guarantess will become a driver for regional security cooperation in Eastern Europe. The new arc of security will strengthen NATO. Ukrainian guarantees will help to mount a faster to respond to a Russian attack without long political delays, which might bog down NATO.

Tenth, Ukrainian guarantees will add new weight to diplomatic efforts of finding an international solution to achieve sustainable, just, and lasting peace.

Strengthening Ukraine’s agency will give Kyiv more influence to promote the Ukrainian “peace formula”, because Ukraine’s security guarantees will project the status of the winner in the war.

And finally, since 2014, while the West was concerned with ‘saving face’ for Putin, Ukrainians, out of fear of being left alone to defend against Russia’s war, were saving the face of the West that was unwilling to deal with the consequences of its disastrous Russia policies. Ukrainian national interests were harmed by accepting detrimental concessions to accommodate Western fears of “provoking” Russia.

Ukraine asserting its international agency will help align Kyiv’s goal of defeating Russia with the West.

Courage and resolve to do the impossible is the kind of leadership the West is lacking today. Ukraine is demonstrating that on the battlefield and it must show the same in the international arena.

About authors

Roman Sohn, Ukrainian political and legal expert, Chairman, Direct Initiative International Centre for Ukraine
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Ariana Gic, Canadian political and legal analyst, Director, Direct Initiative International Centre for Ukraine. Sanctioned by the Russian Federation according to the Statement of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs on the Personal Sanctions against the citizens of Canada, dated November 14, 2022
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Hanna Hopko, Foreign policy expert, Chair of the board of the National Interests Advocacy Network ANTS, coordinator of the International Center for Ukrainian Victory, Member of Ukrainian Parliament, 2014-2019.
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The authors have led a years long international public advocacy campaign “Truth for Peace,” calling for recognizing Russia as the aggressor state waging unlawful interstate war against Ukraine since 2014, and designating Russia as a rogue state and a state sponsor of terrorism.