Confusion reigns when West talks postwar safety for Ukraine

Confusion reigns when West talks postwar safety for Ukraine
Опубликовано: Friday, 24 February 2023 07:52

The UK’s surprise pitch for a bold yet vague security ‘charter’ for Ukraine highlighted the divisions and bafflement dominating the issue.


Western allies want to protect Ukraine from the next Russian war — but a year into this war, there’s still no agreement over how to do it, when to discuss it or what it even means.

The allies’ muddled messaging has been on full display since British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak surprised some of his counterparts last weekend with a bold yet vague proposal for a new “charter” to assure Ukraine’s long-term security.

“We must demonstrate that we’ll remain by their side, willing and able to help them defend their country again and again,” the British leader said at the Munich Security Conference. Ahead of a July NATO summit in Lithuania, Sunak vowed, “we will bring together our friends and allies to begin building those long-term assurances.”

“Our aim,” he added, “should be to forge a new charter in Vilnius to help protect Ukraine from future Russian aggression.”

In the days since Sunak’s speech, officials have expressed a mix of bafflement, support and curiosity about the proposal.

“Great, what kind of assurances?” said Latvia’s Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkēvičs when asked about Sunak’s comments.

“Brits and their way with words,” quipped a senior official from Eastern Europe, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal alliance dynamics.

The confusion illustrates how sensitive the subject has become within the Western alliance, where the idea of a long-term defensive arrangement with Ukraine has buy-in — but mostly in theory. For many, the specifics are simply too fraught to discuss until after the war.

“It is unclear what kind of assurances could be given,” said a senior official from northern Europe, while stressing that Ukraine is seen as part of the Euro-Atlantic family.

“I believe ideas from the U.K. and others are welcome,” the official added, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive matters. “As long as we also manage expectations.”

What comes before NATO membership?

Kyiv has long wanted to join NATO as soon as possible, wanting to bind Ukraine to the alliance’s core principle: An attack on one is an attack on all.

U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak didn’t provide details of what a “charter” would entail | Justin Tallis/AFP via Getty Images

But folding Ukraine into NATO is a potentially combustible move. Russian leader Vladimir Putin regularly rants about the alliance’s eastward expansion and has used it as an ostensible justification for his current war.

So in the meantime, Ukraine has pushed friendly capitals to give the country “security guarantees” — essentially promises they would come to the country’s aid should Russia invade again.

But many NATO allies have carefully avoided these demands, putting them at odds with the contingent of countries actually pushing for a closer relationship between NATO and Ukraine.

For its part, NATO has repeatedly insisted that while it supports Kyiv, it is not a party to the conflict. Formally, the alliance only provides non-lethal assistance to Ukraine, while its members send weapons, coordinating via a U.S.-led group known as the Ramstein format.

Sunak’s speech brought all these fissures to the fore.

The British leader’s speech left it unclear whether he envisioned an alliance of like-minded countries making security pledges for Ukraine or NATO itself providing the assurances. Sunak also did not provide details of what a “charter” would entail, nor any specifics about the “assurances.”

Separately, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has advocated for a “peace formula” that would include an international conference on Europe’s postwar “security architecture,” culminating in the signing of the so-called Kyiv Security Compact.

The compact — a concept developed by Zelenskyy’s office with former NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen — would involve capitals enabling Ukraine to defend itself in the longer term, including through defensive investments and weapons supplies.

Some officials interpreted the wording of Sunak’s Munich speech as a gesture to assuage Ukraine, which was originally promised (eventual) NATO membership at a 2008 summit in Bucharest. Ukraine asked in September to fast-track the long-frozen bid.

While there is an understanding within the alliance that Ukraine cannot join while the war is ongoing, there is pressure from countries on the eastern flank to give Kyiv a strong signal when NATO leaders gather this summer in Lithuania.

“At Vilnius, we kind of hope there could be some political offerings to the Ukrainians,” the first senior official said, “an inch more or some clarity to the Bucharest Summit language or at least ‘a new charter’ — meaning a political package upping their status and bringing them closer to NATO.”

Latvia’s Rinkēvičs said Ukraine’s ultimate goal remains NATO membership but isn’t expecting any decisions on that this year. As a result, he said, “we are ready to engage” on a security charter, as long as it’s a “bold instrument to help Ukraine, not repeat old statements.”

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has advocated for a “peace formula” that would include an international conference on Europe’s postwar “security architecture” | Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images

But it is unclear how far allies will be willing to go.

In a speech over the weekend, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán insisted his country must “stay out” of the war.

“The war in Ukraine is not a war between the armies of good and evil, but a war between the troops of two Slavic countries,” the Hungarian leader said. “It is their war, not ours.”

On the other side of the spectrum, there are allies who see Sunak’s proposal as insufficient.

“I was a bit surprised,” said a senior European diplomat. “In general, I do not think there is a good enough substitute for NATO membership.”

All eyes on America

Washington — which carries the most weight on sensitive issues such as Ukraine’s future security arrangements — has remained cautious.

“Right now, we are focused on what we can do to support Ukraine’s efforts on the ground as Ukraine’s forces defend their country against Russian aggression,” said a U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to speak publicly.

America, the official said, is “committed to the long-term training, assistance, and partnership that will allow Ukraine to deter and defend itself on its own merits.”

Asked about Sunak’s speech, U.S. Ambassador to the EU Mark Gitenstein similarly underscored the need to focus on the here and now.

At the moment, he said, “we’re trying to help Ukraine win this war.”

Many allies concede that ultimately on this highly sensitive matter, much will be up to the U.S.

The Americans, said the senior official from eastern Europe, “hold the key.”

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