July 23, 2021

Defining America’s ‘national interest’ in Ukraine’s security


There are several ominous signs for Ukraine’s desire to gain security guarantees from the U.S. and its main allies in NATO, Germany and France. None of the ‘big three’ are ready to support NATO membership or even a Membership Action Plan (MAP) for Ukraine.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy met with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin on July 12 and walked away with no guarantees of military support, NATO membership, nor of reversing the Nord Stream 2 pipeline decision. Thankfully, Mr. Zelenskyy’s meeting with President Joe Biden has been scheduled for August 30, and there are reasons to believe that important agreements will be reached during that visit.

There is a ray of hope. Ukraine’s diplomats are negotiating a bilateral defense and security agreement with the U.S. as an intermediate alternative to NATO membership. According to the Office of the President of Ukraine, as part of preparations for Mr. Zelenskyy’s visit to Washington, Ukraine and the U.S. are working on bilateral agreements on enhancing defense cooperation, on projects in research and development, and on U.S. security assistance to Ukraine.

This raises the question of why it is in America’s national interest to negotiate such an agreement, when two such agreements with Iraq and Afghanistan, both of which have a far more direct claim on U.S. national interests, have been terminated because of the specter of fighting “endless wars.” What is America’s interest in defending Ukraine against Russia? Who defines that “national interest” – the president, Congress or both? Finally, what sort of security agreement would best suit the purposes of both the U.S. and Ukraine?

Ukraine has been in a state of war against Russia for seven years now. Understandably, it is difficult for Ukrainian-Americans to separate U.S. national interests from those of Ukraine’s national interests, particularly those associated with its precarious security circumstances. Ukraine’s demands for NATO membership, for example, create a thorny diplomatic problem not only for the U.S., but for most of Europe and other NATO members who do not want to be involved in a confrontation with Russia over Ukraine’s demands for guarantees of a security umbrella against further Russian threats to Ukraine’s sovereignty.

After Mr. Biden’s most recent press conference on July 8 where he explained his rationale for pulling U.S. troops out of Afghanistan by the end of August 2021, defining and defending the U.S. national interest in such one-sided alliances has become an even murkier proposition. In explaining his decision, Mr. Biden noted that “we don’t want to fight the wars of the past 20 years – but those of the next 20 years.” What are the circumstances under which U.S. national interests would propel the U.S. to engage in the wars of the next two decades? Is defending Ukraine’s sovereignty against Russian assaults and incursions into Ukraine’s territory among those interests?

Ukraine has been the only European nation actively engaged in an armed resistance against Russia’s grand imperial designs. As such, it protects Europe’s and NATO’s southern flank. Protecting Ukraine’s sovereignty and security is much more important for Europe than the U.S. Yet, the U.S., and to a lesser extent Britain, has been in the forefront of arming and aiding Ukraine’s fight against Russia. But those efforts are not enough to thwart Russian President Vladimir Putin’s ambitions for reunifying Russia, Belarus and Ukraine. Much more needs to be done to assist Ukraine, but the major European nations have done little on behalf of their own self-interest, while holding Ukraine back from achieving NATO membership.

A day after Mr. Biden met with Mr. Putin in Geneva on June 16, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that Russia was concerned by talk that Kyiv may one day be granted a NATO Membership Action Plan, a first step toward membership in the Western alliance.
“This is something we are watching very closely, and this really is a red line for us – as regards the prospect of Ukraine joining NATO,” Mr. Peskov said.

Mr. Putin’s “red line” is like the “sword of Damocles” hanging over both Ukraine and Europe. If NATO membership is a “red line” for Moscow, what are Ukraine’s options for more reliable security assurances and enhanced military cooperation with NATO members – especially the U.S. – given the difficult circumstances in which it finds itself?

Since the bitter experiences of broken ‘security assurances’ in the Budapest Memo­randum of 1994, Ukraine’s diplomatic corps is more experienced in the legal nuances of international diplomatic exchanges and will demand much more clarity and precision from any future agreement.

First, how does one interpret a “red line” statement from Moscow? It will not be the same as former U.S. President Barack Obama’s “red line” over Syria’s gassing of its population. Mr. Putin had already amassed 100,000 soldiers on Ukraine’s borders in April 2021, along with massive, armored divisions and aircraft. Most are still positioned close to the border, ready to strike. Mr. Putin is ready to act on his “red line,” and neither Ukraine nor NATO are ready to confront Russia, should they move into eastern Ukraine.

To a large extent Congress, through its various pieces of legislation supporting Ukraine and its territorial integrity, has defined a compelling U.S. national interest and has specified how much direct and indirect aid Ukraine may receive. It also gives the president a great deal of discretionary authority to act unilaterally to either accelerate arms deliveries or withhold such arms and to decide on the levels of U.S. military interaction with Ukraine’s military, either directly or through joint NATO maneuvers. Mr. Biden has made many declarations of support for Ukraine’s sovereignty, most recently during the Biden-Merkel meeting at the White House on July 15.

At this point, entering a formal alliance with the U.S., in the form of a bilateral defense and security agreement, is clearly in Ukraine’s national interest. While such alliances and agreements make sense for smaller powers to increase their own security, it makes less sense for strong states that become burdened with security commitments and guarantees. In the case of Ukraine, it would be an asymmetric alliance, except that there is an overall benefit to the U.S., NATO and the EU to have Ukraine as a major active deterrent to Russian expansion – such as the role that Poland now plays for NATO. While Ukraine gains security protection, weapons and intelligence, the U.S. and its allies gain influence and the ability to project power in the Black Sea region, together with NATO ally Turkey.

So, what are the next steps in any short-term strategy to bolster Ukraine’s defenses enough so that they can repel or at least withstand an initial assault and make the Russians pay dearly? Ukraine obviously needs more lethal armaments to be delivered sooner, rather than later, as well as an improved missile defense system and an upgraded air force. NATO membership would have provided both a guarantee of security and an upgraded defense system, comparable to what Poland has received from its NATO partners, primarily the U.S. Under the U.S.-Poland bilateral defense and security agreement, Poland just purchased 250 Abrams tanks for $6 billion.

Poland has become the linchpin of NATO’s defense in the east. NATO forces deployed in Poland will be able to respond not only to direct attacks on that country but to Russian aggression against the Baltic States and those NATO nations bordering the Black Sea.

This is why Washington and Warsaw agreed in 2019 to accept the deployment of a U.S. armored division on Polish territory. By the same token, Ukraine could be viewed as an equivalent critical stop-gap nation, protecting the southern flank of NATO, and do so as an ally of Poland, Bulgaria, Romania and Turkey. While Ukraine is not a NATO member, it serves as an important military asset that confronts Russia daily, and has for the past seven years.

From Ukraine’s standpoint, there are two key interlocking components to its requests for enhanced security: guarantees of security, sovereignty and territorial integrity, and a stable and predictable bilateral military support program. Ukraine was burned by the “guarantees” within the Budapest Memo, and is now much more sophisticated about legal arrangements.

The more important element is the guarantee of “security.” Security agreements may provide guarantees of protection, deterrence or reassurance during volatile situations, along with the prospect of enhanced capabilities during wartime, military training or financial assistance, and specialized intelligence. Security agreements often include positioning supplies, troops, military bases and missile defense systems on the territory of the requesting nation. This is the case with Poland, Japan, Germany, the Philippines, et al.

The second component of a defense and security agreement is the “defense” element, which provides direct and easy access to military assistance in the form of both offensive and defensive weapons, as well as military training, cybersecurity and intelligence gathering. An agreement can have the defense component – i.e., ready access to military equipment, without guarantees of security, which is what is proposed as part of Senate legislation (S. 814, 117th Congress, “Ukraine Security Partnership Act of 2021”).

There are basically five variants of a security and defense arrangement that exist for Ukraine, in descending order of desirability, from Ukraine’s security-oriented vantage point: first, full NATO membership or accelerated MAP status; second, bilateral defense and security agreement with the U.S. (which, as mentioned above, is now under negotiation); third, major non-NATO ally (MNNA) status as proposed in House Resolution 3047 (116th Congress); fourth, Senate legislation (S. 814, 117th Congress, “Ukraine Security Partnership Act of 2021”), and, fifth, “status quo” annual defense appropriations via the U.S. National Defense Appropriations Act.

Obviously, full NATO membership is Ukraine’s ultimate goal because of Article 5 of the NATO Charter. Article 5 encapsulates the core principle of collective defense that is at the very heart of NATO’s founding treaty. Collective defense means that an attack against one ally is considered to be an attack against all allies. NATO invoked Article 5 for the first time in its history after the 9/11 terrorist attacks against the United States. For the foreseeable future, it is the least likely option.

According to a recent article by Ukrainian journalist Volodymyr Krav­chen­ko (see https://zn.ua/ukr/international/ne-vse-jde-za-planom.html), Ukraine is negotiating a bilateral defense and security agreement with the U.S. Department of State. It is being prepared as a key item for discussion during Mr. Zelenskyy’s visit to the U.S. where he is to meet with Mr. Biden. A key ‘security’ provision in the document is the stipulation of a rotational presence of American units throughout Ukraine. While this may not protect Ukraine from an outright invasion by Russia, it will increase the deterrence factor and reduces the risk of further Russian incursions.

House Resolution 3047 – the “U.S.-Ukraine Security Cooperation Enhance­ment Act” – was drafted in the previous session of Congress (May 30, 2019, 116th Congress), but it has not been resubmitted to the current Congress. The aim was to provide direct support by granting Ukraine major non-NATO U.S. ally (MNNA) status. The resolution also called for modifying military assistance authorities to include offensive weapons and systems for Ukraine, such as “anti-tank weapons systems, anti-ship weapons systems and anti-aircraft weapons systems.”

MNNA status does not provide the level of security guarantees of either NATO membership or, to a lesser degree, a bilateral security agreement. Today, 17 countries have MNNA status, including Australia, Argentina, Egypt, Israel, Kuwait, New Zealand, Pakistan, the Philippines, South Korea and Japan. Major non-NATO allies are eligible for many benefits, among which are priority delivery of military surplus; permission to use American financing for the purchase or lease of certain defense equipment; reciprocal training; and permission for the country’s corporations to bid on certain Department of Defense contracts for the repair and maintenance of military equipment outside the United States.

However, according to Ukraine’s Foreign Affairs Minister Dmytro Kuleba, Ukraine should not pursue MNNA status, rather it should concentrate on full NATO membership and/or a U.S.-Ukraine bilateral security agreement (see https://zn.ua/ukr/POLITICS/kuleba-ne-vpevnenij-chi-potriben-ukrajini-status-osoblivoho-partnera-poza-nato.html). Several former U.S. diplomats, including William Taylor and John Herbst, favor MNNA status as the most practical outcome of negotiations. However, there is a serious debate within Mr. Zelenskyy’s administration as to which option to pursue. Kyiv would like to have an agreement in place by the time Mr. Zelenskyy visits Washington, and, at the latest, during the annual United Nations General Assembly meeting in September.

There are good arguments to be made, both pro and con, for MNNA status. It is easier and faster for a nation under threat to obtain this status, and it will give Ukraine several financial and military advantages, including simplified procedures for acquiring surplus American military equipment. The big advantage is that MNNA status can be granted by the president, without requiring lengthy congressional approval.

The biggest concern about MNNA status cited by the Ukrainian side is that it will, in all likelihood, shut the door to NATO membership. The European nations currently opposing Ukraine’s MAP status would find even less reason to admit Ukraine, if Ukraine became a formal ally of the U.S. That would avoid the prospect of triggering Article 5 actions in the event of a full invasion by Russia. Opponents of MNNA also say that it provides neither the desired security guarantees, nor enhanced military equipment acquisition status over existing status quo agreements.

The “Ukraine Security Partnership Act of 2021” (S. 814) under consideration in Congress does not offer the hard “security guarantees” that are desired by Ukraine, which would be available under either NATO MAP status or as part of a bilateral defense and security agreement. It would, however, serve as the default option for Ukraine, except that the House of Repre­sentatives has not yet offered a comparable piece of legislation. S. 814 has the following features: it reaffirms the United States’ commitment to Ukraine’s democratic transition, to deterring Russian aggression toward Ukraine and refuses to recognize Crimea’s illegal annexation; it authorizes $300 million in foreign military financing (lethal and non-lethal), of which $150 million will be subject to conditions; it allows Ukraine to receive expedited excess defense article transfers; it authorizes $4 million for international military education and training; it requires a strategy on vulnerability to predatory investments in Ukraine’s defense industry; it requires a report on the strategy for how the United States will support Ukraine diplomatically; it encourages the creation of a Ukraine working group with European allies; and it encourages the appointment of a special envoy for Ukraine on negotiations and regional issues.

The last option is the current status quo of having an annual appropriations process, under the overall National Defense Appropriations Act, authorizing up to $350 million per year in expenditures on various military items, subject to presidential discretion.

Regardless of which option ultimately wins out, all of the options require Congressional budgetary approval and appropriations to execute the terms of the agreements. Ultimately, the differences among the options are qualitative – in the level of implied and direct security ‘guarantees,’ and the ease and predictability of military hardware transfers.

Both Mr. Biden and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken have repeatedly proclaimed a strong U.S. national interest in protecting Ukraine’s sovereignty against Russia. The U.S. Congress, through its numerous legislative acts since the Crimean invasion of 2014, has repeatedly declared its strong support for Ukraine, short of providing security guarantees. This collection of official statements comprises the body of principles that form the legal and philosophical basis for America’s ‘national interest’ in assuring Ukraine’s security.

There are other, more practical, strategic reasons why strong support for Ukraine’s security is in the “national interest” of the United States and NATO: first, Ukraine has been on the front lines of active military resistance to Russia’s imperial ambitions for the past seven years; second, through its military defense, Ukraine has become a valuable proxy for NATO by protecting NATO’s southern flank, just as Poland protects the Baltics; third, an alliance between Poland, the U.S. and Ukraine would be a strong deterrent to further Russian incursions; fourth, Ukraine’s naval forces, coordinating with those of NATO members Bulgaria and Turkey, could contain Russia’s control of the Black Sea trade corridors and coastal zones; fifth, if the EU and NATO allow Ukraine to fall, Russia will be free to engage in other extortion, coercion and blackmail efforts of EU nations – especially those served by the Nord Stream pipelines; and, sixth, Ukraine is to the EU what Taiwan is to southeast Asia – it cannot be allowed to fall.

Eugene Z. Stakhiv is a lecturer at Johns Hopkins University and a visiting scholar at the U.S. Army Institute for Water Resources.