The upcoming NATO summit in Warsaw is an opportunity for the alliance to provide realistic and meaningful support to Ukraine. It has been over 28 months since Russia invaded Ukraine. Since that time, Russia has annexed Crimea, consolidated its position in the Black Sea, and created a frozen conflict in eastern Ukraine. Russia’s invasion has cost 10,000 lives and internally displaced 1.5 million people.
Realistically, Ukraine has a long way to go before NATO membership, but that does not mean that the alliance should disengage from Ukraine. On the contrary, NATO should deepen its partnership with Ukraine at the early July Warsaw summit. It is in NATO’s best interest to assist Ukraine in countering Russian aggression and to work toward the nation’s long-term peace and stability.
When Kremlin-backed Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych failed to sign an association agreement with the European Union in 2013, months of street demonstrations led to his ouster in early 2014. Russia responded by violating Ukraine’s territorial integrity, sending troops, aided by pro-Russian local militia, to occupy the Crimean peninsula under the pretext of “protecting Russian people.” This led to Russia’s eventual annexation of Crimea. Such annexation by force is unprecedented in the 21st century.
Backed, armed, and trained by Russia, separatist leaders in eastern Ukraine declared the so-called Lugansk People’s Republic and the Donetsk People’s Republic. Since then, Russia has continued to back separatist factions in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine with advanced weapons, technical and financial assistance, and Russian conventional and special operations forces.
Two cease-fire agreements—one in September 2014 and another in February 2015, known as Minsk I and Minsk II—have come and gone. EUCOM Commander General Philip Breedlove calls Minsk II “a cease-fire in name only.”
It is Russia that continues to fuel the conflict in the Donbas. In June 2016, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said that “Russia supports the separatists…with equipment, with weapons. They also mass troops along the Ukrainian border.” In addition to massing troops along the border, Russia is reported to have around 10,000 troops in the Donbas, along with heavy weapons.
Russia Extending Influence in Black Sea
Russia’s annexation of Crimea is unprecedented in the 21st century. The annexation has de facto cut Ukraine’s coastline in half and has essentially turned the Black Sea into a Russian lake. Russia has since claimed rights to underwater resources off the Crimean peninsula. Furthermore, Russia has launched a campaign of persecution and intimidation of the ethnic Tatar community there. If the U.S. had an equivalent percentage of territory annexed by a foreign nation, it would be like losing California.
Many NATO members and partners near Crimea, such as Bulgaria, Romania, Turkey, and Georgia, are concerned about Russia’s military buildup there. Russia has 28,000 troops based in Crimea, and embarked on a major program to build housing and restore airfields. It has allocated $1 billion to modernize the Black Sea Fleet by 2020 and stationed additional warships there including two equipped with Caliber-NK long-range cruise missiles, which are capable of hitting NATO nations from Italy to Lithuania. Russia is also using its newly entrenched position in the Black Sea as a platform to launch and support naval operations in the eastern Mediterranean.
Ukraine joined the North Atlantic Cooperation Council in 1991 and the Partnership for Peace 1994. In 1997, the NATO–Ukraine Commission (NUC) was established to direct relations between Ukraine and NATO, providing a forum for discussion of security topics of mutual concern. While the NUC generally meets at the level of ambassadors and military representatives, occasionally—as at the Wales summit—it meets at the head-of-state or head-of-government level.
Also at the Wales summit, NATO established five temporary trust funds to assist Ukraine in providing its own security. The trust funds cover command, control, communications, and computers; logistics and standardization; cyber defence; military career transition; and medical rehabilitation. A sixth trust fund on countering improvised explosive devices was agreed to in June 2015.
Ukraine is a contributing nation to the NATO Kosovo Force (KFOR) and the Resolute Support Mission in Afghanistan. In June, 10 NATO nations, including the U.S., joined Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine in taking part in Rapid Trident 16, a military exercise in western Ukraine. The objective of Rapid Trident 16 was to practice defensive operations and validation of units trained through the Joint Multinational Training Group-Ukraine program. NATO members also take part in the annual Black Sea exercise Sea Breeze which the U.S. and Ukraine co-host. Sea Breeze 2016 will be the 15th year of the exercise. In September 2015, NATO members also took part in the third emergency management exercise in Ukraine.
Future in NATO
Even though NATO stated in 2008 that someday Ukraine would be invited to join the alliance, until recently, the Ukrainians made little effort to help make this invitation a reality.
Once an aspiring NATO ally under the leadership of President Viktor Yushchenko, Ukraine’s previous pro-Russia government under President Yanukovich blocked membership progress. In 2010, the Ukrainian parliament passed a bill that barred Ukraine from committing to “a non-bloc policy which means non-participation in military-political alliances.”
In light of Russia’s aggression, the Ukrainian people have demonstrated, whether on the streets of the Maidan or through the ballot box, that they see their future connected to the West, not under Russian domination. This is especially true under the leadership of Petro Poroshenko. Even so, the country has a long way to go before NATO membership becomes a serious possibility.
Russia’s ultimate goal is to keep Ukraine out of the transatlantic community. NATO must remain engaged and continue to support Ukraine. At the Warsaw summit the alliance should:
- Speak with a clear and united voice. NATO must continue to present a united voice against Russian aggression against Ukraine, reiterating the need for a complete restoration of Ukraine’s territorial integrity. Furthermore, the NUC should meet at the head-of-state or head-of-government level in Warsaw as a sign of alliance commitment.
- Reaffirm NATO’s open-door policy. NATO must reiterate that its open-door policy remains in place and that Russia does not have a veto right, including for potential future Ukrainian membership.
- Develop a strategy for the Black Sea region. The Black Sea sits at an important crossroads between Europe, Asia, and the Caucasus. Ever since Russia illegally annexed Crimea, the Black Sea has essentially become a Russian lake. The U.S. needs to work with the Black Sea littoral states, especially Georgia, to develop a strategy for regional security.
- Evaluate the Wales summit trust funds. NATO should evaluate the effectiveness of the trust funds established at the Wales summit. If deemed effective, alliance members should be encouraged to increase voluntary contributions to the trust funds.
- Focus NATO’s Centers of Excellence on Ukraine. NATO should encourage NATO’s Centers of Excellence (COE) to assist Ukraine in facing Russian aggression, especially in the areas of cyberspace, energy security, and countering propaganda. While only member states can be COE-sponsoring nations, the alliance should consider inviting Ukraine to become a Contributing Participant.
- Continue robust participation in exercises. NATO should continue to encourage Ukraine to participate in NATO-led exercises. In addition, NATO countries should continue robust participation in exercises in or near Ukraine, especially the Rapid Trident and Sea Breeze exercises.
- Provide equipment and expertise. While NATO is unlikely to reach consensus on providing any defense military equipment, NATO should continue to provide communications equipment, night vision goggles, and medical and humanitarian equipment.
While Ukraine is not a NATO member, the alliance continues to have an interest in helping Ukraine defend itself and institute necessary political and economic reforms. Russia’s continuing aggression undermines Ukraine’s transatlantic aspirations and regional stability. NATO simply cannot afford to ignore Ukraine.
—Luke Coffey is Director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy, of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy, at The Heritage Foundation, and Daniel Kochis is a Research Associate in the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom, of the Davis Institute.