How the West Can Secure Ukraine’s Future

Kyiv Needs a Binding Commitment Before NATO Membership

Although Ukraine’s long-planned offensive operation is still in its initial phases, it is not too early to begin mapping out what comes next. In the short term, the answer is obvious: the United States and its allies must continue to surge weapons and training to Ukraine to enable Kyiv to liberate as much of its territory as possible this year. But planning for the long term is also needed, and that is far more difficult. As the past 15 months have shown, Russian President Vladimir Putin is not likely to abandon his goal of dominating Ukraine, even in the face of military setbacks. Still, the war will eventually enter a lower-intensity phase, and when it does, security arrangements will need to be firmly in place to protect Ukraine and bind it more closely to Europe.

In the run-up to July’s NATO summit in Vilnius, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has been pressing for his country to be admitted to the alliance, although he acknowledges that this is “impossible” until the war ends. Ukraine also faces a long road ahead in its quest to gain membership in the EU, which offers its own security guarantee. A solution in the meantime would be the creation of interlocking multilateral agreements that can sustain a well-trained and well-equipped Ukrainian military. The West can bolster this arrangement, modeled in part after the U.S. defense relationship with Israel, by making clear, codified, long-term commitments to Ukraine to ensure that Kyiv can plan for its future security needs. This approach would give Ukraine security until it becomes a member of the EU and—perhaps one day—NATO, without closing the door to an eventual détente with Russia.

Washington and its allies will need to forge a strong coalition of like-minded countries to support such a framework to make clear that Kyiv has the West’s long-term support. There are encouraging signs that this process has already begun: the Pentagon has been working with Ukraine to plan its future defense forces, and a portion of U.S. assistance has been earmarked for this purpose. The announcement in May that Ukrainian pilots will begin training on F-16 aircraft in anticipation of the eventual delivery of those planes signals the desire of Ukraine’s partners to build the country’s military capabilities beyond what it requires in the here and now. This must continue. But more is needed to create certainty about the West’s staying power and disabuse Putin of the notion that time is on his side. Legally binding commitments from Ukraine’s partners, especially the United States, would go a long way toward shattering Putin’s war optimism and forcing him to reckon with the fact that Ukraine will never belong to Russia.

THE ISRAELI MODEL
Ukraine’s future security depends on effective planning and credible commitments from its partners. To that end, its leaders have begun studying arrangements in foreign countries for clues on how their own country can protect itself. They have wisely alighted on Israel as a model. Israel’s capable army and intelligence services, its strong defense industry, and its deep military relationship with the United States show how a country without formal alliances can defend itself and deter hostile neighbors. Last September, the Ukrainian government unveiled the Kyiv Security Compact, a concept aimed at turning Ukraine into a European Israel. It envisions a “multi-decade effort” by Kyiv’s partners to help Ukraine build a “robust territorial defense posture” by training and equipping its military, providing intelligence support, and bolstering defense industrial cooperation. The strategy is shaped around deterrence by denial—making it impossible for Russia to achieve its objectives in Ukraine by military force—rather than around threats of future punishment. Recent speeches by French President Emmanuel Macron and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen suggest that Western leaders are discussing how to make this work in practice.

Ukraine and its partners might find a useful template in the United States’ long-standing statutory commitment to Israel’s qualitative military edge, meaning its ability to deter and, if necessary, defeat a larger adversary by possessing superior technologies and tactics. But the situations are not exactly analogous. Ukraine’s opponent has the world’s largest nuclear arsenal, whereas Israel’s adversaries, for the moment at least, have no such weapons. Moreover, Kyiv, unlike Tel Aviv, does not possess nuclear weapons. On the other hand, Ukraine is a much larger country than Israel. It can field a substantial, well-equipped, and quick reaction force that is capable of inflicting serious losses on a formidable invader, as its military has demonstrated against Russia since the war began.

The West should adopt a new term, such as “qualitative deterrent balance,” that fits Ukraine’s unique case. In doing so, it should commit to ensuring that Kyiv has a mixture of superior equipment, training, and technology geared toward matching or offsetting Russia’s numerical battlefield advantages in the long term. For example, Russia’s edge in air power is substantial. Ukraine need not, and indeed cannot, maintain a massive and costly air force that can rival or surpass Russia’s. The Ukrainian Air Force can, however, protect its skies through a well-considered combination of layered and integrated ground-based air defenses, supplemented by a nimble air force and other capabilities that can hold strategic military targets inside Russia at risk.

A future security arrangement for Ukraine must be built on solid legal and political foundations.
A credible future force of this sort requires long-term funding. In determining its levels and sustainability, Western leaders should, again, look to Israel as an example. Since 1999, U.S. and Israeli leaders have signed a series of ten-year memorandums of understanding that lay out U.S. security assistance levels. The most recent MOU, signed in 2016, was worth $38 billion. Congress has largely appropriated funds according to the levels set by these agreements. In the case of Ukraine, a transparent vision for long-term financing, as set out in a series of bilateral MOUs, would provide cost efficiencies by enabling sound long-term planning and the acquisition of major defense systems. It would also address concerns in Congress about giving Ukraine a “blank check” through repeated supplemental budgets outside the regular appropriations process. Over time, a multiyear funding framework would also serve to balance out U.S. and European support for Ukraine, insofar as European leaders will be more willing to make significant pledges if they are confident in Washington’s enduring commitment.

Developing a cost model for Ukraine’s future force will be a complex task. Uncertainty about the conflict’s trajectory complicates firm planning assumptions. If the war continues at a high intensity, the need to sustain Ukraine’s immediate battlefield needs will supersede those of its future force. But as soon as the war enters a less intensive phase, perhaps after this year’s counteroffensive, Ukraine’s military reconstitution should get underway. An initial round of MOUs from the United States and European powers should finance rearmament, which should be planned to unfold over a span of several years. Later on, Ukraine and its partners can look to a country such as Poland, with its similar population size and proximity to Russia, for clues for sustaining a modern, well-trained armed force in peacetime.

DON’T FOOL ME TWICE
A future security arrangement for Ukraine must be built on solid legal and political foundations. Ukrainian officials bitterly remember signing the Budapest Memorandum of 1994. In this agreement, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States provided Ukraine with security assurances in exchange for the dismantling of its nuclear arsenal. Ukraine honored its side of the deal, but Russia has repeatedly ignored its pledges to respect Ukraine’s territorial integrity, annexing Crimea and sending undeclared military units into eastern Ukraine in 2014 and then invading the rest of the country in 2022. The Ukrainians are naturally wary of basing their future security on any agreement that is not binding on all parties.

Instead, the United States and European countries should work with Kyiv on a new framework agreement to define their strategic goals and collective commitments. These should include the financial and practical parameters of long-term support for Ukraine’s self-defense, as well as mechanisms for consultation and support for Ukraine’s defense industry. Choosing which countries to invite to the negotiating table will be a tricky task. Ukraine should avoid casting too wide a net, as too broad a coalition might result in a watered-down accord. But the country’s primary military and economic backers, including France, Germany, Poland, the United Kingdom, and the United States, must be signatories. Once the agreement has been negotiated and signed, other countries should be eligible to join.

This agreement should provide the guiding principles for the signatories’ MOUs, in which their specific commitments should be enumerated. To make these actionable and compatible, the framework text should empower a high-level steering group, akin to NATO’s North Atlantic Council, with the mandate to develop joint threat assessments, share intelligence, coordinate policy responses, and ensure that all signatories meet their obligations. If Ukraine believes it is threatened, it must be guaranteed the right to convene the member parties to request additional emergency support.

Support for Ukraine cannot depend on electoral cycles or leadership changes.
Crucially, the signatories’ commitments must be codified in law, with clear cross-party backing. Support for Ukraine cannot depend on electoral cycles or leadership changes. This is especially important for the United States, where the possibility of a major policy reversal after the 2024 presidential election has frayed Ukrainian nerves and fueled Putin’s confidence in the future. That is why the Biden administration must immediately begin working with Congress on a solution. Congressional action could take many forms. Ideally, the framework text would be a formal international treaty, ratified by each signatory. For the United States, this would require a two-thirds majority in the Senate, which would be difficult but not impossible to achieve.

If that threshold proves too high, Congress could instead pass a new law similar to the Taiwan Relations Act, which has stood as a central pillar of U.S. defensive support for Taiwan for more than four decades. This would enshrine the U.S. commitments to Ukraine laid out in the MOU and multilateral framework text. Congress could alternatively consider replicating its commitments to Israel. This would require the president to consult Congress regularly and furnish it with reports certifying that Kyiv is receiving sufficient support from its partners to match or offset Russian military advantages. This legal framework would ensure that a security arrangement has broad political buy-in, regardless of who occupies the White House.

Daily management of the new arrangement for Ukraine could take place through dedicated working groups of the signatories’ defense policy officials, planners, and procurement specialists. These working groups should have the mandate to conduct capabilities planning and move the country toward interoperability with NATO forces. The process of building Ukraine’s armed forces will mean that partner countries will inevitably compete for big-ticket contracts, and strong multinational coordination mechanisms will be needed to referee that process. These mechanisms must, in concert with policies set out in the framework text and bilateral MOUs, ensure that Ukraine reforms its defense sector, including by making its contracts transparent and by mitigating against the risk of weapons and sensitive technology making their way into Russia’s hands or onto the black market.

MADE IN UKRAINE
A defense industrial component will also be critical to the success of a new security arrangement for Ukraine. Very high consumption rates of munitions on the battlefield have left U.S. and European defense firms struggling to keep up with demand. Clear multiyear funding pledges from signatory countries would signal to firms that they can safely scale up production of the key systems and munitions that are desperately needed. Dedicated partner-country support for Ukraine’s defense industry would also reduce the cost of the arrangement over time, as indigenous production capacity grows to meet an increasing share of the country’s requirements.

This will not require a wholesale realignment of the West’s defense industrial base. Rather, the United States and the EU should ramp up their production of critical systems and munitions with smart, targeted investments. A recent deal between EU member states and Norway to supply Ukraine with one billion euros in ammunition shells and jointly procure another one billion euros’ worth is a good start. Successful European-level joint procurement could turn the heavily fragmented EU defense industrial base into a major asset for Ukraine’s long-term security, not to mention for Europe’s own strategic autonomy.

Western aid must include provisions to support the revitalization of Ukraine’s own defense firms, which were once the pride of the Soviet military-industrial complex. A robust Ukrainian defense industry integrated into the European supply chain will, over time, reduce the country’s dependence on Western aid. The West’s strategy in this regard should mirror what the United States has done for Israel. Washington has long permitted Tel Aviv to use a portion of its military aid to procure capabilities from domestic firms. The policy, known as “off-shore procurement,” turned Israel’s defense sector into one of the world’s strongest. The same must now be done for Ukraine. German arms giant Rheinmetall’s recent move to form a joint venture with Ukraine’s state-owned defense conglomerate is a step in the right direction. Kyiv must also introduce transparent corporate governance practices and partner with Ukrainian entrepreneurs, whose tenacious wartime innovations have contributed to the country’s battlefield successes.

CLUBBING TOGETHER
Eventually, both the EU and NATO will have to decide whether to admit Ukraine. Membership in either organization confers security guarantees. The EU’s mutual defense provisions, codified in its treaties, should not be dismissed as inferior to NATO’s Article 5 simply because the United States is not a signatory to them. The chances that Putin or a successor would attack the EU are slim, and most EU member states are also in NATO. A security arrangement for Ukraine must therefore be closely linked to its EU accession process, which should begin as soon as possible.

Opening formal EU accession talks would give Ukraine a strong incentive to accelerate rule-of-law and economic reforms. The EU will no doubt insist that Ukraine adhere to its strict standards for admission. But it must avoid an onerous, decades-long accession timetable that squanders a unique opportunity to bind Ukraine to Europe. Rather, a staged process in which Kyiv becomes more involved in EU decision-making structures as the country passes certain benchmarks might offer a way to sidestep the “in or out” binary that has caused other aspiring members to lose faith in Brussels.

Ukraine’s long-term security relationship with the West must be decided without Russian input. Crucially, however, the arrangement leaves open the possibility of a future confidence-building dialogue with Moscow along the lines of the prewar proposals floated by the United States and its allies. In late 2021 and early 2022, NATO allies were prepared to give Russia assurances that they would not deploy offensive ground-based missile systems or station permanent combat forces in Ukraine. Moscow rejected these proposals and invaded anyway. In the future, the arrangement’s political framework and consultative mechanisms would lay the groundwork for Ukraine, the United States, and Europe to negotiate these issues jointly with Russia if the Kremlin changed course and accepted Ukraine’s independence and borders.

The return to a Cold War–like security order in Europe is now a fact of life. Ukraine has become the fulcrum of this new order. NATO membership might not yet be in the cards for Kyiv, but leaving Ukraine without a reliable security arrangement would be a grave mistake. The United States and Europe must begin now to devise a workable plan, even as the war rages on.

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