Make Ukraine the West’s fortress against Russian aggression
Russia’s war in Ukraine is far from over, so some might consider it untimely to begin contemplating Kyiv’s future security arrangements. Nothing could be further from the truth. During the Second World War, the British Government began to plan for the future as early as 1941. With the failures of the 1930s behind them, officials knew that winning the peace was as important as winning the war.
This is just as true today as it was then. Should Ukraine prevail, the looming threat from Russia will not subside. Even a total systemic failure might not be enough to end the imperial mindset which plagues Russia’s political class. Whether it takes five years or ten, the Kremlin will regenerate the Russian army, and the threat will return.
True, Ukraine may stand tall after victory. It will possess numerous pieces of British, American and European military hardware, from main battle tanks and tracked artillery to – potentially – fighter jets and long-range missiles. Ukrainians will be battle-hardened, both institutionally and in spirit. But they will also have the task of reconstruction, which will consume billions of pounds for many years.
The Ukrainian Government understands the threat Russia poses. This is why it has renewed its attempt to join the Atlantic Alliance – on hold since 2008 due to German and French intransigence – and made a formal bid for EU accession. But in the interim, Kyiv will look for security through other means.
Acquiring security guarantees is no easy task, particularly when a nuclear power is the aggressor. Moreover, some options have already been exhausted. The 1994 Budapest Memorandum was a form of security assurance. Through it, Ukraine offered to surrender leftover Soviet nuclear components in exchange for Russian, British and American pledges not to violate Ukrainian territory.
Given that Russia tore up the Budapest Memorandum when it first invaded Ukraine in 2014, a new non-aggression pact would hardly be acceptable to the Ukrainian Government. It is unlikely that Britain, Poland or America would accept it either; they see the Kremlin as a deeply untrustworthy regime.
Other options exist. One example is a minilateral security assurance modelled on a structure such as the Five Power Defence Arrangements between Britain, Australia, Malaysia, Singapore, and New Zealand. If the Malay peninsula comes under attack, the five countries have pledged to hold consultations to determine how to respond. They also partake in regular military exercises to demonstrate their commitment to one another and deter aggressors.
Another example is the recently-signed Aukus treaty, where the British and Americans agreed to provide Australia with advanced nuclear submarine propulsion technologies. Granted, this does not result in an automatic response in the event of an attack on Australia. But it will empower the Royal Australian Navy to such an extent that a potential aggressor should think twice before challenging Australian interests.
Finally, there are informal security assurances like those recently inked between Britain, Finland and Sweden. With these agreements, the Government has pledged to aid Finland and Sweden if an aggressor attacks them while they seek Nato membership.
So what could Ukraine be offered, and what might Kyiv be willing to accept? With a non-aggression pact off the table, this leaves two options: a supercharged Aukus or a minilateral assurance underpinned by British and American power.
With a pumped-up Aukus-style agreement, Britain and its allies might provide Ukraine with their best military technology and weapons while holding stores in the rear for immediate release through a pre-prepared logistical supply line should Russia again attack.
A minilateral assurance, meanwhile, might take a similar form to the Five Power Defence Arrangements but bolstered with the deployment of British and American troops (including any other willing partners, such as Poland and the Baltic and Nordic states). This assurance would deter a Russian attack more directly; as with Nato’s Enhanced Forward Presence in the Baltic states today, or the British Army of the Rhine during the Cold War, the presence of these troops would force an aggressor to factor in the risk of rapid escalation.
Of the two, the minilateral assurance is undoubtedly the most robust. But it remains to be seen how prepared London, Washington, and others might be to forward-deploy their own forces. Indeed, if carefully crafted, a turbocharged Aukus-style arrangement for Ukraine might prove a more likely bet: defiant, supported and well-armed, Ukraine would make for a garrison state, sufficient in strength to deter Russia from future aggression.