When the subject of security guarantees and a pathway for Ukraine to join NATO was discussed at an informal function in Ottawa recently, one member of the diplomatic community started humming a few bars from an old Paul McCartney and Wings song.
“Someone’s knockin’ at the door. Someone’s ringin’ the bell. Do me favour? Open the door. Let ’em in.”
The 1970s pop tune Let ‘Em In is unlikely to become an ear worm for NATO leaders at the upcoming Vilnius Summit, but the sentiment is present and runs deep. It has been 15 years since Ukraine was first nominated for membership in the Western military alliance by Canada under what’s known as the “open door policy.”
A lot has happened since then. A major war on Ukrainian soil, marked by the bombing of its cities; the deaths of thousands of civilians and soldiers; the delivery and combat use of more NATO-standard equipment than most other alliance members hold in their inventories.
The war itself is related to the question of NATO membership: The Kremlin has used potential Ukrainian membership as a major argument in attempting to justify its invasion.
Outgoing NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg routinely expresses confidence that Ukraine will join the alliance some day, once the war with Russia is concluded. All 31 leaders in NATO have publicly agreed. The government of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy formally asked to join last September.
Despite everything that’s happened since the full Russian invasion in February 2022 and the seemingly united front among allies, the debate behind closed doors over when and how Ukraine should join is deeply divisive, with eastern European countries suggesting some major powers, including France and Germany, are against delivering firm timelines.
It has, in fact, become a source of major tension over the last several weeks. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tried to put the best face on it when asked following his weekend meeting with Zelenskyy in Kyiv.
Ukraine’s membership application was “very much a live conversation and Canada and many others are very supportive of Ukraine joining NATO when the conditions allow. What that exactly looks like is a conversation that we’re continuing to have between now and Vilnius,” Trudeau said.
“But I’m very positive about it.”
Some security guarantees in place
In the absence of a pathway to membership, some NATO allies have suggested bilateral security guarantees as an acceptable measure — the kind that were offered to Sweden and Finland for the time between when they applied and were accepted as full members. (Sweden is still waiting.)
Both the U.S. and the U.K. offered the Nordic countries bilateral security guarantees. In the case of Ukraine, France and Germany have spoken openly about offering guarantees, but they differ on what that might entail and how far they would go.
While trying to advocate for a pathway to NATO membership on the one hand, Canada appears to be also trying to spur on what happens in the interim between the end of the war and full-fledged membership.
“It is important that states offer long-term security engagement and guarantees to Ukraine because even after its victory it will still be a neighbour of a very aggressive country,” said Foreign Affairs Minister Melanie Joly going into a meeting with her NATO counterparts in early April, “and this is what Canada is bringing in to the [negotiating] table.”
At the very least, Ukraine is expecting to walk away from the alliance summit in mid-July with Western security guarantees, rather than ongoing vague promises. It has been suggested in some European media reports NATO might be prepared to offer Ukraine an upgraded relationship format, something meant to demonstrate political support.
Ukraine itself signalled last fall security guarantees would be an acceptable interim measure and it looked to allies — including Canada — to deliver them. Those guarantees would include substantial weapons transfers, military training and binding defence commitments — a formalized extension of the wartime support Ukraine is getting now.
Only NATO membership a sufficient deterrent: Ukrainian MP
The notion formed the basis of a report commissioned by Zelenskyy. It was co-authored by former NATO secretary general Anders Fogh Rasmussen and Zelenskyy’s chief of staff Andrey Yermak.
It proposed the creation of something it calls the Kyiv Security Treaty, which would involve a core group of allies such as the U.S., U.K., Canada, Poland, Italy, Germany, France, Australia and Turkey, along with Nordic, Baltic and Central European countries — in other words, most of NATO.
Over the weekend in Kyiv, Trudeau and Zelenskyy signed a joint declaration that said: “The people of Ukraine can count on Canada to continue its political, financial, humanitarian and military support for as long as it takes — individually and through international co-operation within the G7, NATO, the United Nations and any other forum where Canada can bring its weight to bear.”
For all of its 13 points and appreciative language, it is not a security guarantee, nor does it propose Canada do much beyond push for Ukraine’s NATO membership “as conditions allow for it.”
While most Ukrainian MPs reacted enthusiastically to Trudeau’s speech, there is unity across party lines and a hardening sense among lawmakers that simple security guarantees are not enough.
“I don’t believe that any guarantee can stop Russia” if it wants to make war on a neighbour, said Andrii Osadchuk with the Holos [Voice or Vote] party, a liberal and pro-European political movement.
Moscow is afraid of NATO and only the alliance “can provide safety and security to this part of the world,” he said. Another Ukrainian MP, Lesia Zaburanna, a member of Zelenskyy’s Servant of the People Party, also struck a firm tone in her expectations of NATO leaders.
“We expect a very strong signal for us that we will join,” said Zaburanna. “It’s very important and not only for us, but very important for the whole Europe, for the safety, not only in Europe but in the world. You want to win in this war. Because it’s war, not between Ukraine and Russia, [but] war between the democratic world and evil.”