In recent weeks, several Western leaders have called for negotiations to end the war between Russia and Ukraine. Volodymyr Zelensky named the conditions under which he would consider talks, including, among other things, the withdrawal of all Russian forces from Ukrainian territory, the return of all servicemen and civilians detained or deported to Russia, and the establishment of a special international court to prosecute the Russian leaders for their aggression. These conditions are far from being met, but as Ukraine continues its counter-offensive and regains key territories, such as Kherson – the only regional capital captured by Russia in its initial attack – kyiv could be in a position more favorable for engaging in diplomatic talks.
Yet such a position is unlikely to emerge in the wake of Ukrainian progress on the battlefield. A key element in convincing Ukraine to engage in negotiations, when the time comes, will be the guarantees regarding its security provided by its international partners. For the Ukrainians, this would mean that they could enter into talks with Russia with the certainty that their terms are not only realistic, but recognized by the international community. This would give negotiators and the Ukrainian public some assurance that any agreed settlement would not collapse immediately and would encourage Russia to launch new attacks in the future. It will also be important to give investors confidence in the future of the country and to pave the way for its reconstruction and the return of refugees.
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Guarantees fraught with danger
But such guarantees can be fraught with danger. For example, if a commitment is too restrictive, external actors – in this case Ukraine’s Western partners – can be drawn into a conflict provoked by the behavior of the country to which they have given their guarantees. It is therefore common for those giving the guarantee to retain the final decision on the triggers of the intervention, as well as on the extent of their assistance. If an engagement is perceived as insincere, it can embolden hostile actors and ultimately weaken the security of an exposed country. Credible security guarantees thus express a balance between the level of risk that the guarantors are ready to take and the political interests that they protect by defending the security of a given country.
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So far, a number of proposals have been put forward to support Ukraine.
After Russia illegally claimed annexation of four eastern Ukrainian regions in September 2022, Ukraine formally applied for NATO membership. On November 29, NATO foreign ministers reiterated the “open door policy” of the organization and their commitment to Ukraine in the war, although they did not consider Ukraine’s candidacy in this case.
A report by the head of Ukraine’s presidential office, Andriy Yermak, and former NATO secretary general, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, argues for a “Kyiv security pact”, which would include a set of security guarantees to deter future attacks on Ukraine and provide a basis for international military assistance in the event of further aggression. The Kyiv Security Pact would be a joint strategic document drafted by a group of guarantor states, which could make additional binding commitments on a bilateral basis, to help Ukraine rebuild its armed forces and defense industry, organize joint training and exercises and to strengthen security cooperation.
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The European Council for International Relations has identified a “long war plan”, calling for a broadening of Western support for Ukraine, including a formal commitment to aid and assist Ukraine in its defense in the event of a future attack. Not only is this crucial to help political leaders in Kyiv enter the talks in the best possible position, but it would also illustrate the willingness of Ukraine’s partners to support its struggle for sovereignty and territorial integrity. This should be complemented by enhanced military and financial assistance, as well as provisions for the imposition or reimposition of sanctions. The scope of possible support should remain relatively unclear so that all options remain open and cannot be tested to their limits by the Kremlin.
As Ukraine moves closer to EU membership, it makes sense to start aligning the country with the existing support conditions given to current member states. However, having a similar commitment from other Western partners, including the United States, would help maintain transatlantic unity when it comes to supporting Ukraine. Ukraine, for its part, should commit to maintaining its own territorial defense capabilities. To avoid any type of moral hazard, security guarantees would not be triggered automatically, but a specific emergency mechanism would be established between Ukraine and its partners to assess the nature of security incidents and determine appropriate reactions.
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Whatever the concrete form of the security guarantees, it is crucial that they give Ukraine a sense of future solidarity and send a strong signal to Russia that any future escalation would be met by increased Western support. Both of these goals can only be achieved through credible engagement by Ukraine’s partners, which will build on the real assistance they are currently providing as well as the coherence of their broader political and security interests.
Ukraine’s security must be at the center of the debate on a future settlement. By providing Zelensky with long-term commitments, Ukraine’s international partners can help him approach the talks with a stronger sense of certainty about Ukraine’s security future. For the time being, it is crucial that Ukraine’s partners continue to provide military assistance and let Ukraine decide for itself on the conditions for starting peace negotiations. But they should also start developing a comprehensive vision of the guarantees they can provide to Ukraine to ensure its long-term security.
Diplomat, Mary Dumoulin is Director of the “Wider Europe” program at the European Council for International Relations.