June 12, 2021
The United States has long been one of the staunchest supporters of Ukraine’s bid for NATO membership, but even Washington seems to be wavering in its patronage lately. Thirteen years after Kyiv was first promised eventual membership in the Alliance during the 2008 Bucharest Summit, Ukrainian accession seems as elusive as ever, while the country’s security situation has only worsened.
In the face of increased Russian aggression and recent Western concessions to Putin, the US should grant Ukraine Major Non-NATO Ally (MNNA) status to solidify the strategic partnership between Washington and Kyiv and send a clear signal to Moscow about the United States’ commitment to Ukraine’s security and territorial integrity.
Ukraine’s desire to join the Alliance has intensified since Russia illegally annexed Crimea in 2014. Most recently, the amassing of over 100,000 Russian troops on Ukraine’s eastern border and in Crimea in April sparked fears of a Russian invasion and left Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky desperate for NATO membership as a safeguard against Russian aggression.
Zelensky’s desperation is unlikely to be alleviated any time soon. Ukrainian officials were dismayed at NATO’s decision to not invite the Ukrainian delegation to the upcoming June 14th summit, and the Biden administration appears unwilling to publicly back Kyiv’s call for a Membership Action Plan (MAP) as a fast-track path to NATO. Many member states have long been wary of expanding the Alliance and provoking Moscow, an anxiety intensified by economic ties with Russia.
For the West’s part, NATO members have expressed dissatisfaction with the slowed pace of reforms in Ukraine and reiterated the need for genuine democratic, economic, and military reform before Kyiv could be admitted to the Alliance.
While NATO membership for Ukraine is not coming any time soon, a dire security situation has already arrived. Almost 100,000 Russian troops, along with most of the weapons, still remain on Ukraine’s eastern border. The low-grade war that has been simmering for the past seven years between the Ukrainian military and Russian-led forces in Donbas (the eastern territory of Ukraine) is still a major threat that could erupt at any point.
Meanwhile, the West seems determined to appease Putin in hopes of establishing a “stable and predictable relationship,” as President Biden wrote in a recent Washington Post op-ed. A strategy that has been tried and failed before, the concessions the Biden
administration is apparently willing to make pursuing its improbable goal will only harm Ukraine and worsen the country’s security situation.
The latest reminder of this adverse connection is the billions of dollars in transit fees Ukraine is set to lose if the Nord Stream 2 pipeline is completed. The Biden administration shocked Ukrainians and Americans alike with its decision last month to waive US sanctions on construction of the pipeline that will transport gas from Russia to Germany through the Baltic Sea, intentionally bypassing Ukraine. Nord Stream 2 will bolster Moscow’s ability to manipulate Kyiv by cutting off gas transit to Ukraine – a threat Putin has already made without waiting for the pipeline to be entirely completed.
The Biden administration, despite its best efforts, now has the appearance of ignoring Kyiv in favor of working with Moscow. Biden will meet Putin face-to-face in Geneva on July 16, two days after the NATO summit, but will not meet with a Ukrainian delegation before then. Zelensky expressed his dismay in a recent Axios interview, urgently offering to meet with Biden “at any moment and at any spot on the planet.”
Against this backdrop of a threatened Ukraine and emboldened Kremlin, the US must act quickly to demonstrate security assurances to Kyiv. Granting Ukraine Major Non-NATO Ally status would do just that.
The designation – currently granted to 17 countries including Australia, Israel, and South Korea – would make Ukraine eligible for excess defense equipment and loans of military supplies, collaboration on defense projects, and enhanced military training. All of these would strengthen and modernize Ukraine’s defense capabilities, bolstering its ability to defend against Russian incursion and bringing Ukrainian armed forces more in line with NATO standards.
MNNA status is granted by the president and doesn’t require Senate approval, meaning the designation would be a quick and unambiguous signal to Moscow of US commitment to Ukrainian security and refusal to overlook Russian aggression any longer.
Perhaps most importantly, the announcement would reassure the Ukrainian people of Western support after years of sacrifice as they fight for sovereignty and reform.
Ukraine is already one of our best allies. Biden just needs to make it official.
Lane Johansen is an intern this summer with the U.S.-Ukraine Foundation