By Frederick Kempe

June 4, 2023

Atlantic Council


The air raid siren sounded at 3:00 a.m. on Thursday morning, several hours after the Atlantic Council’s meeting with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in his well-fortified offices, sounding the arrival of ten Russian Iskander ballistic missiles in Kyiv airspace.

Each of them—more than twenty feet long and weighing in at more than four tons—served as a further reminder that the time was over for providing half measures in supporting Ukraine. After fifteen months of withstanding and pushing back against Moscow’s aggression—acting in the interests of free people everywhere—Ukraine deserves support: faster and larger deliveries of ammunition, more plentiful supplies of Patriot and other air defenses, longer-range missiles to hit targets within Russia (that are killing Ukrainians) and, as rapidly as possible, F-16s and other fourth-generation fighter jets to reduce Moscow’s deadly air superiority.

Most of all, Ukraine deserves NATO membership. Given the generational consequences of Ukrainians’ struggles, NATO should provide much clearer and more robust security guarantees to Ukraine at the Alliance’s Vilnius summit in July. Most urgently, NATO should provide a concrete path to membership, including the timing and avenues for a fast-track accession decision by the Alliance’s seventy-fifth-anniversary summit in Washington next April. To put that off until after Russia’s war ends or until Russia withdraws from Ukrainian territory only encourages Russian President Vladimir Putin’s aggression.

Mercifully on that Thursday morning, US-provided Patriot air defense systems took out all of the incoming Iskanders, but the fragments still killed three Ukrainians (including a woman and her nine-year-old child) and injured eleven others, adding to the victims from Russia’s murderous war. Dozens more would have been killed this week, the deadliest week in Kyiv in months, had the United States and other allied systems not been put in place in April, after long months of discussions.

After Ukrainian reports that Patriot missiles shot down a Russian hypersonic weapon for the first time on May 4 and six more in a single night two weeks later, Zelenskyy reflected with one of his top advisers on how many hundreds more Ukrainian lives might have been saved had the deliveries come faster. He also pondered how many more Ukrainians might die on the front lines in the coming summer offensive because the F-16s won’t be providing air cover for months to come, telling the Wall Street Journal that the lack of protection means “a large number of soldiers will die.”

However, in our meeting with Zelenskyy this week, where we presented him with the Atlantic Council Global Citizen Award, he adopted his more familiar public posture of looking forward and doing what he can to maintain domestic and international unity.

“I’m not looking at the past, but rather to the future,” he said. “We have to achieve comparable airpower to Russia in the sky.” He spoke about the historic cost not just to Ukraine, but also to Europe, the United States, and the world, should his country come up short. “We can’t be losers,” he said.

And that brought him to NATO’s upcoming Vilnius summit.

His advisers have briefed him on the options allies are said to be discussing regarding Ukraine, ranging from a security relationship akin to that between the United States and Israel, of robust weapons deliveries and intelligence exchanges, to the renaming and repurposing of a body at which NATO meets regularly with Ukraine in order to give it more heft.

Zelenskyy noted that Ukraine lacks the deterrent power of Israel’s nuclear capabilities, which it gave up along with Kazakhstan and Belarus after signing the Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances in 1994, when Russia provided assurances that it wouldn’t use military force or economic coercion against Ukraine or the others.

Given the urgency of their war with Russia, most Ukrainians would see a more robust consultative body within NATO as window dressing if it didn’t come with membership certainties. More NATO members are coming to realize that as well, with French President Emmanuel Macron telling the GLOBSEC conference in Slovakia this week that Ukraine deserved to be included “in an architecture of security.”

As Zelenskyy said to our delegation, “if Ukraine will not be given some hope at Vilnius, it will be demoralizing for our soldiers. It will be seen as a big message to our soldiers and people.”

If NATO doesn’t come forward with “more ambitious ideas” at its summit, Zelenskyy indicated to us, it might not be appropriate for him to accept the Alliance’s invitation to attend. “I don’t want to betray our people,” he said, sensing Ukrainians would feel underappreciated for the irreplaceable role they are playing on Europe’s front lines against Russian aggression.

“We need the world not to be afraid of Russia,” he said. His unstated message was clear: The world’s fears about Russia’s potential escalation of its war in Ukraine, up to and including the use of tactical nuclear weapons, have prevented more robust support at earlier stages—but that was the opposite of what would better deter Putin.

A short week’s stay in Ukraine underscores two inescapable realities as the country braces for its long-anticipated summer counteroffensive, which is expected to begin in the coming days.

The first reality is that without the remarkable level of US and partner support thus far, it would have been impossible for Ukrainians to have held the line against Russian adversaries, who are more numerous, are well-armed, and maintain still far superior airpower.

The second reality, however, is that the cautiousness and relative slowness in those deliveries of support have prevented the Ukrainians from making more rapid gains, made it harder to prevent civilian casualties, and made it harder for Ukraine to retake enough territory to force Russia to the negotiating table, prolonging the war.

As certainly as West Berlin’s survival was a pre-condition for Cold War victory, and as certainly as Poland’s Solidarity movement and democratic change laid the ground for Soviet collapse, so it is now Ukraine’s fate as a free and democratic nation—integrated into the European Union and NATO—that will be at the center of the context for Europe’s future.

Our Kyiv interlocutors (Ukrainian military strategists) see three potential scenarios for their coming summer counteroffensive.

The first, and most desired but least likely outcome, would be a complete Russian military collapse and retreat. The second, and more likely outcome, would be for Ukraine to achieve sufficient battlefield and territorial gains in the nearly twenty percent of Ukraine that remains in Russian hands to force a Putin reassessment and better negotiating terms. The third, and the most feared outcome, would be a Ukrainian failure in the summer offensive that would demoralize Ukrainians and dishearten their international backers.

The stakes for Ukraine in the coming months are enormous. Yet the stakes for the United States and Ukraine’s other friends may be even greater over time. In recognizing that, it will be easier to make the tough decisions regarding weapons and NATO membership that are so urgently required.


Frederick Kempe is president and chief executive officer of the Atlantic Council. You can follow him on Twitter @FredKempe.