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PREMIUM BLOG: A NATO Secure Neighborhood Initiative for Ukraine and Russia’s Other Vulnerable Neighbors

Ambassador Alexander Vershbow

Two months after Russia’s re-invasion of Ukraine, and eight years after the illegal annexation of Crimea and destabilization of eastern Ukraine, Russia continues to hold Ukraine’s security hostage. If Russia succeeds in subjugating Ukraine, then Georgia, Moldova and other vulnerable neighbors – potentially including even the Baltic States – may be next in the Kremlin’s revisionist crosshairs.

The best solution for Ukraine, fast-tracking its membership in NATO and giving it the protection of an Article 5 guarantee, is now off the table, with Ukraine reportedly prepared to accept neutral status to end the war in return for international security guarantees.

The NATO allies – and Ukraine – are paying the price for the incoherent decision by NATO leaders at their 2008 Summit in Bucharest.  That is when they first declared that Ukraine (and Georgia) “will become members” of NATO one day, but kept the door shut in practice in subsequent years.  This not only raised false hopes in Kyiv and Tbilisi that ultimately demoralized the Ukrainians and Georgians; it also signaled weakness to Moscow that may have contributed to Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine in February 2022.  That invasion seeks to deprive Ukraine of its legitimate right to defend itself and to ensure its sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity – a direct challenge to the rules-based international order and a recipe for long-term instability in the heart of Europe. 

Given the stakes, allies should use NATO’s new Strategic Concept to adopt a Secure Neighborhood Initiative (SNI) that would extend the Alliance’s security protection to non-members along Russia’s borders.  Under this approach, allies would make it a strategic objective to do everything possible, short of extending an Article 5 guarantee, to help Ukraine and other vulnerable neighbors of Russia to defend themselves and resist political and economic destabilization by Moscow.

In the case of Ukraine, the partner already under attack, by maximizing that country’s capacity to impose significant costs on Russia for future aggression, NATO would bolster Ukraine’s deterrence and increase its leverage for establishing peaceful relations when Moscow is ready to end its aggression. NATO’s commitment to robust security assistance to Kyiv could be the foundation of any new security guarantees provided to Ukraine by Allied nations and other possible guarantors of a negotiated peace settlement. Armed neutrality under the SNI, with the emphasis on “armed,” may be the best way for Ukraine to deter Russia going forward.

If, as is likely, a comprehensive political settlement cannot be rapidly achieved, assistance under the SNI would increase the pressure on Moscow to comply with a ceasefire as the first step toward a settlement, and it would increase Ukraine’s leverage for inducing Moscow to accept a long-term settlement that preserves Ukraine as a sovereign state with internationally recognized borders. It would be a more systematic and sustained version of what the United States and its allies have been doing to support Ukraine on an ad hoc, improvised basis over the last few months.

The SNI would encompass NATO HQ coordination not only of supplies of military equipment and training to Ukraine’s armed forces, but measures to increase Ukraine’s resilience against cyber-attacks, financial and energy disruption, disinformation, economic warfare and political subversion. The NATO-Ukraine Commission (NUC) could be a focal point for Ukraine and the Alliance to align their perspectives on Ukrainian needs.  The NUC could also be convened for urgent consultations whenever Ukraine believes it faces a renewed security threat from Russia.

Under the SNI, Ukraine would gain more access to the Alliance’s Centers of Excellence and benefit from NATO Trust Funds that provide resources for practical projects in the areas of defense transformation and capacity building. A new Trust Fund could be added dedicated to promoting capability development, including financial support for new weapons acquisitions from Allied nations and incentives for joint production by Ukrainian and Allied defense industries. The SNI could provide the mechanism through which NATO could participate in a broader international effort to help Ukraine recover and rebuild following the war.

Under the SNI, a similar package of deterrence and resilience measures could be offered to Georgia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, whose NATO membership prospects are also in limbo.  It could also be extended to Moldova and other former Soviet states (such as Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan) that have never pursued NATO membership but may be fearful of Russian aggression and destabilization aimed at altering post-1991 borders by force.  If Finland and Sweden decide to postpone their bid for NATO membership, similar deterrence and resilience support could be provided to them under the Enhanced Opportunity Partner program, although full NATO membership for both countries would do even more to enhance security across Northern and Northeastern Europe 

To have a real impact on the partners’ and Allies’ own security, the SNI would depart from the traditional NATO formula that partnerships are demand-driven and funded largely by voluntary national contributions.  Allies would need to agree to use partnerships more strategically, rigorously prioritizing the use of NATO’s limited Civil and Military budgets and steering partners toward the highest-value activities rather than allowing them to choose activities à la carte.  The targeted deterrence and resilience support under the SNI would be of far greater benefit than a hollow promise of future NATO membership.

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Alexander Vershbow is a Distinguished Fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security in Washington DC. In his 40-year diplomatic career, he served as NATO Deputy Secretary General (2012-2016), US Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs (2009-2012), and US Ambassador to NATO (1997-2001) Russia (2001-2005), and the Republic of Korea (2005-2008).

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