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OPINION

“Israeli Option”: Instead of joining NATO, Ukraine may be offered a different kind of military alliance

The NATO summit has commenced in Vilnius; its participants will be tasked with determining the level of security guarantees they are prepared to offer Ukraine. Volodymyr Zelensky has repeatedly stated he would like to hear something more specific. However, a portion of alliance countries believes that Ukraine's application should only be considered after the conclusion of the war with Russia. Due to the consensus-based decision-making principle, the chances of receiving a positive response are exceedingly slim. Instead, it is speculated that Ukraine may be presented with an alternative security arrangement known as the “Israeli model,” which falls short of a full-fledged military alliance. Nonetheless, accepting this model would diminish Putin's remaining hope that the West will eventually “grow weary” of supporting Ukraine militarily.

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Ukraine is seeking substantial security guarantees

History has taught the Ukrainian leadership to be suspicious of Western promises to guarantee security. On December 5, 1994, the then-Ukrainian leader, Leonid Kuchma, met with Boris Yeltsin in Budapest, with close observation from US President Bill Clinton and British Prime Minister John Major. During these negotiations, Ukraine relinquished its nuclear capabilities in exchange for financial compensation and firm assurances of non-aggression from the signatories of the memorandum. Given the risks associated with international isolation and the substantial costs of maintaining nuclear weapons, Ukraine had limited prospects of preserving its nuclear arsenal. Consequently, Ukrainian authorities concluded that the Budapest agreements would significantly enhance the country's security. However, thirty years later, in 2022, just days before Russia's invasion, Zelensky criticized the failure of the Budapest Memorandum at the Munich Security Conference and the precarious position it had left Ukraine in. “We don't have [nuclear] weapons. Nor do we have security,” he stressed.

Similarly, in 2008 Ukraine was promised alongside Georgia that it would receive NATO membership at the Bucharest NATO summit. This promise was never fulfilled: tangible security guarantees were not delivered, and Russian tanks were not deterred from rolling into Crimea and Donbas in 2014. The Enhanced Opportunities Partner status granted to Ukraine in 2020 also failed to protect the country from further full-scale aggression by Russia.

The Enhanced Opportunities Partner status did not shield the country from Russian aggression

Considering the unfulfilled promises by the West and the Russian aggression, Ukraine's arguments for urgent reinforcement of security guarantees are, sadly, more serious than ever. Regardless of the success of the current counteroffensive, Ukrainian forces have already demonstrated their combat readiness and prevented Russia from dangerously encroaching upon Europe's borders.

Ukraine seeks substantial security guarantees from the West to achieve three objectives: to persuade Putin not to attack Ukraine again, to prevent him from starting a major war in Europe, and to establish consistent support for Kyiv from the West, which goes beyond the provision of weaponry.

The final point is particularly important for Ukrainians. The agreement would help them avoid radical shifts in the policies of Western states vis-a-vis support for Ukraine, regardless of who is in power. After all, it is uncertain how Washington and Paris would contribute to supporting Kyiv if Donald Trump and Marine Le Pen were to win the elections. Security guarantees with a long-term perspective would ensure greater continuity in the approach towards Ukraine and prevent instability due to changes in political leadership.

The prospect of NATO membership

Currently, Kyiv has achieved most of the key tasks necessary for NATO membership. Furthermore, the Ukrainian army is actively adapting to NATO weapons and standards. The mutual benefits of such an alliance are undeniable: for the alliance, collaboration with Ukraine, which now possesses one of the most experienced armies in Europe, would also be a significant strategic asset.

And yet, despite the increasingly favorable views about this idea expressed by both former and current political figures, Ukrainians still have limited chances of joining the alliance. The main obstacle for Kyiv is simultaneously the main advantage of NATO. According to Article 5 of the NATO Charter, “an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all.” However, NATO members seek to avoid direct confrontation with Russia and do not want to extend defense to Ukraine until the hostilities have ceased. Their task is precisely to avoid direct involvement in the conflict.

Despite the favorable views expressed by many politicians about this idea, Ukraine has limited chances of joining NATO

Furthermore, in order to obtain membership, Ukraine's borders must be clearly defined. Kyiv needs to indicate which territories are under the protection of the alliance. This inevitably raises the question of the status of the occupied territories. In turn, NATO would have to plan countermeasures in case Ukraine attempts to regain the territories seized by Russia after joining the alliance.

Finally, the resistance from Turkey and Hungary against Sweden's accession to NATO highlights the difficulty of achieving consensus on who gets to join, and Ukraine’s case is certainly more sensitive than Stockholm’s. Even Germany is still reluctant to offer Ukraine a path forward – the Membership Action Plan (MAP) – for membership, despite Kyiv having asked for such a path since 2008. Besides, Ukraine is no longer interested in the MAP. It learned from Bosnia Herzegovina as the Balkan state has been linked to the MAP for 13 years but is still waiting to join the Alliance.

Alternative models of security guarantees

Western leaders are actively discussing various alternatives to NATO membership. For example, membership in the EU implies providing assistance in accordance with Article 42.7 of the Treaty on European Union, which states: “If a member state is the victim of armed aggression on its territory, the other member states shall have towards it an obligation of aid and assistance by all the means in their power.”

Furthermore, EU countries have agreed to take on “future security commitments” to Ukraine ahead of the NATO summit. The European Union commits to continuing to finance arms supplies to Ukraine through the European Peace Facility and expanding initiatives for training Ukrainian military personnel, regardless of the alliance's decision on its own security guarantees for Kyiv. However, without the United States, the EU lacks the resources to provide Ukraine with sufficient support to deter Putin's army.

Without the United States, the EU lacks the resources to provide Ukraine with sufficient support to deter Putin's army

Additionally, Ukraine's accession to the European Union will require considerable time due to legal and economic requirements. It may even take longer than joining NATO. Furthermore, while Poland and the Baltic states support Ukraine's accelerated accession, there is no consensus among other EU countries on this matter.

However, this does not mean that the EU should play no role in providing security guarantees to Ukraine. They can be strengthened within a larger multilateral framework: organization of reconstruction, military missions in Ukraine after the conflict, and the implementation of economic projects, such as supporting Ukrainian maritime exports by involving observers.

Another alternative model is a formal mutual defense treaty. Such agreements exist between the United States and the Philippines, the Republic of Korea, and Japan. According to these treaties, if one party is subjected to aggression by a third state, the other party is obligated to provide assistance. However, in the case of Ukraine, such actions would increase the risk of a war between the United States and Russia. Therefore, Washington is reluctant to sign a formal mutual defense treaty with Ukraine.

Washington is reluctant to sign a formal mutual defense treaty with Ukraine

Another way of cooperation is exemplified by the U.S. support for Taiwan, which is based on the “Taiwan Relations Act” (TRA) enacted in 1979 after the United States recognized the People's Republic of China (PRC) as the sole legal government of China. According to the TRA, the United States is committed to providing “defense articles and defense services in such quantity as may be necessary to enable Taiwan to maintain a sufficient self-defense capability.” Washington also emphasizes that it will have “grave concern” if China were to attack Taiwan.

However, the U.S. maintains a “strategic ambiguity” regarding its intervention in case China decides to resort to military actions. The purpose of the act is precisely to prevent Taiwan from declaring independence and to deter China from attacking. On the other hand, Ukraine faces a different task—to put an end to the ambiguity that has characterized the policy of Western countries towards it in recent years. President Zelensky wants to secure reliable long-term official commitments.

“Israeli model” cooperation

The United States is considering the possibility of offering Zelensky an “Israeli model” of cooperation without NATO membership. Ukraine has long been interested in such a form of cooperation. As early as 2018, one of Ukraine's leading analytical centers held a conference titled “Israel’s Experience of Nation-Building: Lessons for Ukraine.” In March 2022, Zelensky voiced his desire for Ukraine to develop its defense and security sphere based on the example of Israel. In September of the same year, former NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen and the head of the Office of the President of Ukraine, Andriy Yermak, presented the “Kyiv Security Compact”—a draft document on international guarantees to Kyiv, which they compared to the Israeli model.

Israel has been receiving significant financial assistance and military transfers from the United States since the 1973 Yom Kippur War. While there is no formal defense treaty between the United States and Israel, the U.S. commitments are regulated by law. Washington has been annually providing $3.8 billion to Israel for defense, a total of $158 billion. Israel receives approximately 60% of the overall volume of all U.S. foreign military assistance programs. This enables Israel to defend itself and develop its own military industry and technologies, becoming increasingly independent of external support. For example, the development of the Iron Dome system was backed by U.S. funds. Additionally, over the years, Israel has become a global leader in military technology and exports its systems abroad.

Israel receives approximately 60% of the overall volume of all U.S. foreign military assistance programs

The support from the United States is also aimed at ensuring Israel's “Qualitative Military Edge” (QME). This implies technological, tactical, and other advantages over Middle Eastern countries, allowing Israel to receive U.S. defense technologies ahead of its neighbors. In addition, more advanced versions of weapons are supplied to the country. Israel became the first country to import the single-seat F-35 fighter jet from the United States. The promise of Qualitative Military Edge to Ukraine could potentially influence a more streamlined and accelerated delivery of new weapons, such as long-range ATACMS missiles and fighter jets.

Of course, the Israeli security guarantee system is not without its flaws. One of its drawbacks is the excessive militarization of society, which can come at the expense of certain democratic standards. However, such a military alliance with the United States has allowed Jerusalem to largely neutralize threats from its neighbors and deter aggression. While the danger from Iran, Hamas, and Hezbollah still exists, the situation has significantly improved compared to the early 2000s.

And most importantly, despite the absence of a formal defense treaty between the United States and Israel, support for Jerusalem is regulated by law, and its terms are renegotiated every decade. This helps shield Israel from fluctuations in political course due to changes in American leadership. Both U.S. political parties maintain commitment to Israel across different administrations. Similarly, Ukraine largely enjoys support from both Democrats and Republicans in Washington. However, it would be prudent to solidify this cooperation for the long term.

Some experts draw parallels between the 1948 war in Israel and the current conflict in Ukraine. Indeed, there are similarities—initially, everyone believed in the victory of a stronger and more numerous adversary. However, in the end, Ukrainians, like the Israelis over half a century ago, achieved staggering military successes, accompanied by the strengthening of national identity. A military alliance with the United States could support Ukraine until its accession to NATO and the EU. And in turn, they could provide defense for Ukraine while also addressing certain drawbacks inherent in excessively militarized societies, such as in the case of Israel.

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