Aug 30, 2023

Op-Ed: How NATO Is Helping Ukraine

Ukraine’s links with the transatlantic alliance reach back to the 1990s. However, Russia’s brutal war of aggression has led to NATO’s practical cooperation with Ukraine expanding further.

US President Joe Biden, Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg and British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak attend a meeting of the NATO-Ukrainie council, during a NATO leaders summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, July 12, 2023.

When Russia’s full-scale war of aggression against Ukraine unfolded since February 24, 2022, NATO’s comprehensive practical cooperation with Ukraine stood still. Many feared—and Russian President Vladimir Putin hoped—that Ukraine would collapse within days; that its democratically elected government under President Volodymyr Zelensky would be replaced by a puppet government of Putin’s choice. The Ukrainians, however, proved everyone wrong. Eighteen months into the war, they have heroically defended their independence and the territorial integrity of their country. Ukraine’s national identity is stronger than ever. And NATO’s practical cooperation with Ukraine is more vibrant, purposeful, and determined than ever.

An Independent Ukraine

“A strong, independent Ukraine is vital for the stability of the Euro-Atlantic area.” This is what NATO’s 2022 Strategic Concept stipulates. Dialogue and cooperation between Ukraine and NATO started as early as 1991 when the newly independent country joined the North Atlantic Cooperation Council; in 1994, it signed up for the Partnership for Peace program. Relations were strengthened with the signing of the 1997 Charter on a Distinctive Partnership, which also formed the basis for opening NATO’s Information and Documentation Centre in Kyiv, and the setting up of liaison arrangements, which later evolved into the NATO Liaison Office.

In response to Ukraine’s aspirations for NATO membership, allies agreed at the 2008 Bucharest Summit that Ukraine will become a member of NATO. They also agreed that Ukraine’s next step on its way to membership was the Membership Action Plan (MAP), NATO’s program of political, economic, defense, security, and legal reforms for aspirant countries. In the absence of a timetable or a MAP, cooperation was intensified through a new Annual National Program in support of Ukraine’s reform processes.

From 2010 to 2014, Ukraine pursued a non-alignment policy, which NATO fully respected. Ukraine terminated this phase in response to Russia’s illegal annexation that year of the Crimean Peninsula and the de facto occupation of parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of eastern Ukraine.

At the 2016 NATO summit in Warsaw, the transatlantic alliance’s measures in support of Ukraine were integrated into the Comprehensive Assistance Package (CAP). The CAP is designed to support Ukraine's ability to provide for its own security and to implement wide-ranging reforms based on NATO standards, Euro-Atlantic principles, and best practices.

In June 2017, the Ukrainian parliament adopted legislation reinstating membership of NATO as well as of the European Union as a strategic foreign and security policy objective. In 2019, a corresponding amendment to Ukraine’s constitution entered into force.

Under the CAP, NATO has helped Ukraine transform its security and defense sector for many years, providing strategic-level advice via the NATO Representation to Ukraine—bringing under one roof the NIDC and the NATO Liaison Office—and practical support through a range of capacity-building programs and initiatives. Through these programs and tailored advice, NATO has significantly strengthened the capacity and resilience of Ukraine’s security and defense sector, as well as its ability to counter hybrid threats.

In September 2020, President Zelensky approved Ukraine’s new National Security Strategy, which provides for the development of the distinctive partnership with NATO with the aim of membership.

Heading Toward the Madrid Summit 2022

At the end of February 2022, when it became apparent that Ukraine would not surrender to Russia’s war of aggression, discussions about NATO’s practical cooperation with Ukraine centered on what we could do. At the same time, we were receiving increasingly intense signals from all our Ukrainian partners. The single most importance message was: “We are here! We are fighting! We want your help, and we want to continue our cooperation!” 

While the international community also struggled to find an adequate response to Russia’s illegal war of aggression, at NATO headquarters we considered it logical to make the best use of one of NATO’s core functions as a coordination platform, in this case for practical military cooperation. Attempts, however, to use NATO as the coordination body for the practical military assistance, including lethal assistance, provided to Ukraine to defend itself against Russia’s aggression soon met with objections from a number of allies. The main concern was that this would make the alliance as an organization part of the conflict. To avoid this risk, allies set up, under the leadership of the United States, the so-called Ukraine Defense Contact Group (UDCG), better known as the “Ramstein Group” as an independent coalition, by now including all 31 NATO allies, the EU, and 24 other partner countries.

At the same time, at NATO HQ we found agreement and support from allies to use the alliance to provide Ukraine with urgent, non-lethal military assistance such as combat rations, first aid kits, or fuel material.

While this was an important step, more was needed. As reconfirmed in NATO’s 2022 Strategic Concept, a strong, independent Ukraine is vital for the stability of the Euro-Atlantic area. In this vein, after several months of negotiations, NATO’s heads of state and government, at the Madrid Summit, endorsed the “Political Framework for the Extraordinary Review of the Comprehensive Assistance Package for Ukraine.” The overarching goal of this reviewed CAP is to assist Ukraine as it defends itself against Russian aggression and prepares for long-term recovery. At the same time, the alliance has been given a new and comprehensive mandate to pursue and intensify practical cooperation with Ukraine. The reviewed CAP comprises essentially two main work strands: support to the sustainment of Ukraine’s armed forces through the provision of urgent non-lethal assistance; and cooperation with Ukrainian partners on mid- to long-term reform efforts in the defense and security sector.

Under the first work strand, allies and a range of partner countries have by now donated over €500 million in support to the CAP.  Admittedly, in comparison with other international donors such as the EU, this is a comparatively modest amount. In the NATO context, however, this is an extraordinary and exponential growth considering that the CAP budget in 2021 was in the region of €2-3 million.

Since February 2022, NATO has provided support in multiple areas, including combat rations; fuel materiel, including jet fuel; army boots; medical supplies, including first aid kits and pharmaceuticals; military education and training equipment; chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear (CBRN) detectors and protection; explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) equipment; counter-drone equipment, and enhanced satellite communication. More projects of a similar nature are constantly being developed and delivered.

Each delivery of non-lethal assistance is closely coordinated, not only with Ukraine, but also with all other relevant stakeholders, such as efforts from nations within the Ramstein Group. As a rule, there is no delivery directly to Ukraine. Handover to Ukrainian counterparts is ensured via one of the delivery hubs on allied territory.

In parallel to the provision of urgent non-lethal assistance, cooperation on mid- and long-term reform efforts also picked up again already in 2022. In practical terms, most of this cooperation is done via online engagements or conducted outside of Ukraine.

To illustrate this point, work strands include the following:

NATO’s Defense Education Enhancement Program (DEEP) continued to support the reform of Ukraine’s professional military education and professional training systems, focusing on eight defense higher education institutions and five training centers for non-commissioned officers. Additionally, DEEP advises on management of the academies and universities, supports faculties on how to teach, and assists in the development of courses on leadership and decision-making processes.

Ukraine also signaled its interest in pursuing cooperation with NATO in the realm of Building Integrity (BI), good governance, and the prevention of corruption. This currently includes, apart from strategic advising, a bespoke train-the-trainers program for the Ministry of Internal Affairs and training activities for the BI Training and Education Center of the National Defense University of Ukraine.

Under the Military Career Transition Program we are providing institutional capacity-building support to the Ministry of Veterans’ Affairs, fostering its resilience throughout the war. In line with Ukrainian requests, we also intensified support in the area of psychological rehabilitation or mental health resilience of service personnel.

Collaboration also continues in the realm of defense industry and defense procurement reforms, through professional development cooperation with Ukraine’s parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, or through engagement with Ukraine’s vibrant civil society.

NATO’s Vilnius Summit and Beyond

In the run-up the NATO’s 2023 summit in Vilnius, debates over Ukraine’s relationship with NATO, including eventual membership, intensified. There were essentially two schools of thought—those advocating for a rapid integration of Ukraine into NATO as the best way to deter Russia and end the war, and those fearing that this would lead to a direct confrontation between NATO and Russia.

In the end, as one of NATO’s many balancing acts, allied leaders endorsed at the Vilnius Summit a compromise: While confirming in the summit communiqué that “Ukraine’s future is in NATO” and recognizing that “Ukraine’s path to full Euro-Atlantic integration has moved beyond the need for the Membership Action Plan,” leaders conclude that “we will be in a position to extend an invitation to Ukraine to join the Alliance when Allies agree and conditions are met.”

In addition, NATO leaders “have agreed a substantial package of expanded political and practical support. We have decided to establish the NATO-Ukraine Council, a new joint body where Allies and Ukraine sit as equal members to advance political dialogue, engagement, cooperation, and Ukraine’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations for membership in NATO.”

Furthermore, the “continued delivery of urgently needed non-lethal assistance to Ukraine by NATO through the Comprehensive Assistance Package (CAP) remains a priority. (…)  To support Ukraine’s deterrence and defence in the short, medium, and long term, we have agreed today to further develop the CAP into a multi-year programme for Ukraine. The assistance provided will help rebuild the Ukrainian security and defence sector and transition Ukraine towards full interoperability with NATO. Allies will continue to fund the CAP in a sustained and predictable way.”

With this reinforced mandate, at NATO HQ we are now further strengthening our practical cooperation with Ukraine. Ukrainians are determined to pursue all reform efforts—also amidst the war! Our cooperation involves, in addition to the continued provision of urgent non-lethal assistance, a growing range of strategic reform efforts, including the following work strands:

A small team of dedicated NATO defense planners is working with Ukrainian experts on developing a Ukrainian-owned interoperability roadmap, including in the context of Ukraine’s ongoing Capability Review. We are supporting Ukraine in determining its own capability requirements, and in translating these requirements into a long-term capability development plan. The key goal is to achieve full interoperability with NATO, by defining Ukraine’s sustainable transition to NATO standards, modern doctrine, and Western military equipment.

In parallel, we support Ukraine in the continued transformation of its institutions in the defense and security sector. Following a request from Ukraine’s Defense Minister Olekzii Reznikov, this work also includes the design and delivery of a Joint Strategic Defense Procurement Review as well as aspects involving legislation, anti-corruption measures, transparency, and professional development.

Allies are also aware that Ukraine has a wealth of “lessons learned” and insights to share, hard won in its defense against Russia. Against this backdrop, work is ongoing to establish a possible Joint Analysis, Training, and Education Centre (JATEC). Pending the results of a feasibility study currently under way, the main goal is to draw on lessons learned from the war, and embed these in doctrine, tactics, and operations in Ukraine as well as in allied nations.

In the area of cyber defense, in May 2023 Ukraine became a full member of the NATO Cooperative Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence in Tallinn. In addition, the CAP team from the NATO Representation Ukraine is continuing to design projects with the Ukrainian authorities focusing on cybersecurity and supporting the establishment of the National Accreditation Authority. The latter is critical for NATO-Ukraine cooperation in exchange of classified information.

Furthermore, a host of activities support Ukraine in coping with the social and physical consequences of the war. A project on Ukraine’s medical rehabilitation is building a comprehensive national medical rehabilitation capability for the Ukrainian Armed Forces. In its first phase, the project will establish a medical center of excellence near Kyiv. In cooperation with the Ministry of Veterans, we are working toward a unified, flexible system of services to help veterans in civilian life. This system should include the provision of psychological, medical, and physical rehabilitation, social integration, and professional adaptation.  With Ukraine’s economy ministry, we are identifying areas where NATO can provide complementary support to the huge demining needs. Moreover, we are cooperating with the Ukraine in the area of post-war reconstruction of selected military infrastructure.

The challenges to reform and rebuild Ukraine are huge. But we will not give up! On both sides, we are fully determined to create the conditions for Ukraine’s integration into the alliance. After all, as NATO leaders agreed at Vilnius, “Ukraine’s future is in NATO.”

N.B. The views expressed in this Op-Ed are the author’s own and should not be taken to reflect necessarily those of NATO or NATO allies.

Gerlinde Niehus is Deputy Director of NATO’s Defence and Security Cooperation Directorate, Operations Divisions, in Brussels.