This piece is part of a series exploring security guarantees for Ukraine and the future of Euro-Atlantic security by younger-generation Ukrainian scholars and analysts.
In the post-war context, one of the crucial challenges for the Ukrainian government will be to restore good governance and prevent civil strife. A seeming failure of the Western allies to shield Ukraine from a second butcherous war is likely to make Ukraine’s population feel resentful and expended for the sake of ‘great powers’, just as the 1994 Budapest Memorandum is perceived by Ukrainians today. The task for NATO policymakers is to avoid making post-war Ukraine’s public sentiments grow anti-Western or, worse, isolationist. They must build a mutually beneficial security cooperation framework with Ukraine’s government and maintain current levels of Ukrainian public support for NATO and the EU. One way of achieving this is for NATO member states to engage with the Ukrainian public, particularly the veteran community, on a par with the government.
The Ukrainian government, in particular President Volodymyr Zelensky, are under immense domestic pressure to find a lasting security insurance mechanism to preclude Russia from a second attempt at overtaking Ukraine. According to the latest public opinion polls, the vast majority of Ukrainians, across different regions and age groups, are in favour of Ukraine’s accession to NATO and support any efforts to accelerate the accession process (89% support Ukraine’s accession to NATO before 2030 and more than half prioritise accession to NATO over the EU). The level of fondness held by Ukrainians towards the Euro-Atlantic community is the most invaluable asset that both Ukrainian and NATO leaders currently possess. The pro-NATO sympathies of Ukrainian society legitimise the ambition of Euro-Atlantic security cooperation to contain Russia’s aggression and subversion on the continent. Furthermore, the prospect of NATO integration maintains Ukraine’s drive for reforms, especially regarding judicial oversight and anti-corruption, ultimately bolstering the rule of law and good governance across Europe.
The pro-NATO sympathies of Ukrainian society legitimise the ambition of Euro-Atlantic security cooperation to contain Russia’s aggression and subversion on the continent. Denys Karlovskyi
The very term ‘security guarantees’ is irretrievably associated with the 1994 Budapest Memorandum. In a post-2014 context, the signatories to this pact, namely the US and the UK, did not go as far as to directly engage with Russia’s invading forces on Ukraine’s behalf. As a result, Ukrainians tend to see diplomatic efforts and sanctions as falling short of what is meant by ‘security guarantees’. President Zelensky even proposed revoking Ukraine’s commitments to the Memorandum in 2020, and over half of the Ukrainian population was allegedly in favour of this idea at the time. At the Munich Security Conference on the eve of the 2022 invasion, President Zelensky recalled the Budapest Memorandum again, claiming that its signatories failed to meet obligations and asking for a revised Memorandum. In a post-2022 context, President Zelensky has frequently highlighted the Memorandum’s alleged failure to compel NATO member states to donate more aid to Ukraine.
Domestically, Zelensky relayed on numerous occasions that Ukraine is seeking ironclad security guarantees from NATO member states to provide weapons aid, intelligence assistance, and financial support to avoid another prospective war with Russia. While it is unlikely that any NATO member will provide Ukraine with binding security commitments like those of the treaty’s Article 5 clause, Ukraine has been adamant in public communication that it will only enter into legally binding security guarantees.
While it is unlikely that any NATO member will provide Ukraine with binding security commitments like those of the treaty’s Article 5 clause, Ukraine has been adamant in public communication that it will only enter into legally binding security guarantees. Denys Karlovskyi
In this game, the Ukrainian government upped the ante by inflating the expectations of the Ukrainian public without definitive security promises from any NATO member. On the one hand, Ukrainian diplomats may have an ace up their sleeve as this could pressure NATO counterparts into providing what Ukrainians want, namely insurance against another war. However, these actions might also be construed as self-defeating for Ukrainian elites as the public dissatisfaction with a future post-conflict agreement risks backfiring to an untenable level of violence, given the current suboptimal government control on firearms in the country. Understandably, Ukrainian politicians are compelled by public sentiment, but to some extent, they have also taken active roles in shaping this public mood through media debates and official communications.
An increasingly pressing challenge is the issues Ukrainian society will face post-conflict, such as the clandestine ownership of firearms, along with the need to integrate traumatised civilians back into some semblance of normalcy. No doubt these factors will make social divisions more acute, and terror attacks seem more probable, especially if the government’s legitimacy appears tarnished by the alleged ‘betrayal of the West’ at the expense of Ukraine in the game of great powers. Before the 2022 Russian invasion, public opinion polling revealed Ukrainians’ belief that lack of fairness and security were the most pressing issues they faced. A failure to ensure lasting security protection from a revanchist Russia will significantly undermine public trust, civil order, and cohesion.
A failure to ensure lasting security protection from a revanchist Russia will significantly undermine public trust, civil order, and cohesion. Denys Karlovskyi
To counter this, Ukraine’s government should leverage high levels of pro-Euro-Atlantic sentiments to execute reforms and tie Ukraine’s security to the Alliance before the country formally joins. To that end, these policy recommendations are designed for NATO policymakers and heads of state:
- Negotiations on security guarantees must be finalised before elections take place and martial law is revoked. Ukraine will face a contentious process of presidential and parliamentary elections once martial law is revoked. Zelensky’s competitors may not resist the opportunity to use perceived underwhelming security guarantees from the West as a lightning rod. Alternatively, Zelensky’s team may pressure their electoral opponents by framing the security guarantees as hard-won accomplishments earned by Zelensky’s regime, not his successor’s.
- Assist the Ukrainian government in maintaining public support for Euro-Atlantic integration. NATO communications teams and Western media should reach out to Ukrainians, engage in public deliberations and talks, hold conferences with young leaders and, most importantly, seek partnerships with the non-commissioned officers and file-and-rank of the Ukrainian Armed Forces to show that NATO is genuinely committed to Ukraine’s future in the Alliance. Numerous media organisations and NGOs in Ukraine specifically focus on Euro-Atlantic partnerships and initiatives, publishing articles and holding public conferences. NATO member states must tap into that well of goodwill and maintain direct liaisons with the Ukrainian public so that the checks and balances between citizens and their government are kept in good shape.
- Design, invest, and implement programmes for mental health support, reintegration and education for veterans, frontline workers, journalists, and civil servants who bore the heaviest toll of the war. They will be Ukraine’s leaders of tomorrow and are entitled to make trajectory-altering decisions. Some likely lost loved ones, and others may have been rendered homeless during the invasion. Their trauma will significantly shape their attitudes and values. It will be paramount for NATO to win the affiliation and sympathies of these future leaders today, to have a better chance of avoiding another war in Europe tomorrow.
Long-term security on the European continent is not tenable if Ukraine is exposed to the relentless terror of missile attacks by Russia and held in limbo of an imminent invasion. This will undoubtedly perpetuate current crises and shocks in European markets and society. To avoid another Budapest Memorandum, NATO must consider political sensitivities and public opinion in Ukraine to maintain governability and social cohesion in a country badly wounded by trauma, bloodshed, and historical neglect.
The opinions articulated above represent the views of the author(s), and do not necessarily reflect the position of the European Leadership Network or any of its members. The ELN’s aim is to encourage debates that will help develop Europe’s capacity to address the pressing foreign, defence, and security policy challenges of our time.