NATO Should Offer Ukraine an Arms Supply Pact
It’s the strongest commitment the alliance can realistically give.
No matter how Russia’s ongoing offensive and Ukraine’s expected counteroffensive go, Ukraine’s survival hinges on lasting military support from NATO allies. To stiffen their commitment, the allies should consider formalizing an arms supply pact with Kyiv.
Numerous Western advocates for Ukrainian membership of NATO (here, here, here, here, here, and here) fail to appreciate that most alliance capitals do not see a vital interest in the defense of Ukraine. Although NATO has espoused Ukraine’s principled right to choose its own alliance at every summit since it first promised eventual membership in Bucharest in 2008, the ensuing 15 years have not changed its members’ calculation that a formal invitation is not worth risking a war with Russia. Indeed, the slow decision and now the slow delivery of battle tanks suggests that NATO allies in the current circumstance are unwilling even to give Ukraine the weapons that are necessary for a total victory.
But they might agree to a larger commitment if Ukraine can show them how more weapons might end the war. This would be a new circumstance that would attenuate the worries among certain NATO allies about arming Ukraine without a clear end objective.
The strongest such commitment that the alliance can realistically give is an official NATO guarantee for weapons deliveries for decades to come—enough to persuade Kyiv that Russia will not use a ceasefire as breathing pause before a new attack, and that a settlement could bring it lasting peace allowing it to eventually join and prosper within the EU.
If formalized as a NATO-Ukraine arms supply pact, it would put the alliance’s prestige on the line and make Ukraine’s defense a credibility issue. The NATO guarantee should include increased deliveries of advanced and heavy weapons, ammunition production equaling or surpassing Russia’s production, and otherwise integrating the Ukrainian armed forces into NATO defense supply chains. It should also include weapons that NATO allies have so far refrained from giving due to fears of escalation: Western fighter jets and the Army Tactical Missile System, or ATACMS, that can hit targets deep inside Russian territory.
An official NATO guarantee to the armament of Ukraine would be an improvement over the U.S.-led Ramstein format or the bilateral commitments that are currently being considered. It should include a NATO mechanism for coordinating weapon shipments and trainings of the Ukrainian military in how to use the advanced weapons and advisory in how to shift from Soviet-standard to NATO-standard equipment and organization of its armed forces. On the other hand, Ukraine will emerge from the war as one of Europe’s main military powers, with huge reserves of trained manpower that probably can teach NATO more about military tactics than the other way round.
NATO should put the idea of an arms supply pact with Ukraine on the agenda of the Vilnius Summit in July of this year, parallel to its own buildup of 300,000 high-readiness troops for improved defense and deterrence. It will be clearer by then if Ukraine will have success with its expected counteroffensive. NATO should link the pact it to its internal discussion about defense spending and their proper investment, especially how to foster European ammunition production sufficient to supply Ukraine against Russia without weakening the U.S. capability to deter China in the western Pacific.
NATO’s own border may be next in line if Russian imperialism is not stopped in Ukraine. A critical number of allies may consider a consider a fundamental increase in the supply of weapons to Ukraine if this could be made part of a package that could bring an end to the biggest armed conflict in Europe since World War II. Sustaining Ukraine’s resistance in the decades ahead offers NATO a low-cost option to contain and degrade Russia’s military capability.
Henrik Larsen is a Senior Researcher at the Center for Security Studies at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich focused on NATO/transatlantic security. He served as a political adviser for the EU in Ukraine from 2014 to 2019.