US should grant Ukraine Major Non-NATO Ally status

Russia’s April 22 announcement that it would begin withdrawing troops from the Ukrainian border has eased concerns over a possible imminent escalation in the simmering seven-year war between the two countries. However, Putin’s recent troop buildup served as a reminder that Ukraine remains the global front line in a new Cold War and the scene of an ongoing military confrontation that could erupt at any moment, with potentially catastrophic consequences for European security.

As attention turns towards an anticipated summer 2021 summit meeting between US President Joe Biden and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, now is the time to demonstrate the West’s continued commitment to Ukraine and underline the country’s strengthening ties with the rest of the democratic world. One major step in this direction would be for the United States to grant Ukraine the status of Major Non-NATO Ally.

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The Western reaction to Putin’s military buildup on the Ukrainian border was both rapid and vocal. Numerous senior figures condemned Russia’s actions while reaffirming their support for Ukraine. By far the most significant demonstration of Western backing was President Biden’s telephone call to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

Ever since Biden’s January 2021 inauguration, Ukraine’s leader had been waiting nervously to hear from the new US President. After becoming entangled in some the Trump presidency’s biggest scandals, many senior officials in Ukraine were eager for positive signals from the incoming administration. In this context, Biden’s early April call to Zelenskyy was a timely and highly welcome indication that the US would continue to back Ukraine in its confrontation with Russia.

This public display of support has eased fears in Ukraine over the future of the country’s strategically vital relationship with the United States. It has also confirmed expectations that Biden would stand up for Ukraine while confronting the Kremlin in a forthright manner that contrasts sharply with the approach adopted by his predecessor.

When Biden was elected in November 2020, I noted that he had visited Ukraine on many occasions and knows the country intimately. Biden is personally acquainted with many of Ukraine’s leading politicians and well understands the nature of the challenges the country currently faces, both in terms of domestic reforms and Russian aggression.

Likewise, Biden is under no illusions over who Vladimir Putin is or what he represents. Nevertheless, the Russian leader seems to have been genuinely angered by Biden’s agreement during a recent US TV interview that Putin is “a killer.”

The April military buildup close to Ukraine may well have been part of the Russian response to Biden and an attempt to demonstrate that the US has no choice but to engage with Putin. If so, it has been at least partially successful. Biden has since issued an invitation for a summit meeting, which is expected to take place in the coming months. This has bestowed considerable prestige on Putin. By treating him ostensibly as an equal, Biden has burnished Russia’s Great Power credentials.

While the optics of a Cold War-style summit are extremely favorable for the Kremlin, the current geopolitical backdrop for this anticipated Biden-Putin meeting is considerably less encouraging.

Any remaining room for cooperation with the US appears to be rapidly diminishing, while Russia-EU ties are also in crisis. EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell’s disastrous early 2021 visit to Moscow marked a new low in the relationship, while the recent revelations over Russian acts of international aggression within the EU have sparked a series of tit-for-tat diplomatic expulsions.

In the final days of April, the European Parliament overwhelmingly passed a resolution calling for an end to Russian oil and gas imports, along with Russia’s disconnection from the SWIFT international payment system and the cancellation of oligarch visas, in the event of a fresh Kremlin offensive in Ukraine.

What does all this mean for Ukraine?

With preparations for a summit now underway, it is reasonable to conclude that any military plans for a major Russian offensive will be postponed until after the Biden-Putin meeting. It is crucial for Ukraine to use this window of opportunity in order to improve the country’s position and prepare for the possibility of a dramatic escalation in Russian aggression.

One of Ukraine’s top priorities must be to consolidate ties with the Western world. Ukraine’s long-term strategic goals are NATO and European Union membership. This remains unchanged. However, it is unrealistic to expect significant progress towards either of these targets in the immediate future. Instead, Ukraine must identify practical steps to help defend the country against the looming danger posed by the Russian military.

While the many recent demonstrations of political solidarity with Ukraine are welcome, they alone will not be enough to deter the Kremlin. To paraphrase Winston Churchill, “wars are not won by expressions of grave concern.” With this in mind, I am convinced Ukraine should appeal directly to the US for recognition as a Major Non-NATO Ally.

This status was first introduced in 1987 and is currently afforded to 18 countries around the world including Australia, Israel, Egypt, Brazil, and Japan. While Major Non-NATO Ally status is not equivalent to a military defense pact, it does confer a range of advantages in terms of potential military cooperation with the US that would not otherwise be open to countries outside the NATO alliance.

This would be a meaningful step towards closer US-Ukraine ties at a time when military cooperation between the two countries is deepening. Major Non-NATO Ally status would serve as formal recognition of this intensifying partnership while also acknowledging Ukraine’s strategic importance as a key US ally in Eastern Europe. On the eve of the Biden-Putin summit, such a move would send an important message to Moscow of America’s resolve to stand with Ukraine.

Over the course of the past seven years, Ukraine has emerged as the eastern frontier of the Western world. Thousands of Ukrainian soldiers have given their lives to prevent the defeat of democracy and the advance of Russian authoritarianism. This struggle is far from over and has already sparked a dramatic deterioration in the wider international security situation. Recent revelations of Russian involvement in arms depot explosions and assassination attempts within the EU are a reminder that Moscow’s attack on Ukraine is part of a wider Kremlin campaign to reverse the verdict of 1991.

Granting Ukraine Major Non-NATO Ally status would reflect the changing political realities in today's Eastern Europe. Since 2014, Russian aggression against Ukraine has shattered the myths of Slavonic fraternity that once set the official tone in bilateral relations between these two erstwhile “brotherly nations”. This has greatly added to the trauma of Putin’s invasion and caused many Ukrainians to rethink their attitudes towards Ukraine’s place in the wider world.

Thanks in large part to Putin’s war, opinion polls and surveys consistently demonstrate that an overwhelming majority of Ukrainians now embrace Euro-Atlantic integration and see their future as part of the Western world. This historic transformation will necessarily take decades to achieve, but short-term progress is also essential in order to deter Russia at a time when Moscow appears intent on testing the West’s resolve. Recognizing Ukraine as a Major Non-NATO Ally would be a step in the right direction and a suitable response to Russian saber-rattling.

Oleksiy Goncharenko is a Ukrainian lawmaker with the European Solidarity party.

Further reading

The views expressed in UkraineAlert are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Atlantic Council, its staff, or its supporters.

The Eurasia Center's mission is to enhance transatlantic cooperation in promoting stability, democratic values and prosperity in Eurasia, from Eastern Europe and Turkey in the West to the Caucasus, Russia and Central Asia in the East.

Image: A US Army instructor pictured together with Ukrainian servicemen during Rapid Trident 2019 exercises near Lviv in western Ukraine. (REUTERS/Gleb Garanich)