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What bilateral security agreements mean for Ukraine

On the two-year anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Justin Trudeau and Giorgia Meloni, the Canadian and Italian Prime Ministers respectively, both went to Kyiv to announce new bilateral security agreements which their countries had negotiated with Ukraine. Several years ago such agreements would have been difficult to imagine. However, one-by-one, members of the Group of Seven (G7) have been steadily fulfilling their pledges to provide security assurances to Ukraine as an interim measure while Ukraine makes progress in its bid to join NATO. The United Kingdom was the first G7 member to strike such an agreement in (UK) January. Before the visit of Trudeau and Meloni to Kyiv, France, Germany, and Denmark, a non-G7 country, concluded their own. The Netherlands concluded its own on 1st March.

Individually or collectively, these security assistance deals do not amount to the formation of a military alliance in the proper sense of the term. Although they are written down, these agreements do not constitute a treaty commitment. They are ten-year executive agreements which will not be ratified by domestic legislators or signed into international law. There is little binding in these documents. They are going to be as good as the leaders holding them up for the next decade.

Yet these security assistance deals are not just another iteration of the infamous 1994 Budapest Memorandum. That deal was also an executive one, centred on the assurances that Ukraine would receive for its territorial integrity in exchange for giving up its inherited stockpile of Soviet nuclear weapons. However, these recent agreements remain substantial in content and reflect how security ties between Ukraine and members of NATO have grown since 2014, to say nothing of 1994.

The most obvious difference between these agreements and the Budapest Memorandum is that they do more than simply reaffirm Ukraine’s borders. Each of these agreements outline areas in which each signatory can improve its security cooperation with Ukraine, and have come with additional aid packages. Common to them is how they each address issues of mutual concern such as disinformation, defence industry production, economic sanctions, and the defence and enforcement of international law. One can criticise the agreements for certifying what is being done already, but the fact that those countries are engaging in such cooperation in the first place is itself important. Put together, they improve Ukraine’s long-term security prospects while helping NATO to contain Russia for the foreseeable future and beyond. 

These agreements bear many similarities to one another, but they do differ. One area of difference is how the documents address the subject of consultations. Ukraine wants a defence commitment such that a Russian attack will provoke the armed intervention of its partners. A consultative mechanism falls short of that ideal because only a conversation is promised. However, the wording still leaves open the possibility that such consultations could lead to direct military involvement on the part of others. 

Denmark, France, Italy, the Netherlands, and the UK all pledge to consult Ukraine ‘[i]n the event of future Russian armed attack against’ it. This statement may seem strange in view of Russia’s continued military aggression against Ukraine, but the unspoken context here suggests that the provision may be operative if Russia were to go about a major military operation against large urban centres like Kyiv, Kharkiv, and Odesa of the sort seen in early 2022. Interestingly, the Canadian assistance deal is much less ambiguous on this score. With respect to consultations, the agreement establishing the Canada-Ukraine Strategic Security Partnership (CUSSP) adds the clause ‘following the cessation of current hostilities.’ This clause thus clarifies that some formal peace agreement or truce must already be in place between Kyiv and Moscow for Ottawa to be willing to consult on the basis of the CUSSP. Given that the war arguably has already lasted for ten years since the Russian seizure of Crimea, and that the fighting looks far from finished, this provision is especially thin.

Canada thus looks unprepared to extend even the spectre of deterrence because of the deteriorating state of its own armed forces. Capability gaps have widened following many years of under-investment and the high operational demands that Canadian leaders have made of the Canadian Armed Forces, whether at home or abroad

That said, the CUSSP also stands apart from the G7 agreements because it provides for a more assertive Canadian role in information warfare within Ukraine’s own borders. The British, French, Danish, and German agreements have similar language speaking of the need to support Ukraine in the fight against Russian disinformation and propaganda. However, the Canadian agreement goes much further, elaborating that ‘Canada will work with Ukraine to access audiences in the temporarily occupied territories of Ukraine, understanding that Russia has been targeting radio deliberately, television, and other broadcast infrastructure within Ukraine and rerouting internet traffic within the temporarily occupied territories.’ Ukraine’s other partners may be planning similar activities, but none have been as candid and specific about them as Canada.

Whatever the differences between them, the bilateral security deals that Ukraine has been receiving are a solid basis for future defence cooperation. Unfortunately, the signature of these documents have come at a time when munition shortages have become especially acute for the Ukrainian Armed Forces, forcing it to fall back from Avdiivka while coming under pressure near Robotyne. As PhD researcher Lotje Boswinkel observes, these documents do not provide an immediate solution to Ukraine’s most pressing problem: maintaining the wherewithal to defend what it has and not to lose even more territory. Any criticisms directed at Western leaders should not focus on the perceived strengths and weaknesses of those bilateral agreements as such, but rather than the failure of providing timely and extensive material support which would have allowed Ukraine to fight Russia more effectively than it has.

What the bilateral security deals reveal is a gap between the short-term and long-term planning of those supporting Ukraine. Members of the Euro-Atlantic community have become somewhat better in thinking ahead several years; they can now chart how they can improve security cooperation with Ukraine with an eye towards maximising its future security and potential for NATO membership. Yet, they still are falling very short in meeting Ukraine’s current needs.

Dr Alexander Lanoszka is the Ernest Bevin Associate Fellow in Euro-Atlantic Geopolitics at the Council on Geostrategy and Associate Professor in International Relations at the University of Waterloo. His most recent book is Military Alliances in the Twenty-First Century.

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