Foreign Policy Research Institute

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Foreign Policy Research Institute

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Seeking an ally outside NATO membership: how a strategic partnership can grow into an alliance


Over the past year, the Ukrainian leadership has been quite active and persistent in calling on the European Union and the North Atlantic Alliance member states to set clear timeline for Ukraine's accession to these organizations. In the context of cooperation with NATO, Volodymyr Zelenskyy has repeatedly stressed the need to provide Ukraine with a Membership Action Plan, and this position has been supported by a number of Eastern European countries. However, the radical changes in the geopolitical situation, which mark the divergence of positions of Allies on the possible accession of Ukraine to NATO, encourage Ukrainian diplomacy to seek additional opportunities to strengthen military-political cooperation with other countries. Lacking a clear vision of Ukraine's accession to NATO, Volodymyr Zelenskyy complemented the country's Euro-Atlantic integration strategy with a strategy for developing strategic bilateral partnerships and flexible regional formats. In the long run, such interaction may evolve into military alliances.

The most striking example is the strategic partnership between Ukraine and the United Kingdom. After the signing of the Agreement on Political Cooperation, Free Trade and Strategic Partnership last year, relations between the two countries, covering the economic, military-political and humanitarian spheres, have reached a new level. In particular, the United Kingdom actively assists Ukraine in building a fleet, regularly participates in joint military exercises on Ukrainian territory and in the Black Sea. This is the only state that has not only in words demonstrated its position of non-recognition of the illegal annexation of the Crimean peninsula and free shipping, but in practice has also sent a destroyer near the occupied Crimea. At the meeting with Boris Johnson, which took place during the working visit of Vladimir Zelenskyy to UN General Assembly, the growth of bilateral trade in the first half of this year by more than 70% was noted. Also, the parties discussed the prospects for interaction in the energy sector and further measures of political dialogue at the highest level, in particular, the inaugural meeting of the Strategic Partnership Dialogue.[1]

Now with the participation of the UK, international military exercises “Rapid Trident-2021” are taking place. Potential strategic partners of Ukraine, states which consider the Russian Federation to be the main threat for their national security, as well as countries that are interested in supporting Ukraine against the background of Russian aggression to ensure stability in the region are taking part in these exercises. Among the participants there are potential strategic partners including the United Kingdom, Poland, Lithuania, Romania, Turkey, Georgia, Moldova, Canada and the United States.

“Rapid Trident – 2021” lasted from 20 September to 1 October 2021. About 6,000 servicemen took part in them. For the first time in the history of the “Rapid Trident” series exercises, battalion tactical exercises of a multinational battalion with combat shooting were conducted. In addition, multinational units were established during the event, as all units of foreign countries were affiliated to Ukrainian battalions, which is a progress in relations between Ukraine and the North Atlantic Alliance. Previously, Ukrainian troops were trained under the command of NATO forces, but in these exercises, units of the North Atlantic Alliance were already under the command of Ukraine. The military exercise «Rapid Trident – 2021» takes place immediately after the Russian-Belarusian exercise «West – 2021». However, the military maneuvers of the two sides are incomparable in scale. Unlike Russia, the North Atlantic Alliance, instead of having large-scale exercises, the purpose of which would be to practice the conduct of military operations along the entire eastern flank of NATO, is conducting tactical exercises like DefenderEurope21, Rapid Trident, or Steadfast Defender 2021, the largest-scale of which, «Defender Europe - 21», numbered 28,00 military. Thus, NATO not only avoids emphasizing the defense tasks of the alliance in the rhetoric of its officials, but in practice it does not adequately respond to Russian aggression. 

One possible reason for this is the positions of individual countries and the contradictions within the North Atlantic Alliance, which are growing over time. Following the creation of a new Anglo-Saxon security format involving the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia (AUKUS), it was reported that Australia terminates a $ 40 billion deal on French submarines supply and instead entered into an agreement with AUKUS partners on building nuclear submarines for the Australian Navy. Outraged by this action, the French leadership responded by recalling its ambassadors to the United States and Australia. The AUKUS Security Alliance was formed as part of Joe Biden's major strategy to counter the People's Republic of China in Southeast Asia. At the same time, the deterioration of relations with France will not only have consequences for the United States in the Asia-Pacific region. After all, with the strengthening of Anglo-Saxon security cooperation, the support of France, which has significant naval capabilities is called into question. But also on the European continent this conflict threatens the unity of the North Atlantic Alliance. French President Emmanuel Macron has repeatedly stated his desire to create a European strategic autonomy. France will be more inclined to engage with Germany and move closer to Russia, and American influence in Europe will diminish, given Biden's strategy of optimizing resources and placing more responsibility on allies to confront China. In addition, it is worth mentioning the failed withdrawal of NATO member states' troops from Afghanistan. The set of contradictions within the Alliance is obvious, and it can be assumed that this factor is the reason for NATO's sluggish reaction to Russian military exercises.

This state of relations between the North Atlantic states is a negative factor for Ukraine. At the same time, a positive consequence of the desire of a number of European states for greater military autonomy is the discussion of the start of an EU military mission in Ukraine. The document submitted for discussion to the EU diplomatic corps, the European External Action Service, notes that the potential EU military and advisory training mission (EUATM) will require 60 staff and will work to advise the Department of Education of the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine and the General Staff on «implementing a plan for reforming a professional military education». The document outlines four possible options for cooperation. It is noted that such a mission «can be useful in maintaining Ukraine’s resilience by strengthening its military capabilities» and that it can «enhance EU engagement and be an expression of solidarity with Ukraine following the current military activities of the Russian Federation in the territories adjacent to the state border of Ukraine and in the illegally annexed Crimea».[2] This step is a significant change in the position of the European Union on defense cooperation with Ukraine. It seems that the EU has revised security situation around Europe and the role of the Ukrainian state in this system. Ukraine, having significant military capabilities, experience in military operations and a large army, in terms of personnel almost equal to the French, can have an important place in the European security system.

Modern geopolitical realities have changed, with bilateral and Triple Alliances taking the place of collective defense organizations. Unlike in 2008, the United States is not putting pressure on its European allies to provide Ukraine with a NATO Membership Action Plan. Different positions of the member states of the North Atlantic Alliance on Ukraine, make the Ukrainian leadership look for separate military-political allies in the West, close interaction with which would strengthen security environment around Ukraine. Among such partners are the United Kingdom, with which cooperation may eventually develop into a military alliance, Poland, Lithuania, Romania, Turkey, Georgia, Moldova, Canada and the United States. Among the created formats of interaction it is worth noting the Ukrainian-Turkish «Quadriga», «Associated Trio» and «Lublin Triangle». The inclusion of powerful international actors in these formats will strengthen the security belt around Ukraine.