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A Revealing UK-Ukraine Security Agreement

Feb 05, 2024
  • Jade Wong

    Senior Fellow, Gordon & Leon Institute

On Jan. 12, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak signed a 10-year security cooperation agreement with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy during a visit to Kyiv. The agreement was signed in two important contexts:

First, Russia and Ukraine have reached a stalemate on the battlefield; the Western world has shown signs of fatigue in providing aid to Ukraine; and there have been growing hints of potential negotiations between Kyiv and the Kremlin.

Since last fall, Kyiv has faced many obstacles on the diplomatic front. The United States Congress has shown hesitation in continuing to provide financial aid; the Hamas-Israeli conflict has distracted Western attention from the war in Ukraine; and Germany has been mired in a budget crisis. Although the EU summit in December approved Ukraine’s EU accession negotiations, the summit failed to reach a consensus on funding plans for the embattled country.

On the Russian side, President Vladimir Putin has been sending signals through intermediaries, since September last year, expressing his openness to a cease-fire negotiation, according to the New York Times. Meanwhile, Der Spiegel reported that at a Washington dinner at the end of October last year, Wolfgang Schmidt, head of the German Federal Chancellery, praised proposals advanced by American think tanks on ending the war through negotiation.

How sincere is the West toward Ukraine? What are its specific considerations over postwar arrangements? Some answers can be gleaned from the UK-Ukraine security agreement.

Second, after Ukraine’s earlier failed attempt to join NATO, Western countries are now considering providing alternative security guarantees.

In the weeks before the NATO summit in Vilnius, Lithuania (July last year), Ukraine had been pushing the United States and Europe to provide a clearly defined timetable and path for Ukraine’s accession to NATO. To Zelenskyy’s disappointment, the final summit declaration only stated that “We will be in a position to extend an invitation to Ukraine to join the Alliance when Allies agree and conditions are met.” At the last day of the NATO summit, the Group of Seven issued a joint declaration of support for Ukraine, as a comfort to Zelenskyy, saying that it would provide long-term military and financial assistance to Kyiv. The declaration was subsequently joined by 24 more states.

It is worth pointing out, however, that security guarantees provided by the G7 are less reliable than those provided by NATO. If a NATO member is attacked, all other members will provide it with military support. In contrast, the G7 declaration simply states: “In the event of future Russian armed attack, we intend to immediately consult with Ukraine to determine appropriate next steps … to impose economic and other costs on Russia.”

After reaching consensus in principle with the G7, Ukraine will engage in bilateral negotiations to obtain security guarantees. The UK-Ukraine security agreement, the first such agreement, carries significance as a bellwether treaty. An examination of its contents leads to several conclusions:

First, Ukraine has been geopolitically incorporated into the concept of “Europe and the Atlantic.” Even if the West intends to end the war, it will definitely take every winning and losing factor into account.

The main components of the security commitments provided to Ukraine by the UK in this agreement are:

• provision of comprehensive assistance to Ukraine for the protection and the restoration of its territorial integrity within its internationally recognized borders;

• prevention and active deterrence of, and counter-measures against, any military escalation and/or a new aggression by the Russian Federation; and

• support for Ukraine’s future integration into Euro-Atlantic institutions.

Although “territorial integrity within its internationally recognized borders” is not explicitly defined, it obviously includes the Crimean Peninsula and regions in eastern Ukraine, all of which are now occupied by Russia.

The agreement also states that “The UK will support Ukraine to plan for the reintegration of currently occupied territories,” which demonstrates both countries’ determination to retake all land that was seized by Russia.

Britain, once a maritime empire, says that it will help Ukraine develop maritime military capabilities to “support Ukraine to become a net contributor to maritime security across the Black Sea and Azov Sea out to 2035 and beyond.” Since the Black Sea and Azov Sea are located in the southwest and northeast of the Crimean Peninsula, respectively, the stated goal means that London supports the return of Crimea to Ukraine, and within the NATO framework arranges for Ukraine to take charge of the waters near Crimea.

London will also help Ukraine develop its defense industry, intelligence capabilities, hybrid warfare capabilities and its ability to protect infrastructure, according to the agreement.

Second, Ukraine will be included in the Western economic system, and Western countries eye at making profit in Ukraine’s postwar reconstruction.

“Lasting security and prosperity for Ukraine must be underpinned by a strong private sector-led economy,” the agreement says, and the UK will seek to build a Ukrainian economy that “is integrated into global markets, is not susceptible to hostile Russian influence” and is based on strong and accountable institutions and respect for the rule of law. All these mean that Ukraine has made a choice in its development model.

Ukraine’s commitment to reform in areas such as democracy and justice is an important part of the agreement. Also, in rebuilding Ukraine, the UK hopes to play a role in areas where it has advantages, such as energy, infrastructure, finance, insurance and technology.

Finally, London does not intend to take aggressive steps in advancing its security cooperation with Kyiv, meaning that the Ukrainian conflict is still an issue that needs to be handled with caution for the West.

The two countries also announced in the agreement that they “will continue to work together with others, including G7 states, to explore options for the development of appropriate mechanisms to provide reparation for damage, loss or injury caused by Russian aggression.” And, in the event of future Russian armed attack against Ukraine, they will “consult within 24 hours to determine measures needed to counter or deter the aggression.”

Essentially, the content does not differ from the G7 declaration. In addition, they may “amend these provisions in order to align with any mechanism that Ukraine may subsequently agree with its other international partners.”

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