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Here’s what arming Ukraine could look like in the future

France, Germany, and the UK proposed a new defense plan — that might be a subtle bid for peace negotiations.

Left: President Zelenskyy wearing his signature army green sweatshirt and pants. Center: President Macron, wearing a black suit. Right: German Chancellor Scholz wearing a black suit and smiling.
French President Emmanuel Macron welcomes President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz at the Elysee Presidential Palace.
Umit Donmez/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
Ellen Ioanes covers breaking and general assignment news as the weekend reporter at Vox. She previously worked at Business Insider covering the military and global conflicts.

While NATO issued a statement on Friday presenting a united front, echoing President Biden’s talk of unwavering support for Ukraine, officials in Germany, France, and the UK reportedly proposed a limited security pact with the goal of fostering peace negotiations. The proposed pact between Ukraine and NATO would provide the nation with sufficient firepower to fend off Russian aggression — while also tacitly encouraging talks between Russia and Ukraine — raising questions about the future of the conflict.

The proposal contrasts somewhat with US President Joe Biden’s commitment to unwavering support for Ukraine. In a speech in Warsaw on Wednesday, Biden promised that “Ukraine will never be a victory for Russia — never.” His surprise trip to Ukraine and Poland marked the one-year anniversary of Russia’s illegal invasion.

NATO’s charter requires unanimous consensus to adopt any new proposal, so the tripartite plan is far from a done deal. And there’s been somewhat more urgency to offer major support from nations in Eastern Europe, geographically closer to Russia and potentially more at risk themselves of a Russian invasion should Ukraine be unable to deliver a crushing defeat and take back all its territory.

Whether the defense pact is directly linked to efforts to negotiate a peace deal is a looming question, Liana Fix, a fellow for Europe at the Council on Foreign Relations, told Vox in an interview. But it’s a critical question, given Russia’s insistence on prosecuting this war despite significant casualties on both sides.

What would the pact include, and what’s the purpose of it?

France and Germany in particular have been somewhat reluctant to throw their full weight behind the effort to support Ukraine. Whether that’s French President Emmanuel Macron’s willingness to entertain Russia’s security concerns or German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s indecision regarding sending German-made Leopard tanks to Ukraine, the two nations have provided a periodically frustrating counterweight to NATO efforts to support Ukraine. That’s in stark contrast to the UK position, which has overall been extremely open to giving Ukraine military support.

“So far the UK had rather a position which was closer to the central and Eastern European states, whereas Germany and France were those who always kept in the back of their minds the possibility of negotiations,” Fix said. “So it’s a little bit surprising to see those three countries put together.”

The plan, initially proposed by UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, would give Ukraine access to advanced NATO weaponry, according to reporting from the Wall Street Journal. Sunak has also supported giving Ukraine fighter aircraft in the future.

Increased access to the NATO arsenal would clearly be an advantage for Ukraine, but it would be limited, should the proposal go through. According to the Wall Street Journal, the Germany-France-UK proposal would not offer Article Five protection to Ukraine. That principle of the NATO charter holds that the other members of the treaty are bound to come to the aid of a member nation under attack, should the nation make that request. Nor would it be a promise to station NATO troops in Ukraine; a particular bogeyman for Russia has been the threat of NATO expansion into Ukraine.

The Article Five protection has been of particular concern for other NATO members; should Ukraine become part of the alliance and come under attack from Russia, member states would have to come to its defense, potentially risking a massive, calamitous ground war — or worse, nuclear conflict.

The pact looks like somewhat of a continuation of the current arrangement, that is, Western military support short of NATO membership. But Ukraine has already applied to be a NATO member and has stated its intention to work toward membership throughout the war. One of Russia’s initial terms for negotiation, after its invasion one year ago, was that Ukraine remain neutral and commit to never joining NATO; it’s not clear whether the proposed pact would prevent Ukraine from ever joining the alliance, though Fix said Ukraine would certainly work to ensure that was not the case. Vox reached out to a NATO spokesperson for comment but did not receive a response by press time.

The backdrop of the proposed plan is, according to French, German, and UK officials interviewed by the WSJ, to promise Ukraine protection and access to weapons in the hopes that such security guarantees would incentivize Ukraine to pursue peace negotiations with Russia. As Vox’s Jen Kirby wrote Friday, pressure for negotiations looks to be on the horizon:

Right now, the West seems willing to give Ukraine what it needs, to let Kyiv capitalize on this particular moment. But Ukraine is unlikely to recapture all of the territory within its internationally recognized borders, and this war could start to turn into a stalemate. If that happens, it may give way to a new kind of Western solidarity: one that supports Ukraine but also begins to quietly pressure them to negotiate.

But it’s not clear to what extent the two objectives — arming Ukraine and pursuing peace negotiations with Russia — are conditionally linked, Fix said. “It might be that these two issues are discussed at the same time, but I would find it difficult if there was a linkage, and I find it difficult to believe that the linkage would be Ukraine only gets additional defense and security support if it agrees to negotiations.” Rather, it may be that the defense pact is a means to test the waters and determine the appetite for negotiations.

Ukraine, though, is less inclined than it was a year ago to participate in any negotiations. As Anchal Vohra wrote in Foreign Policy Wednesday, Zelenskyy was once willing to sacrifice Crimea to achieve an end to the fighting; now, the Ukrainian military is reportedly making plans to take the area, which has been under Russian control since 2014, back.

Are negotiations even possible at this point?

But given Russian President Vladimir Putin’s commitment to prosecuting this war — no matter how many losses Russia sustains both territorially and in terms of troop casualties — it’s worth asking whether it even makes sense to pursue negotiations with Putin.

Russia doesn’t have a good track record of following through with its obligations under international agreements; for example, the country has violated 2015’s Minsk II agreement, which calls for an end to hostilities in eastern Ukraine, a removal of Russian troops there, and restoration of the area to Ukrainian control. Moscow obliterated that agreement, claiming that since there were no Russian troops involved in the fighting, it wasn’t party to the conflict.

Putin has painted the West and NATO as the aggressors in this conflict and an existential threat to Russia. “They have one goal: to disband the former Soviet Union and its fundamental part — the Russian Federation,” Putin said in an interview for state TV station Rossiya 1 that aired Sunday, according to Reuters. Putin also claimed in the interview that the West planned to carve up Russia and take control of its natural resources, as well as destroy the Russian people.

“Doubling down isn’t merely the choice that they made, but it’s also, increasingly, the only choice they’ve left themselves,” Gavin Wilde, a Russia expert and senior fellow in the technology and international affairs program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told Kirby last week. “It’s hard for me to discern whether that’s self-sabotage or an effort to get the West to understand — or the US in particular — how existential they’ve chosen to make this conflict, and all the escalatory implications that that entails.”

It also potentially opens the door for Russia to use nuclear weapons in accordance with its doctrine, which allows such deployment in the case of an existential threat, whether from nuclear weapons, conventional forces, or some other weapon of mass destruction, which threatens the existence of the Russian state.

To that end, Putin is again raising the stakes for nuclear escalation, both by suspending the New START treaty and by claiming to have deployed new ground-based strategic nuclear weapons systems. The New START treaty was the only remaining nuclear treaty between Russia and the US; its suspension raises the possibility that Russia could resume nuclear tests and increase its already massive nuclear arsenal — without checks from the US.

Given the dire picture Putin is painting for the Russian people, it’s not clear Russia would be interested in coming to the negotiating table, even if NATO were to adopt the proposed security pact.

“For Putin, his main possibility to stay in power is to continue this war, and to make it a forever war, because he might perceive it as being so closely linked to his own survival,” Fix said. “So even testing out the possibility of negotiations with Ukraine does not mean it will actually lead to something on the Russian side.”

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