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NATO and the West Won’t Fight World War III For Ukraine – Not Now, Not Ever

F-22 Raptor. Image Credit: Lockheed Martin.

Why Ukraine Will Not Get Security Guarantees – President Zelensky wants external powers to guarantee Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity as part of any peace deal with Russia. This is an understandable request – but it is not a viable solution to Ukraine’s long-term security concerns. The hard truth is that, when this war is over, Kyiv will have to base its plans for national defense on the assumption that no world power will ever wage war on its behalf.

As has been made clear countless times over the past few weeks, declaring war against Russia would mean risking a devasting nuclear conflagration. It is hardly surprising that even Ukraine’s closest friends are unwilling to take such a gamble with their own national security. No matter how strong the case in favor of supporting Ukraine, the case against war with Russia will always be stronger.

What Zelensky wants is an international treaty that will change this fundamental reality. His goal is to tie the hands of third parties – the United States, China, Israel, Turkey, Poland, Germany, and other countries have all been mentioned as potential guarantors – so that they must mobilize in support of Ukraine in the event that Russia once again breaches the peace in Eastern Europe. But while he might succeed at getting external powers to provide nominal support for a Ukraine-Russia peace agreement, there is no chance that he will convince any world government to assume the burden of militarily enforcing such a deal.

It is worth remembering that there is already a treaty that outlaws what Russia is doing in Ukraine: the UN Charter. Each of the world’s 193 sovereign states is formally obliged to respect the terms of the UN Charter – including its injunction against the threat or use of force – yet none took up arms to uphold the most basic tenets of international law when Russia invaded Ukraine.

In the past, there was even an international agreement – the Budapest Memorandum – that was specifically designed to give clear “security assurances” to Ukraine. It was endorsed by Ukraine, Russia, Britain, and the United States. This document, too, has proven to be worthless over the past eight years.

Is there any reason to believe that a new multilateral treaty to guarantee Ukrainian security would be more successful than those that came before? Zelensky seems to think so. According to media reports, his negotiating team is motivated by the idea that an international agreement could be made credible if only it was ratified by national legislatures like the US Congress, UK Parliament, and German Bundestag.

There is something to this argument. That is, international treaties that enjoy broad domestic buy-in are more likely to be enforced than non-binding agreements, resolutions, or declarations. This is because leaders, on balance, will face higher political costs for abrogating agreements that have been debated and approved by a national legislature versus ones that were negotiated out of public view.

But there is also a limit to what states can credibly promise to do – even if those promises are codified in international law and domestic legislation. By any estimation, pledging to declare war on a nuclear-armed superpower like Russia on behalf of a non-ally crosses that limit. Unfortunately for Zelensky, this means that there is no conceivable international framework that could compel third parties to risk a suicidal nuclear war with Russia in defense of Ukraine.

This is not to say that international actors will avoid making any sort of formal assurances regarding the future of Ukrainian sovereign and territorial integrity. However, the only commitments that they will offer – and, just as importantly, the only ones that Russia can be expected to accept as part of a final settlement – will be so weak as to be essentially meaningless.

For example, it is feasible that Moscow would assent to a written guarantee that the UN Security Council (of which Russia is a veto-wielding permanent member) will convene in the event of a future conflict. Russia might even agree to a provision that calls upon regional states such as Turkey and outside powers like the United States to hold “consultations” in response to an act of aggression. Another option would be to restate the international community’s support for the UN Charter as it applies to Ukraine.

These would be acceptable measures because they would be little more than restatements of existing international rules and procedures. But if Zelensky is looking for a security guarantee to match (or even exceed) NATO’s Article 5 then he will almost certainly be disappointed by what the world is willing to offer. No government is likely to give him anything approaching such an assurance. Even if they did, Zelensky would be a fool to stake his country’s security upon it.

Russia’s war against Ukraine is a gross injustice. So, too, is the fact that Moscow has arrogated to itself the power to curtail Kyiv’s security relationships. But neither of these injustices will be easily overturned so long as Vladimir Putin sits in the Kremlin with nuclear codes at his fingertips. For better or worse, Ukraine will have to defend itself for the foreseeable future – at least, until such a time as Russia removes its opposition to Kyiv joining a collective security organization such as NATO.

Being alone does not mean being defenseless, however. As others have written, one of Zelensky’s most important tasks during these negotiations is to secure international recognition – including from Moscow – that Ukraine enjoys the right to unilateral self-defense. This might take the form of armed neutrality, fortified neutrality, or some other variation of unilateral defensive posture.

The past few weeks have demonstrated that Ukraine has friends in the international community. These friends can help to promise to provide Ukraine with arms, training, economic support, and political solidarity over the long term. They cannot promise to fight World War III, however, whether now or in the future. There is no treaty in the world that could change this reality.

Dr. Peter Harris is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Colorado State University, where his teaching and research focus on international security, International Relations theory, and US foreign policy. He is also a non-resident fellow with Defense Priorities and a 1945 Contributing Editor.

Written By

Peter Harris is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Colorado State University, where his teaching and research focus on international security, International Relations theory, and US foreign policy.