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Ukrainians criticize historic UK security agreement as weak, but encouraging

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak (L) and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy (R) meet in Kyiv, on Jan. 12, 2024. (Ukranian Presidency/Handout/Anadolu via Getty Images)
by Vladyslav Kudryk January 18, 2024 6:28 PM 7 min read
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A new bilateral security agreement between Kyiv and London is getting mixed grades in Ukraine.

Signed by President Volodymyr Zelensky and U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak on Jan. 12, the 16-page document spells out both countries’ intentions to work together on strengthening Ukraine’s military, defense industry, infrastructure, maritime borders, and cybersecurity for the next 10 years, unless Ukraine joins NATO before that.

The U.K. also promised to provide political, economic, and humanitarian support, work to contain the organized crime that finances Moscow’s aggression, and help Ukraine restore its territorial integrity.

This is the first of a series of bilateral security agreements pledged by the G7 states during a July NATO summit when Ukraine wasn’t given a membership timeline. A few dozen nations, who also want bilateral security agreements with Ukraine, have joined the framework.

From left: British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, French President Emmanuel Macron, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, U.S. President Joe Biden, Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelensky, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, President of the European Council Charles Michel and President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen, pose for a group photo following a G7 declaration of joint support for Ukraine on July 12, 2023 in Vilnius, Lithuania. (Paul Ellis/ Pool/Getty Images)

President Volodymyr Zelensky called the U.K. agreement “very serious and modern,” hailing its signing as a day that “entered the history” of Ukraine. Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal referred to it as a “benchmark that sets the standard, the level of security guarantees.”

But many lawmakers, diplomats, and experts have criticized the agreement as toothless. They say its “security commitments” do not provide Ukraine with any hard security guarantees, and it’s disingenuous to present them as such.

Some have compared it to the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, when Ukraine agreed to give up its Soviet nuclear arsenal in exchange for “security assurances,” which never materialized. The U.K. was a signatory, along with the U.S. and Russia.

“Security assurances are important, but this is an exact reproduction of the vocabulary and essence of the Budapest Memorandum, which also bears the signature of the U.K. That’s why the U.K. is now providing us with powerful military and financial aid. But they will not fight for Ukraine,” wrote lawmaker Iryna Gerashchenko from the opposition party European Solidarity.

Former Interior Minister and Prosecutor General, Yuriy Lutsenko acknowledged that the agreement is a “big achievement” but the authorities “must learn not to sugarcoat the situation by sowing illusions of easy victories or alleged security guarantees.”

Importantly, the agreement wasn’t ratified by the parliament of either country, which means that future British governments will have to decide how to support Kyiv, according to former Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin.

“It looks and sounds like a political statement of intent but it’s formulated like an agreement,” he said. “Its implementation will depend on political decisions by future British governments.”

However, Klimkin said it’s still “the most comprehensive security agreement we have ever had with a Western country.”

He added the U.K. “has shown the leadership” that Ukraine expects from other partners.

Promising elements

While this deal falls short of a security guarantee, multiple experts cautioned against dismissing all its positives.

“In our world, there are just three ways to have security guarantees,” former diplomat Oleksandr Khara, who works with the Center for Defense Strategies, told the Kyiv Independent. The first is to have nuclear arms. The second is a bilateral agreement with the U.S. The third is to become a member of NATO. The U.K. agreement is none of the above.

Still, Britain’s commitment to help Ukraine to repel possible future Russian aggression is very important, he said. The document also gives Ukraine many opportunities to develop its defense industrial base and strategic framework for at least a decade and possibly more.

Khara said Sunak’s visit was very important due to the growing narrative about war fatigue in the West and the U.K. has been a champion in providing military capabilities to Ukraine.

Mykola Bielieskov, Senior Analyst at the Come Back Alive army support fund, told the Kyiv Independent, that while the deal doesn’t guarantee allied boots on Ukrainian soil, it’s not another Budapest Memorandum — it is a much more detailed document than the 1994 treaty, and it clarifies many aspects of cooperation between both countries.

Much of the text is the U.K.’s pledge to continue doing a lot of what it’s doing now, though it’s good to have it in print, according to British defense expert James Sherr of the International Center for Defense & Security in Estonia.

But it’s also a commitment to help Ukraine restore territorial integrity within internationally recognized borders.

“Up to this point, the U.S. has not been willing to make that commitment,” he said.

Even though the agreement will depend on future political decisions, there’s a broad cross-party consensus that the U.K. should continue to support Ukraine.

London also promised to provide 2.5 billion pounds ($3.2 billion) in military aid in 2024 and strengthen Ukraine’s NATO aspirations. In pointing this out, former deputy foreign minister Danylo Lubkivskyi said the agreement is a “very important political and legal instrument” and “another element which complements the system” to protect Ukraine’s sovereignty.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky walks with Britain's Prime Minister Rishi Sunak (R) during a meeting at the Presidential Palace in Kyiv on Jan. 12, 2024. Sunak visited Kyiv to launch "a major new package of support" for Ukraine and increase military funding for this financial year to 2.5 billion pounds ($3.2 billion), his office said. (Stefan Rousseau/Pool/AFP via Getty Images)

He added that for Ukraine, the top diplomatic priorities are now to be invited to start accession talks with NATO in July, during the upcoming summit, and get the best possible security commitments.

The real security guarantee would be when countries understand that supporting Ukraine is in their own best interest.

And while the U.K. agreement doesn’t contain the word “guarantee,” that word doesn’t exist in the North Atlantic Treaty either, Sherr pointed out. He believes that many Europeans “would regard a ‘commitment’ as something more serious than a ‘guarantee’ because it's very specific.”

Paving the way to other agreements

London is not afraid of taking the lead to become the first country to conclude a bilateral security agreement with Ukraine as part of the Group of Seven (G7) declaration last July, Sherr said. He believes that Washington and Europe “at least noticed” the move.

With this document, the U.K. has demonstrated its leadership in support of Ukraine, Lubkivskyi said. It is an “important political signal about the role of Britain itself in global processes” that will impart momentum to Kyiv’s other bilateral negotiations.

Demonstrators hold placards and Ukrainian and British flags during a protest rally for a Stop the War in Ukraine Global Day of Action, in central London, on March 6, 2022 as part of an international day of anti-war action, prompted by Russia's invasion of Ukraine.(Justin Tallis/AFP via Getty Images)

It is crucial though that such agreements have practical substance, Bielieskov said.

Ukrainian presidential adviser Ihor Zhovkva said that he believes that the U.K. agreement understands Kyiv’s requests for security guarantees in both letter and spirit. Ukraine will approach the bilateral negotiations with other countries “on the same principles.”

A deal with Canada might be next. As Canadian ambassador to Ukraine, Natalka Cmoc, said in an interview with Ukrainska Pravda, Canada has already sent Kyiv a draft and expects that the deal might be concluded in several weeks. Zhovkva confirmed he got it.

About 30 states have joined the G7 basic understanding of security commitments. Romania launched bilateral talks with Ukraine on Jan. 14, becoming the ninth country to do so.

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