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Talk to government officials in any European capital and they’ll tell you that, even though it’s not in the EU, the UK is still a key player in European security. Yet both they and their counterparts in London lament the lack of better frameworks or fora through which to better harness their cooperation.
Now, Britain has the chance to break the impasse ahead of the NATO summit in Vilnius and do something that is in its own interest and would protect Ukraine, but would also serve Europe’s interests more widely. By extending the UK-led ‘Joint Expeditionary Force’ (JEF) to Ukraine and Poland, the UK could play a key role in offering a constructive solution at a key moment for European security.
NATO membership for Ukraine remains the only viable option in the medium term – for Ukraine but also for Europe. More allies are embracing that option but, ahead of the alliance’s Vilnius summit on 11-12 July there is not yet a consensus on issuing an invitation to Kyiv. This means that an interim solution is needed to cover the period from the cessation of the current hostilities until Ukraine can finally join NATO.
Any such interim security offer will need to do three things. First, it must genuinely deter Russia to protect Ukraine and underpin the investment that will be needed for reconstruction (and which won’t come without a security guarantee). Second, it has to be a platform for, not an alternative to NATO membership in the medium-term and must address obstacles to invitation. Third, it has to serve the needs of wider European security and the interests of the states which offer the guarantee, so they stick with it.
Of all the options on the table, extending the JEF – first suggested by Tobias Ellwood MP, Chair of the Defence Select Committee – is the only one that meets these criteria. The JEF countries, anchored by Britain’s full spectrum capability (including nuclear weapons), allied to the special forces and air power of the Netherlands and Nordics, and various specialist capabilities, offer an impressive array of force. Combining them with Poland’s increasingly powerful ground force and Ukraine’s battle-hardened army would be formidable.
The JEF’s high readiness, fast and flexible ethos is well suited to preventing hybrid provocations. Moreover, the Force has evolved from its original ‘expeditionary’ focus to take on a role of “ensuring the mutual security” of its members. Its modus operandi of regular exercises, manoeuvres and training would put boots on the ground in Ukraine and thus act as a de-facto ‘trip-wire’ deterrent to Russian aggression.
Although it began as a NATO ‘Framework Nation’ initiative, the JEF also took in non-NATO members. This helped Finland and Sweden gain invitations to join the alliance by bolstering their interoperability with existing allies. Many of the current JEF members, including the UK – and prospective member Poland – strongly support bringing Ukraine into NATO, where it would be covered by the alliance’s ‘Article 5.’ Mutual defence clause. Offering a firm guarantee of mutual defence from the JEF nations to Kyiv would thus be a logical step.
Crucially, the JEF would offer a more effective deterrent than simply arming Ukraine without actually getting involved with its defence. Russia cannot subdue Ukraine alone – imagine what allies with air power could do to its outmoded operational approach. It would also reduce the cost as Ukraine would not need to be armed to defend itself alone. Moreover, it would send a strong deterrence signal by showing that Western allies too are ready to fight for democracy rather than continue their morally questionable approach of delegating the dying to Ukrainians.
Building on the JEF framework would be more reliable than bilateral security pacts which are vulnerable to fluctuations in domestic opinion and the geopolitical outlook of guarantors. Taiwan found this out when the US, seeking better relations with China, cancelled their security treaty in 1979. Moreover, the JEF’s alliance-like character would exert peer pressure on allies – as happens in NATO –helping all allies to act in the common interest rather than follow their short-term distractions.
Extending the JEF would meet the moment and provide a credible security offer to Ukraine but it would also meet the needs of other European allies. France’s conversion to support NATO membership for Ukraine and its need to build trust in Central and Eastern Europe would gain credibility from teaming up with the Brits who enjoy an excellent reputation in the region. It would offer Germany a way to live up to its self-declared but so-far unfulfilled “special responsibility” for European security without unnerving its neighbours.
So why not dream a little bigger and make this a ‘Joint European Defence Initiative’ (JEDI) with leadership shared between the UK and willing European allies? This would fulfil the UK’s need to have more channels for formal cooperation with European partners – and address the main obstacle to Ukraine’s membership of NATO.
The talk of escalation or of getting entangled in a direct conflict with Russia is not plausible because NATO has shown it has effective deterrence against Russia: hence we have been able to repeatedly cross Kremlin ‘red lines’ on arming Ukraine. The real obstacle is Washington’s concern over burden sharing and the need for European allies to pull their weight. Extending the JEF or even creating the JEDI would do this by creating a genuine European pillar of NATO which would lock in European allies’ commitment by putting them on the hook for Ukraine’s defence, while still having US backup.
Importantly, this solution to the stalemate over Ukraine would avoid (again) creating a dangerous grey zone, prevent nuclear proliferation and bind the West and Ukraine together. It would also reduce the overall cost of arming Ukraine (as it would not need to defend itself alone) and would spread this cost among allies. All in all, it’s a great chance for Britain to do good for Europe and the democratic world while doing well for itself in the process – and London should seize it.