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Ukraine proposal for NATO-style security guarantee greeted with skepticism

At peace talks in Istanbul on Tuesday, Ukrainian negotiators handed Russia a detailed proposal of a neutral status for Ukraine with its security guaranteed by the U.S., U.K., France, Turkey, Germany, Canada, Poland and Israel. (REUTERS)

Western officials are balking at Ukraine’s proposal for a NATO-style mutual-defense pledge that could draw their military forces into a war with Russia, even as they expressed some receptiveness to the idea of international security guarantees as part of a deal to end hostilities.

At peace talks in Istanbul on Tuesday, Ukrainian negotiators handed Russia a detailed proposal of a neutral status for Ukraine with its security guaranteed by the U.S., U.K., France, Turkey, Germany, Canada, Poland and Israel. The Ukrainian proposal would ask countries to respond to a violation of its sovereignty the way members of North Atlantic Treaty Organization would act under Article 5, the alliance’s mutual-defense promise.

“That’s what we call Ukrainian NATO," said Ukrainian negotiator David Arakhamia, the majority leader in the country’s parliament, in an interview in Istanbul. “So we get neutrality but our idea is to get fortified neutrality status."

President Biden has yet to comment on the proposal, but White House communications director Kate Bedingfield declined to say Wednesday whether the U.S. would be willing to serve as a security guarantor for Ukraine.

“We are in constant discussion with Ukrainians about ways that we can help ensure that they are sovereign and secure," she said. “But there is nothing specific about security guarantees that I can speak to at this time."

A number of Western leaders have expressed support for some form of security guarantees for Ukraine, yet none have articulated what those would look like. Their reluctance to embrace a key plank of Ukraine’s blueprint—the notion of a NATO collective defense mechanism—shows how far apart all sides remain in finding a negotiated end to the war.

U.S. lawmakers also appeared skeptical of the proposal. Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, the No. 2 Senate Democrat and co-chair of Ukraine Caucus, said he thought the proposal was a “little premature," adding that he doesn’t trust Russia.

Sen. Jim Risch of Idaho, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said such a proposal might be possible, but would be a long way off. “You know, we already did that," said Mr. Risch, referring to the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, when Ukraine gave up nuclear weapons in exchange for security guarantees. “How’s that working?

U.K. Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab also expressed skepticism over a proposal to provide a security guarantee to a non-NATO member. “We’ll consider anything [Ukrainian President Volodymyr] Zelensky says he needs very carefully," Mr. Raab said Wednesday on BBC radio. “But we’re not going to, I think, replicate unilaterally the NATO commitments that apply to NATO members."

Other countries named as possible guarantors of Ukraine’s security expressed interest in the idea, but avoided committing to the proposal.

Germany’s chancellor Olaf Scholz told Mr. Zelensky that Berlin was “broadly willing" to act as a security guarantor for Ukraine as part of a peace deal, a German government spokesman said Wednesday. It is, however, too early to discuss such commitments, government spokesman Steffen Hebestreit said.

A senior German government official later clarified that the discussion was in an early stage, and it included a proposal for a group of countries including Russia to guarantee Ukraine’s security as part of a peace agreement under which Kyiv would declare independence of any military alliances, including NATO.

The German official said that the Ukrainian proposal was yet to be fleshed out, and that it could only work if Russia was part of it.

France is open to supporting a form of neutrality for Ukraine with its security guaranteed by several countries, according to a person familiar with the matter.

The person cautioned, however, that France is unwilling to sign up for a security guarantee that includes a mechanism similar to NATO’s Article 5. Much will also depend on the details of Ukraine’s neutrality, including the status of its national army, the person added.

Russia likely wouldn’t agree to any arrangement that requires France and other permanent members of the U.N. Security Council to guarantee Ukraine’s security, the person said.

Moscow’s support would be required for any agreement to end the war, and it is unclear that the Kremlin would accept Kyiv’s proposal. “No one said that the sides have made headway," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said of the talks in Istanbul, declining to discuss specific proposals. “We can’t point to anything particularly promising."

The Ukrainian government, however, seems set on a proposal that would provide strong security guarantees from western countries.

“The activation mechanism is even stronger than NATO. In NATO if something happens you have to do the consultations first," said Mr. Arakhamia, the Ukrainian negotiator. “There is no mention of how long it might take. Considering how fast things are going on, we put 72 hours max. So within 72 hours, all the guarantors have to figure out what’s going on, if it’s aggression or special operation or war, they have to provide military assistance or armies."

Crimea and Donbas—two Ukrainian regions Russia occupies—wouldn’t be a part of the guarantees, said Mr. Arakhamia. Those territories would be excluded until their status is settled in separate negotiations, he said.

Ukrainian officials proposed on Tuesday that the status of Donbas would be negotiated by the presidents of Ukraine and Russia, while Crimea would be subject to a 15-year period of negotiations on a separate track.

Ukraine first proposed Turkey, a NATO member, as a guarantor of its security on March 17. Turkey has good relations with Ukraine and has been playing a mediating role in the Russia-Ukraine crisis, hosting two rounds of peace talks.

The Turkish government hasn’t endorsed or opposed the proposal but has offered broad support for the peace negotiations.

Turkey has also sold armed drones to Kyiv, which have played an instrumental role in Ukraine’s resistance to Moscow’s invasion, striking invading Russian convoys and mobile air defenses.

While Turkey has strongly condemned the Russian invasion, it has also chosen not to impose sanctions on Russia, opting to preserve its relationship with Moscow in order to act as a mediator.

Mr. Arakhamia said Israel, a non-NATO member, could also be a party to the proposed security guarantees.

“Potentially Israel because they also have a strong army. It’s good for us to have expertise for this defensive country. They also have neutral status. They can mobilize their reserve army within one day I think," he said.

Israel appears unlikely, at least for now, to support the proposal.

“At this point, Israel is not in the position to provide a security guarantee to Ukraine," a senior Israeli official said. “We will be willing to assist in reaching an agreement through trust-building measures and other efforts."

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