‘It is critical that Ukraine ultimately triumphs’. Professor David Ellery about the rising strategic complexity and Ukraine’s path to EU and NATO membership

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At the Lviv International Talks, Professor David Ellery, a renowned advisor to European governments on defense matters, takes center stage. In a previous interview, he shared invaluable insights into the ongoing state of affairs, the future of Ukrainian counteroffensive strategy, and the path of development that Ukraine should consider during wartime. This time he emphasized the need for Ukraine to promote its applications to the EU and NATO as a country that will contribute to the agenda of both organizations.
Photo by Ivan Stanislavskyi/Tvoe Misto

Photo by Ivan Stanislavskyi/Tvoe Misto

Professor Ellery, in one of our last conversations you said that we have to find a balance of priorities because, in the first instance, we definitely have to win this war, but we also, in parallel, have to be thinking and working through different strategies for the development of Ukraine. We have a long time passed. What is your opinion nowadays when you see what’s going on in Ukraine, and how do we cope with that from your outer perspective?

I think that’s an excellent question. I mean, it’s a central question. And just by way of preface, I really do think, as I stand back and consider the range of issues, I really do think that we’re now at a juncture of true critical strategic challenge, which encompasses the political and military spheres and beyond. And the current canvas of geopolitical activity and power play is growing in complexity. And I think this stretches across the globe. And I think as such, this condition demands strategic thinking and strategic leadership of the highest order.

And I, having said that, by way of preface, I would say it is still critical that Ukraine pursues this twin path of doing all it can to win this war. There is a responsibility, a very clear responsibility on the part of Ukraine’s friends and allies in this regard, which I’ll come on to in a little while. The issue of the future of Ukraine when Ukraine triumphs at some point in the future. It won’t be in the immediate or the short term, I think most people would agree with that. But ultimately, it’s imperative Ukraine does win. And when it triumphs, there will be a post-war, post-conflict situation. I think I said when I was in Lviv in your studio just over a year or so ago, it’s very similar to a 1942 situation in the UK, where the thinking and planning for post-war society began.

So we know that it was May in 1945 when the war in Europe came to an end. But the thinking on the part of the British government, for example, as to what British society might look like after that war had started three years earlier. And I know there is already some thinking going on in Ukraine. I applaud that really warmly, and I’m very much looking forward when I come back to Ukraine in just a few weeks’ time and spending time both in Lviv and more particularly in Kyiv, that I will get a firmer handle on what’s going on. I’m a deep, unshakable friend of Ukraine, and friendship means that you sometimes have to say things that might not be easy and might be difficult. 

As we look forward, my sense is that membership of both the EU and NATO will be vital for Ukraine, for the stability and prosperity of Ukraine. So, the fundamental associated question is – how does Ukraine prepare itself to be able to submit a credible application for formal membership of both those institutions?

Could you explain here in more detail, please, what do you mean by this preparation? 

It starts with Ukraine presenting itself as a state where governance will be characterized by transparency and accountability. And I applaud hugely, with enormous enthusiasm, the efforts that are being undertaken by Ukraine’s government to root out corruption across Ukrainian society. There’s a recognition and acknowledgment. It’s a very brave and courageous acknowledgment for Ukraine to have made, but it was vital that it faced up to the fact that there is an internal challenge. And so in terms of application, particularly for the EU, but not least for NATO, is transparency of governance and political accountability. Those are fundamental, I would suggest membership of those institutions, and alongside them comes the importance of Ukraine presenting itself as a source of value to both of those institutions.

Ukraine, when it becomes a member of the EU, should be a net contributor in a significant way to the agenda of the EU, equally NATO. And if I may provide a correspondence there, an example of where that’s happened, it’s in Finland. And where Finland now, thankfully, has been given formal NATO membership. Finland presented its application with a very clear message that Finland would not be seeking NATO membership as a supplicant, as a nation which would be simply saying, give me, give me, give me. Finland rather saw itself and promoted its application as a strategic effect multiplier – NATO would be strengthened by the incorporation of Finland into the organization rather than NATO being required to respond to requests for support.

There’s a balance there. And I think, Ukraine, you have have the greatest experience now of war fighting. You are now war-hardened, battle-hardened. There is no substitute for that experience and understanding of what it is to fight a contemporary conventional war. There is much that Ukraine can bring to NATO, and that’s a source of value. 

But do I understand correctly that it’s still not enough for NATO to accept Ukraine?

Well, my sense is, I mean, it ought to be enough, but obviously, there is that prerequisite of the stability of governance and accountability, the transparency, that simply because those are fundamental characteristics of a stable state. But I am a little concerned when I hear voices saying that they wait until all the loose ends are tied up and everything’s perfect. 

And there’s a war on the ground. 

Yeah, there’s a war on the ground. but what we need to recognize is that I think there is a responsibility for us to accept that there is work in progress in Ukraine and to acknowledge that. It’s a very big political challenge for Ukraine and its government, but it should demonstrate it is completely committed to pursuing those policies that will deliver transparency and accountability and being able to demonstrate that.

I would urge those within the UK and within other NATO member states to recognize that there is that strategic work in progress and provide the necessary encouragement and to put in place the necessary processes and to initiate them, to get them going, which will lead in the shorter term to NATO membership for Ukraine. That might require some really sophisticated, challenging diplomatic political work in terms of providing a framework, and I’m thinking about an ongoing war, a framework that will provide for the transition of Ukraine into NATO, because it is a sovereign right of a nation, an independent nation, to determine how best to provide for its national security. And this is Ukraine’s membership of NATO. it would not be NATO encroaching on Russia, NATO looking further east. This is Ukraine looking west and Ukraine recognizing that the values and principles which are associated very broadly across the community of western states are those which Ukraine wishes to embrace. So it’s the sovereign right of Ukraine to say. We understand who we are, we have a sense of Ukrainian identity. It’s why we’re fighting this war, because it’s an existential fight. We know that the adversary would actually try to remove all of that. So it is an existential fight. But it is also actually, you’re fighting this war for us as well, because you are looking to become a member of that broader community, which is underpinned by those values and principles. So you are shedding your blood and treasure in the interest of upholding these values and principles. And so it is increasing complexity that we see, and I can say other things. I mean, not just within Ukraine, I think of the Balkans, I think of the Caucasus now with Azerbaijan and Armenia, and all of that. It’s an interesting and very, very disturbing canvas.

That’s what I also wanted to ask you to talk about more, because we also see this increasing complexity in the world, including all the diplomatic issues that we also observed in the last weeks, what happened in the Canadian Parliament, in the U.S. Congress recently, and what we have with other countries, including those you mentioned. How do you see, how will all this complexity, how might it influence our victory and what’s going on? 

It’s a central challenge for Ukraine. I have to say, putting it very, very bluntly, there must be an increasing number of smiles in the Kremlin looking beyond the borders of Ukraine and seeing what’s going on. And there would be, there’s an argument to suggest that the conclusion being drawn is as long as Russia can drag this out for another year or two or three years, then other factors will come into play and will deliver the outcome that Russia is seeking. And it’s why we do need to redouble our efforts across, let me call it the Western community. It’s a very crude term, but it’s the best I can think of. And it’s where the current situation requires strategic thinking and strategic leadership of the highest order. And alongside that, that strategic leadership is grounded on being able to craft and communicate a narrative which is concise, and it’s clear, and it’s compelling. That narrative is basically what I’ve said to you, look, Ukraine is not just fighting for its own existence, of course it is, but it is actually fighting to uphold those principles and values which we not just hold dear, but are central to the way we operate and function as free nations. And so it’s imperative that we do all we can to provide to Ukraine that which it needs to triumph. And it’s not just in terms of particular material. It has also to be in terms of timing. And the imperative is for the urgent supply of that materiel, which is going to make not just a critical difference, but a crucial difference, which would deliver that critical strategic advantage.

But we don’t see it at the moment. And we see that we often hear from different experts nowadays that it looks like the West, specifically the U.S. in general, are being pro Ukrainian victory, but not for too much victory. You know, we support you enough to survive, but not to win quickly or not to win too much. What would you say about that?

That’s a very valid point. Politics is nothing if it’s not the art of the possible. There’s no science involved in this. There really is, you know, there might be the importance of technological innovation in terms of the development of weaponry, but when it comes to the politics and the associated diplomacy, it’s very much an art. And I think it is going to be tough. We are facing the product, the working act of living in, you know, liberal democracies where governments and the executive are held to account through an electoral cycle. We in this country in just over no more than 15 months will have to go to the polls. The U.S. is going to have a presidential election. We’ve just seen something in Slovakia. Russia itself actually in 2024 will also be going to the polls, although I think we can put that on one side, but there will be. 

And it is why it sounds maybe a bit limp, but it is a fundamental challenge to how the international order is going to operate. You know, we have the UN Charter which enshrined principles and values. I use those two words again, they are fundamental. And they should be inviolable, they should not be allowed to be violated by anybody. So it does require concerted, repeated engagement at a national level in the first instance, through leadership, and then beyond that, at a collective level. It’s really important to recognize that although Ukraine is not currently a formal member of NATO, it is prosecuting a NATO agenda, which is, you know, those national borders should be sacrosanct. And when you’re a member of an alliance, borders should not be parochial. Borders are not, I should not be just national. Those national borders are part of a broader set of alliance borders. And so when one border is violated, then it’s violating the borders of the alliance. Membership of the alliance brings with it not just benefits, but responsibilities. There are rights, there are benefits, but the quid pro quo are responsibilities. And I can only urge those who are in a position to promote that agenda, explaining how critical it is that Ukraine doesn’t just survive, but ultimately triumphs and supporting Ukraine in its efforts to achieve a transition to NATO and EU membership. It’s important for Ukraine, but it’s also important for all. It’s a vast country, it sits at a strategically crucial point and it’s really important that there is stability, and then ultimately, one hopes, of course, prosperity there. But it’s going to be very, very, very difficult.

Do you see any chance, any even at least very low chance that if Ukraine does it well, Ukraine may join NATO even still before the end of this war, or it’s never going to happen? 

I have to admit that it’s obviously a critical question. And I’m not ducking it when I say, I am not in a position to be able to say that even tentative thinking within the upper hierarchy of NATO is shifting towards that. It’s why I didn’t want to sound very fancy in the words I used. But I can well imagine that at least a cessation of hostilities will be of primary importance. How do you arrive at a position where the fighting stops? And I think when we spoke, not recorded, but when we met in London a couple of months ago and had this discussion, I think I underscored the value in exploring an option where you do separate sovereignty from governance and where the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine is recognized and protected, whilst at the same time this is the art of the political possible, is how do we arrive at an architecture where the processes and procedures of governance recognize that the society in a particular region is made up of more than just one nationality or ethnic group. And that can be difficult, but it’s exploring the options for that division, because I think it would be very, very difficult for Ukraine to surrender any of its sovereign territory. But it is, in my view, a different matter when it then comes to determining what the governance construct should look like and how it should operate and what guarantees there might be in terms of external international supervision of the operation of that construct to ensure that it is doing what it needs to do. So there may be two players in terms of Russia and Ukraine, but in terms of external oversight, one would look to an international body, perhaps a UN umbrella in that regard.

Why do you think we haven’t come to this solution yet after 20 months?

Right. Yeah. And that’s another great question, actually. I have to say, I mean, first of all, when you when there is such brutality visited upon you, I’m thinking looking at this, you know, through Ukrainian eyes, you have lost such a lot. I know Russia has, but in terms of the ratio of what’s available. And it’s very, very difficult, I think, to see beyond surviving and fighting through. I also think there has to be a willingness on the part of both parties. And I think there has been a willingness on the part of Ukraine to explore things quite frankly. I’m not at all convinced that Russia has shown any sort of interest at all in exploring the art of the possible. I can’t help feeling it’s because it’s a further example of this imperialist hubris, which is if they have drawn the conclusion that by dragging things out, they will ultimately secure the goals that they set at the beginning. Even if they secure those goals by completely different means and ways to the ones that they had worked up ahead of the war, ahead of that invasion, you know, shrug their shoulders and say, but we’ve got what we want. It is identifying a situation which will, encourage at least the tentative exploration of options which might provide for a situation where we can think about that cessation of hostilities and then the next step which is the governance piece.

Let’s hope for that and for better. And getting back to our counter-offensive, our victory, what from your perspective is most crucial now for our victory, our quick victory, as you say, we can’t let it last for four years when so many people seem to be very exhausted?

Yeah, no, I understand that. You know, you’ve lost so many good men and women in this war. A significant element of your elite forces paid the ultimate sacrifice early on in this war. My answer to your question, I’m increasingly persuaded that a crucial difference will be made by the provision of aerial materiel. So we’re talking about fighters, but not just fighters, you know, F-16s, we’re actually talking about the provision of, you know, attack helicopters, you know, really moving into position where, you know, there are patches and things like that. I really do think the aerial element of this war has emerged very, very strongly, as it did, quite frankly, when not most recently, but just what, a year or so ago when Azerbaijan attacked Armenia and it didn’t violate the security agreement between Russia and Armenia, which was Russia would respond if boots on the ground in Armenia came from a third party. So Azerbaijan took advantage of advanced drone capability to deliver a pretty crushing victory over the Armenians without actually putting boots on the ground. So it was, and forgive me, it’s a bit difficult, but, you know, it was smart in that regard. It didn’t provoke, it didn’t trigger the tripwire of Russia coming in to defend Armenia. And I think that was a lesson as to what aerial capability, capacity and capability, They go together. They are twins. Capacity and capability. It is one thing having advanced technology, sure, but you also have to have the volume. You have to have the capacity so that you can sustain supply and sustain replenishment. So, if I were to say I was given one wish in terms of the supply to Ukraine, it would be a significantly enhanced aerial capacity and capability, and obviously very quickly after that, ammunition as well for things like artillery, but the aerial piece is growing in importance. 

We heard at the same time at the Warsaw Security Forum from NATO officials, from Rob Bauer, that they are very close to running out of ammunition. 

Yeah, they told it. What was the phrase? The bottom of the barrel is now visible. Well, I’m really sorry about this. Do you know, we are now, as an alliance, let me put it very, very basically, we are now paying the penalty of years of under-investment in core capability and capacity. We have been guilty of strategic complacency. We really have. But instead of just wringing our hands and gnashing our teeth, we now need to act, and we now need to determine what it will take to step up the necessary production of this materiel, as I will call it. And we need to be enterprising, and we need to recognise there may be a cost, not just financial, to that. I had actually quite an argument with a very distinguished person just two weeks ago, when this person said, well, we can’t continue to give these things to Ukraine because we won’t have anything left for ourselves. And as I said, what are we going to use them for? What’s the use of these things being in the UK, when the challenge is actually in Ukraine? And Ukraine is fighting for us. So if we have the wherewithal to provide this critical advantage to Ukraine, then we should do so. You don’t just sit in those stores and reservoirs of kit. You look to employ it where it will deliver critical effect, in a national and alliance and continental and, I would suggest, international context. 

Let’s hope that this penalty, as you call it, will turn to a lesson learned quite fast, and that our victory will come faster. Thank you very much for a great conversation, Professor Ellery, and hope to see you again soon. 

The interview was conducted by Taras Yatsenko

Photos by Ivan Stanislavskyi/ Tvoe Misto

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