The Helsinki Commission, an independent U.S. government agency tasked with promoting human rights and security in Europe, has called on the Biden administration to upgrade the United States’ defense relationship with Ukraine. The commission seeks to help facilitate military and economic assistance to Kyiv as Russian forces move to encircle the Ukrainian capital.
In a letter to U.S. President Joe Biden obtained by Foreign Policy, the commission urged the administration to designate Ukraine and Georgia, which was invaded by Russia in 2008, as major non-NATO allies (MNNA) and to reinvigorate U.S. support for the NATO accession of both countries.
“Although the United States has consistently supported Ukraine’s and Georgia’s NATO membership, Russia’s occupations and ongoing invasion expose the tragedy of long-stalled Euro-Atlantic enlargement,” wrote the commission, which is led by Democratic Sen. Ben Cardin and Democratic Rep. Steve Cohen.
“Absent strong and proactive U.S. backing for Ukrainian and Georgian NATO membership, [Russian President Vladimir] Putin will continue to take ample advantage in his aspirations to upend security and cooperation in Europe and his neocolonial agenda,” the letter said.
Both Ukraine and Georgia were promised membership to the defense alliance during the NATO summit in Bucharest, Romania, in 2008. But despite extensive reform efforts, neither country has been offered a timetable for accession.
The United States has provided billions of dollars of military assistance to Ukraine since it was first invaded by Russia in 2014, with more than $1.2 billion approved over the past year. “This designation is a fair reflection of our current bilateral defense relationships and does not commit the United States to military action,” the commission letter said, which also recommended that the administration consider extending the status to other non-NATO members along Europe’s eastern flank: Finland, Moldova, and Sweden.
Much of U.S. military aid for Ukraine has been approved through a range of ad hoc government funding mechanisms. Granting the country MNNA status would open a variety of established channels to facilitate arms transfers, financial assistance, and information sharing, smoothing the way for further cooperation. It would also send a powerful signal of support for both Kyiv and Tbilisi. Unlike NATO membership, MNNA status does not entail any mutual security and defense obligations.
The title has usually been reserved for countries with no ambitions or prospects of joining NATO, which prompted the Ukrainian ambassador to the United States, Oksana Markarova, to express wariness about the designation last year. “MNNA is a status for countries that do not plan/can not force political or geographical reasons to join NATO. This is definitely not about us,” she wrote in a Facebook post.
NATO accession is decided between the 30 members of the alliance, and an MNNA designation by the United States would not necessarily impede Ukraine’s membership prospects.
The Helsinki Commission, formally known as the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, was founded in 1976 as an independent government agency to monitor compliance with the Helsinki Accords, a major Cold War-era diplomatic agreement that sought to reduce tensions between the Soviet Union and the West as well as establish human rights and security norms. The commission is made up of 18 members of U.S. Congress drawn from both parties and representatives from the U.S. departments of State, Defense, and Commerce.