Top Volodymyr Zelensky Aide Spells Out Ukraine's Security Demands

Cast-iron security guarantees from the world's most powerful militaries are the only way to ensure that Russia's invasion of Ukraine is the last act of westward Russian aggression, said Igor Zhovkva, deputy head of President Volodymyr Zelensky's office.

At an online event organized by the French Institute of International Relations and the Ukrainian New Europe Center, Zhovkva said whatever deals end the war with Russia must ensure long-term protection for Kyiv and its European partners.

"We will definitely win, and we will definitely overcome the aggressor this time," Zhovkva said. "But if the aggression happens again, we should be prepared for this. This is why my president is asking for security guarantees, as part of a possible agreement with Russia."

Ukraine troops and APC in Donbas invasion
Ukrainian soldiers sit on a armoured military vehicle in the city of Severodonetsk, Donbas region, on April 7, 2022. FADEL SENNA/AFP via Getty Images

Ukrainians are keenly aware of how supposed security assurances can fold under pressure. The 1994 Budapest Memorandum—an agreement in which the U.S., U.K., and Russia all gave security assurances in exchange for Kyiv giving up its Soviet-era nuclear weapons—proved toothless in the face of Russia's aggression since 2014.

But the memorandum did not offer guarantees, only assurances. The document included no legal obligation of military support, and its only mechanism to respond to aggression was the ability to convene consultations. Ukraine did repeatedly call for consultations per the memorandum, but was unsuccessful.

"We do not want this kind of memorandum," Zhovkva said on Friday. "It was not a legally binding document...

"This time, we want the countries who will be joining in this document to not only sign it, but to ratify it in their parliaments and to put it into force. And we want this document to be as effective a working mechanism as possible.

"You cannot let a country in the center of Europe be undefended. Or you can, but you will feel the implications."

He added: "If the world is not ready to give these security guarantees, okay, that's the position of the world. But the implications might be much worse than even now."

Zelensky has all but abandoned Ukraine's ambition to join NATO, though its commitment to pursuing membership is still stipulated in the country's constitution. In lieu of NATO status, Zelensky wants Ukrainian security guaranteed by major nations that might include the U.S., U.K., France, Germany, Turkey, and others.

Germany and France have expressed willingness to provide security guarantees. The U.S., U.K. and Turkey have so far refused to commit publicly to such a future deal.

Asked by Newsweek what the Ukrainians want the deal to include, Zhovkva said Kyiv needs commitments on military aid and concrete measures that will meet any new Russian aggression.

"Now, when Ukraine is at war, we have to beg for weaponry, or for closing the skies, or for providing additional weaponry to defend our skies," Zhovkva said, explaining that with guarantees Kyiv will be able to pre-empt these problems.

"We have to understand a chain of events, the chain of command—if you will—of how Ukraine will be protected if aggression starts.

"How the sky will be closed, what weaponry will Ukraine possess beforehand in order to defend itself. We don't need boots on the ground.

"Russia should understand that Ukraine is not left alone. They will think, 'Okay, today they haven't helped to defend Ukraine. Tomorrow that might happen with the Baltic states, the day after tomorrow with Poland'.

"It's very important for all of us to have this strict mechanism, hard mechanism, legally-binding treaty, in order to establish—if you will—a new security system in Europe."

It is unclear whether Ukraine's ongoing talks with Russia are substantive or a smokescreen behind which Moscow is still hoping to win a decisive victory. The initial phase of Moscow's invasion failed to capture Kyiv and decapitate the Ukrainian leadership.

Russian President Vladimir Putin's forces are now preparing for a new offensive in the eastern Donbas region, the scale and style of which Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba has said will be reminiscent of World War Two.

Meanwhile, much of Ukraine's coastline remains in Russian hands. Ukrainian forces have seized back significant territory in recent counterattacks, but Russia has established a land bridge between the Crimean peninsula and Donbas.

Ukrainian officials have repeatedly said they will not give any territorial concessions, but if Ukrainian troops cannot retake this territory then Moscow still has leverage. The Kremlin may even settle for a return to a frozen conflict by creating puppet states in the occupied regions, as it did in Donbas.

Security guarantees and EU membership, Zhovkva said, will cement Ukraine as a European nation. Kyiv has repeatedly called for its EU bid to be fast-tracked, something European leaders have said is not possible. The process to join the bloc can take many years.

Zhovkva acknowledged that the EU is acting fast by its standards, but not fast enough. "It's a cosmic speed for the EU, but it's a real snail's speed for my country," he said.

"Show a little bit more courage, show a little bit more political will," Zhovkva said, addressing Ukraine's Western partners. EU sanctions to date, he said, have been "too little, too slow, and far away from being enough."

Oil and gas embargoes, he said, must come next.

"This is far from the end," Zhovkva said. For Russia, he added, "it's a problem that the Ukrainian nation is this independent nation, it's a problem that Ukrainians want to be a part of the European family, rather than the Russian world."

"It doesn't even depend on who's in power," Zhovkva said. "The only thing that can change it is to bring Ukraine closer to Europe, if they understand once and for all that they will not be able to disconnect Ukraine from the European family."