Consider The Porcupine: Western Officials Struggle To Find A New Security Model For Ukraine – Analysis
By RFE RL
By Mike Eckel
(RFE/RL) — Forget Finlandization. What about the porcupine?
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is grinding into its 16th month with no end in sight. Impatience is mounting in Western capitals about how long the conflict will rage, how long Ukraine can hold out, and how long Western voters — U.S. first and foremost — will continue to support sending billions in weaponry to Kyiv.
Some of Ukraine’s staunchest backers — in Washington, Brussels, and elsewhere — say nothing less than full membership in NATO will resolve the conflict.
But the prospect of NATO membership for Ukraine has been a prominent constant in a series of shifting grievances cited by the Kremlin as justification for launching Europe’s largest land war since World War II.
So, what about opening the spigot of Western weaponry even further, for the foreseeable future, while offering some sort of limited security assurance, and taking the near-term prospect of NATO membership off the table?
Sort of like Israel.
Also referred to as the “porcupine” model, the idea is gaining traction in some NATO hallways as diplomats struggle to figure out how to untangle the conflict without throwing Ukraine under the bus — or rewarding Russia for its aggression.
The president of Poland, one of Ukraine’s strongest supporters, endorses the idea.
“The discussions on this one are going on right now,” Andrzej Duda told The Wall Street Journal an interview published this week.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has accepted an invitation to attend the upcoming NATO summit in Lithuania in July, and alliance members will consider setting up a new entity called the Ukraine NATO Council. The arrangement would allow for Ukraine to summon the council and seek assistance in the event of threats, the newspaper said; individual members countries, but not the alliance as a whole, would then provide assistance.
‘One Of The Strongest Armies In The World’
Ukraine’s military has defied expectations. Prior to the February 2022 invasion, many outside observers expected Ukrainian forces, hollowed out by years of corruption and mismanagement, would be quickly routed by Russian forces.
Not only did that not happen, but Ukraine demonstrated to Western supporters, not to mention Russia, that its armed forces were competent, motivated, and able to handle weaponry more advanced than the Soviet-era stocks that comprised most of its arsenal.
And now, armed with more sophisticated Western weaponry worth billions of dollars, Ukraine’s military has proven its capabilities even further: Yevgeny Prigozhin, the blunt-talking head of Russia’s most notorious mercenary company, Wagner, last week described Ukraine’s army as “one of the strongest…in the world.”
Providing Ukraine with even more training and weaponry would make the country even more “prickly,” like a porcupine, supporters of the concept say, giving a hostile adversary like Russia pause before attacking.
“This strategy aims to create a relationship between Russia and Ukraine similar to that of Israel and Iran, North and South Korea, or East and West Germany during the Cold War,” Lise Howard, a Georgetown University professor, and Michael O’Hanlon, director of research in foreign policy at the Brookings Institution, said in an article published this month.
“Only a clear, committed porcupine strategy is likely to be both politically feasible and truly capable of deterring Russia,” Franz-Stefan Gady, a senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said in an article published on May 22.
“It means helping Ukraine rearm and train in an agile, lighter way to make sure it can fight a flexible defensive military campaign against any future invading Russian force,” he wrote. “It is a porcupine strategy with a hammer blow at the end.”
One question is whether that’s enough on its own — just give Ukraine lots of weapons — or whether it needs to be paired with some other security agreement. Another is whether it’s needed.
A “porcupine” model “could be a way to go if we had to make a deal with Russia and Ukraine to end the war,” said Kevin Ryan, a retired U.S. Army brigadier general, now a fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School. “But it’s premature to suggest or push for it now.”
“My preference would be to start induction steps with Ukraine now with an eye to full membership,” he said. “Russia already sees Ukraine as a ‘de facto’ NATO member. And, in my opinion, even though Ukraine is a shambles economically and politically, it has the best military among European members. They would be instant value-added to NATO’s defense.”
“If NATO membership would go too far, the porcupine concept does not go far enough,” Howard and O’Hanlon said in their article, calling for an entirely new organization: the Atlantic-Asian Security Community.
One of the United States’ closest allies, Israel has reaped massive dividends for its armed forces over the decades. A 10-year defense deal signed in 2016 provided for $38 billion in U.S. military assistance.
That has made Israel’s most hostile neighbors wary of taking its armed forces head-on.
The “example of Israel is indeed good proof that such a model is viable,” Mykola Byelyeskov, a research fellow at the National Institute for Strategic Studies, a Kyiv-based government-supported think tank, said in a private message. “People are better persuaded when you give real-world examples instead of just catchy phrases.”
Still, he said, “No one is going to push NATO membership of Ukraine off the agenda, even if there is provisional agreement on a porcupine/Israeli strategy.”
Porcupine or Israel, the idea has skeptics.
“The problem with the Israel analogy is that Israel is a nuclear state in a nonnuclear environment, while Ukraine, as a nonnuclear state, is the neighbor of the world’s largest nuclear power,” said Jana Puglierin, director of the Berlin office of the European Council on Foreign Relations.
“Conventional upgrading of the Ukrainian Army alone is therefore not enough, since it would not protect Ukraine against nuclear blackmailing,” she said in an e-mail.
Ukraine gave up the nuclear weapons it had on its territory in 1994 under a deal known as the Budapest Memorandum, in return for security assurances from the United Sates, Britain — and Russia.
The other problem with the Israeli model, said Rajan Menon, director of the Grand Strategy program at Defense Priorities, a Washington think tank, is that Israel really doesn’t have a major conventional threat on its borders.
“The Ukrainians? They have a neighbor that they share a border with that is much more powerful than they are,” he said. “Israel does not.”
A Bronze Medal?
In Kyiv, Ukrainian officials are aware of the idea floating around hallways in Washington, Brussels, and elsewhere, Menon said, speaking from the Ukrainian capital.
“There’s not a lot of enthusiasm for the idea because, as you know, the first order of preference is membership in NATO,” he said.
The door to membership in NATO was cracked open at a contentious summit in Bucharest in April 2008. Ukraine, and Georgia, another country that Russia views as being in its historic sphere of influence, were offered an open-ended — overly vague, critics argued — promise to eventually join the alliance. The offer stopped short of a formal invitation: a Membership Action Plan. Russia invaded Georgia four months later.
Some foreign policy experts and historians have drawn a straight line from the Bucharest decision to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine.
In 2021, amid mounting threats against Ukraine, the Kremlin announced that Ukrainian membership in NATO was a red line and tried to persuade the West to rule it out once and for all.
For the Ukrainians, Menon said, the second preference is a security guarantee — a commitment to come to Ukraine’s aid, but something short of the full commitment of NATO and its Article 5, the alliance’s central provision that stipulates an attack on one member will be considered an attack on all.
“They view the ‘porcupine’ strategy as a discussion that I think could bubble up and lead to the shelving of either option one, NATO membership, or option two, the security guarantee,” he said.
But he said Ukrainians have not started seriously deliberating what a “porcupine” model would entail “because I think there’s a belief that they are owed NATO membership.”
“A porcupine strategy is their bronze medal, if that,” he said. “Some might even say it’s not a medal. They might even say that it’s not something that is enough to deter Putin.”
- Mike Eckel is a senior correspondent reporting on political and economic developments in Russia, Ukraine, and around the former Soviet Union, as well as news involving cybercrime and espionage. He’s reported on the ground on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the wars in Chechnya and Georgia, and the 2004 Beslan hostage crisis, as well as the annexation of Crimea in 2014.