US diplomat at NATO: all allies could help Ukraine the way Estonia does

Evelyn Kaldoja
NATO knows that the future is unpredictable, says Rachel Ellehuus, the highest representative of the US Department of Defense to NATO, who attended the ABCD conference in Tallinn.
NATO knows that the future is unpredictable, says Rachel Ellehuus, the highest representative of the US Department of Defense to NATO, who attended the ABCD conference in Tallinn. Photo: Eero Vabamägi
  • According to the US diplomat, the promise to admit Ukraine to NATO was made in a hopeful era.
  • The US created a new cooperation format to replace the NATO-Ukraine Commission blocked by Hungary.
  • Two percent of GDP is no longer the ceiling of defense spending for the Americans but the minimum.

More allies could adopt the societal approach as Estonia when helping Ukraine, says Rachel Ellehuus, top representative of the US Department of Defense at the NATO headquarters.

Rachel Ellehuus

Defense adviser in Brussels at the US office of NATO Headquarters, representing the US Department of Defense. Forty posted officials of the US Department of Defense and Department of the Interior work under her supervision.

Before this appointment, she worked at the Center for Strategic and International Studies as Deputy Director of the Europe, Russia and Eurasian program.

She has a Bachelor's degree in Colgate University in international relations and German philology, and a Master's degree in European studies at the European College of Bruges.

What is the meaning of the Bucharest Declaration in 2022 when Ukraine is at war?

The Bucharest Declaration remains in force and NATO made it clear at the Madrid summit that its doors remain open and we stand by the Bucharest pledge.

But it seems to me and, in my opinion, to the allies, that we should give it substance, because the reality is that neither Ukraine nor other aspiring countries like Georgia are in a position to join NATO today. Unfortunately, their territories are occupied. A lot of reconstruction work has to be done there.

For NATO, the question is what it can do as an organization and the allies on their own to help these countries even before they become members of NATO or the EU.

It seems to me that with the things we're doing now for Ukraine – providing training, making sure that the systems they use work together, helping with cyber defense and other areas of resilience – there are a lot of tangible things that the alliance can do to give substance to the Bucharest Declaration even before membership.

Was the Bucharest Declaration as such originally an accident of history?

I cannot speak for the people who made that decision at the time, but it seems to me that there was hope in it. Back then, there was even a bit of good will on Russia's part and no clear understanding of what their intentions might be in the long run. It seems we could be accused of being a bit naive at the time, but also hopeful. Maybe it was a happy accident?

To what extent has the activity of the NATO-Ukraine Commission changed since February this year?

As you probably know, there are currently no meetings of the NATO-Ukraine Commission because one ally – Hungary – is against it due to concerns about the treatment of the Hungarian minority in the border regions. This was a problem, because we would be deprived of the opportunity to regularly communicate with Ukraine through NATO channels during the meetings of NATO defense and foreign ministers.

Now, in my opinion, it matters less, because during the meeting of all the defense and foreign ministers, the Ukrainian Defense Contact Group, hosted by the US, will meet, offering the possibility of very regular consultations with Ukraine. We receive feedback practically every day about their needs and how NATO and the Allies individually can help.

What do Ukrainians need most urgently now?

They usually have a long list of things to do. The presence of their ambassador and defense attaché in NATO is very necessary to sort out what their real priorities are at the moment and what they need in the long term.

In order for the Ukrainians not only to slow down the Russian forces, but also to be able to recover the territory, they will need long-range rocket launchers like the MLRS. Over time, the situation there may turn into a land war, where more armored personnel carriers or tanks will be needed, but right now they seem to need more offensive capabilities.

What would you like the European allies to do more for Ukraine?

All European allies cannot be lumped together. Some of them do more than others. Some – like Estonia – help not only militarily, but also in the humanitarian field, accepting refugees, fighting disinformation. Your whole society's approach is a model for other allies.

Not necessarily from NATO's perspective, but I would like to see more allies take a broader societal approach, rather than thinking that if they send a certain amount of ammunition, it is done. It really needs everything, from economic measures to the fight against disinformation.

There has been a turnaround in defense spending by the European allies which the US had consistently wanted in the past. Are you satisfied now?

In the USA, we have been quite satisfied, and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has been satisfied for the last six or seven years, because our defense costs have grown faster than inflation, not only in terms of the percentage of GDP, but also in terms of the quality of spending. More countries are crossing the threshold, according to which 20 percent of defense spending should go to modernization and procurement.

We also talk about the three C's – cash, capabilities, commitments. Contribution is also part of the equation – currently in Ukraine, previously in Afghanistan and the NATO mission in Iraq.

In terms of defense spending, two percent of GDP has now become a minimum for the US, not a ceiling. As the [NATO] Vilnius summit approaches next year, we will put pressure on the allies to do what Estonia has already done – to increase both the quality and amounts of defense spending.

What is the current state of EU-NATO cooperation from the perspective of a US diplomat working at the alliance's headquarters?

President Joe Biden came into office very supportive of the EU, and our Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, often talks about how the two organizations complement each other. Unlike perhaps some previous administrations, the current one really appreciates the added value and additional capabilities that the EU offers.

The US would certainly not have been so successful with the current sanctions on Russia if the UK and the EU had not done the same. In addition, I have been deeply impressed by how pragmatic the EU and NATO cooperation with Ukraine is. Things like the European Peace Facility (a fund that pays EU countries to send weapons and equipment to Ukraine) are really useful to get military equipment to the Ukrainians and then resupply [to replace the weapons given to Ukraine] some countries which are both NATO and the EU members, and to ensure that deterrence and protection continue to be credible.

Are there some things you would like to see left only to NATO or only to the EU?

I often think of the NATO-EU relationship as a Venn diagram, where there are things which only NATO does, such as collective defense, and things that only the EU does, such as sanctions. However, most of the topics fall in the middle of this Venn diagram – everything from cyber defense to resilience or peacekeeping, which both organizations deal with.

Sometimes it is just a matter of conflict prevention. I recently visited the Butmir training center in Bosnia and Herzegovina, home to both the EU Althea mission and NATO headquarters in Sarajevo. This is a great example of on-the-ground cooperation in practice: NATO forces provide logistics to Althea, while Althea manages communications with the authorities in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

In most cases, these two organizations complement each other.

Are there any matters in the field of defense that you would like the EU not to deal with?

I would invite the EU leaders to see what NATO has already done when they start to improve deterrence.

For a long time, NATO had a long list of capabilities, such as strategic air transport. Thus, if the EU establishes something like a defense fund, why not focus on those capabilities, instead of funding projects which have nothing to do with our military planning. To do things which improve our existing efforts instead of duplicating.

In the current situation where NATO has returned to its main task, i.e. collective defense, are there any discussions of missions outside the traditional North Atlantic region?

I do not think they are ruled out, but collective defense is undoubtedly a priority for the Allies. For a long time, many of our collective defense needs have been ignored because we operated outside our traditional area, and the preparedness of many allies is currently relatively low.

We need to rebuild this preparedness, to recall how to deal with collective defense, to practice collective defense scenarios during joint exercises.

But NATO knows that the future is unpredictable. There are troops that are ready to act quickly when we again have to move out of the traditional area.

The Bucharest Declaration - Bush's fillip to Putin

NATO made the still-quoted firm promise to admit Ukraine and Georgia in the declaration of the Bucharest Summit on April 4, 2008.

It was a NATO Summit, where, in addition to the alliance's own members, both Russian President Vladimir Putin and his then Ukrainian colleague Viktor Yushchenko were present.

In the weeks before the summit, the media had been excited by the question of whether Georgia and Ukraine would receive a symbolic NATO membership plan, or MAP.

Even before the summit, it was assumed that the MAP would not be granted to these countries and that it would be frustrated by the allies friendlier towards Russia. That was how it happened but as a fillip, the then President of the US, George W. Bush, received a much more solid promise.

Clause 23 of the declaration reads: “NATO welcomes Ukraine’s and Georgia's Euro-Atlantic aspirations to become a member of NATO. We agreed today that NATO members will become NATO members. Both countries have made valuable contributions to the Alliance operations. We welcome the democratic reforms of Ukraine and Georgia and look forward to free and fair parliamentary elections in Georgia in May. MAP is the next step for Ukraine and Georgia on their direct way to membership. Today we make clear that we support these countries’ applications for MAP. Therefore we will now begin a period of intensive engagement with both at a high political level to address the questions still outstanding pertaining to their MAP applications. We have asked Foreign Ministers to make a first assessment of progress at their December 2008 meeting. Foreign Ministers have the authority to decide on the MAP applications of Ukraine and Georgia.”

Putin looked sour at his press conference after this surprise statement had been made. Neither Georgia nor Ukraine has received the MAP, but the symbolic importance of its action plan has declined over time, and the Bucharest Declaration 23 is still referred to in the conclusions of NATO meetings.