August 15, 2023 - 6:00pm

Ceding territory to Russia in exchange for Nato membership could be a solution to ending the war, the chief of staff for Nato’s Secretary-General has said.

At a panel debate in Arendal, Norway on Tuesday Stian Jenssen argued that it was important to discuss Ukraine’s security arrangements after the war ended. In comments reported by Norway’s most read newspaper, VG, Jenssen reiterated the official Nato line that it ultimately lay with Ukraine to decide when and how it would negotiate. But his proposal for territorial secession is beyond anything that his boss, Jens Stoltenberg, has discussed publicly.

Jensen insisted that his proposal was not final, but that it could be a “possible solution”. The Nato chief of staff stressed that Russia was “struggling enormously militarily” and that it seemed “unrealistic that [it] can take new territories”. The challenge, he noted, was how much territory Ukraine “manages to take back”.

So far, Ukraine has made limited territorial gains as part of its long-awaited counteroffensive. Progress has been hampered by widespread Russian-laid minefields and strong fortifications, with major fighting along its entire front line. In a statement on Monday Deputy Defence Minister Hanna Maliar claimed that the Ukrainian military managed to recapture almost two square miles during the past week around the battered city of Bakhmut, but Russian troops were continuing their assault around the eastern towns of Kupyansk and Lyman.

Nato membership remains a thorny — and highly divisive — question for Western allies. While some countries, such as the Baltic states and the UK, are more bullish about Ukrainian membership, others — namely France, Germany and the US — are more concerned about escalation risks. 

Last month, leaders from Nato countries gathered in Vilnius to discuss whether an agreement could be reached. Allies made some progress by creating a new Nato-Ukraine council and a multi-year programme to “help transition” Ukraine to Nato equipment and standards. In addition, the group published a communiqué that stated: “We will be in a position to extend an invitation to Ukraine to join the Alliance when Allies agree and conditions are met.” 

Ukraine’s President Volodoymyr Zelenskyy criticised the summit as “absurd” for failing to offer a timetable for his country’s membership. But Jensen’s comments in Norway this week indicate a possible willingness to move forward with membership — though at the cost of territorial concessions.

At the end of March last year, the Ukrainian President suggested that he would be willing to accept Russian control over Ukraine’s eastern regions, but his position has hardened over the last year and a half. As part of a Chinese peace mission to Ukraine earlier this year, Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said that peace depended on “respect of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine”. He added that “Ukraine does not accept any proposals that would involve the loss of its territories or the freezing of the conflict”.

is UnHerd’s Newsroom editor.