Ukraine is a NATO partner — but it is not a member of the 72-year-old military alliance. As such, NATO’s Collective Defense pledge (Article 5 of the Washington Treaty) doesn’t apply. In his Feb. 25 televised address, Zelensky pleaded that Ukraine be granted admission to NATO so that the alliance’s 30 members might provide his country desperately needed military assistance.
NATO Secretary General Stoltenberg (and others) are calling the Ukraine invasion the “gravest threat to Euro-Atlantic security in decades.” However, both President Biden and Stoltenberg have made it clear that NATO will not send forces to fight in Ukraine, which is not a NATO ally — because such a move would mean a direct military confrontation between the world’s two largest nuclear powers.
With military intervention ruled out, what might the transatlantic military alliance do next? My research suggests that NATO will continue move swiftly to address Russia’s latest infringement on the sovereignty of another state.
NATO’s goal is to protect the alliance
In the days and weeks ahead, NATO’s actions will be focused almost entirely on enhancing the security and defense of the Central and Eastern European alliance members that border Ukraine and/or Russia. This is a continuation of NATO’s pledge to member countries, and the security organization’s principal task. Since Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, the military alliance has adopted a series of defensive measures along its easternmost border.
NATO’s actions are designed to accomplish three objectives. A primary goal is to deter Russia from taking any steps to violate the territorial integrity of any NATO member. Alliance forces are positioned so that Russia would incur significant cost in the case of any incursion into NATO territory.
Second, these measures are designed to reassure Poland and the Baltic nations — NATO allies that border Russia — that the transatlantic alliance is committed to their defense. By placing other allies’ troops in harm’s way, NATO has made a credible commitment to fight on behalf of its easternmost members.
Third, NATO’s measures are designed to defend these countries in case of Russian aggression. Deployments are deliberately positioned in a way that buys the alliance time to organize follow-on-forces.
Taking a stand against Russia
In the face of renewed Russian aggression against Ukraine, NATO is doubling down on these objectives. Following Russia’s invasion of Crimea in 2014, NATO established four multinational battlegroups — totaling approximately 4,500 personnel — known collectively as Enhanced Forward Presence. Based in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland, and led by the United Kingdom, Canada, Germany and the United States, respectively, the battlegroups include troop contributions from some dozen NATO member countries.
NATO allies are also committing additional assets to the Baltic Air Policing mission, a 24/7 aerial overflight operation launched one day after the Baltic states joined the alliance in 2004. Since NATO itself owns very few military assets, NATO members must contribute their own jets to the mission to protect an airspace frequently violated by Russian military aircraft. Some allies, like Germany, will find it harder to contribute hardware, as their closets are “bare.”
In addition, the alliance will continue to rely on the NATO Airborne Early Warning and Control Force (AWACs) — one of the few examples of “alliance-owned” military hardware — to monitor alliance airspace. The Boeing E-3 Sentry planes, which provide surveillance and can be used for battle management, are the same assets NATO headquarters deployed to help protect U.S. skies following the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
As anticipated, NATO has already taken steps to prepare for the possible deployment of one element of the response force, the Very High Readiness Joint Task Force, a rapidly deployable multinational brigade currently led by France, by activating the NATO Response Force.
Elements of the response force assisted in NATO’s withdrawal from Afghanistan last summer and could now be deployed for a similar humanitarian mission to help Ukraine’s NATO neighbors prepare for large numbers of refugees already arriving in Poland, Hungary and Romania.
What about Ukraine?
Other potential steps NATO could take include providing Ukraine with communication and information support about Russian troop movements.
But here, too, NATO is likely to proceed with caution because, as a defensive alliance, it cannot take actions that could be construed as offensive in nature. In addition, the U.S. government has long had concerns that Russian agents have infiltrated Ukraine’s defense and other government services, meaning the allies are likely to be judicious when it comes to sharing the latest intelligence with Kyiv.
Apart from these moves, which are taken by the organization collectively, individual NATO allies have increased their arms deliveries to the Ukrainian military. Over the weekend, Sweden — like Ukraine, a NATO partner — announced it would also send military aid (including weapons) to the Ukrainian government.
In short, NATO has lots of tools designed for addressing exactly the scenario that is unfolding in Ukraine. But, for now, expect NATO to continue to prioritize actions that will simultaneously signal its resolve while avoiding steps that could inadvertently lead to a military confrontation with Russia.
Sara Bjerg Moller is an assistant professor (on leave) at Seton Hall University’s School of Diplomacy and International Relations and a former Eisenhower Defense Fellow at the NATO Defense College.