The Russia-Ukraine War and NATO

Michito Tsuruoka


Although the outcome of the Russia-Ukraine war remains unpredictable, the day of February 24, 2022, when Russia began its invasion of Ukraine, will be long remembered by Europeans as a significant turning point in history. There are various perspectives from which to analyze the ongoing war; here, we will examine its impact on European security, especially on NATO, and the role of NATO in relation to the war.

One of the crucial features of the Russia-Ukraine war is that NATO, including the United States, has not participated in direct acts of combat by deploying their ground troops but has provided Ukraine with almost every other conceivable support. What does NATO's option of non-participation signify? How should NATO's indirect support to Ukraine be evaluated?

When NATO is discussed in association with the Russia-Ukraine war, attention tends to focus on its arms support to Ukraine. Yet, in the light of NATO's role, what is essential to the alliance is the defense of its member states. What is NATO doing in this regard, and with what effect? What has the Russia-Ukraine war revealed about the nature and direction of NATO? This paper is an attempt to answer these questions.

The Significance of NATO's Non-Participation in the Russia-Ukraine War

The United States does not participate in the Russia-Ukraine war in any form. Although various reasons may be conceivable to explain this, the fact is that the United States has not made a direct military intervention to date, and that it is not a warring state.

NATO members, including the United States, are committed to Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, which stipulates collective defense. It provides: "The Parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them and consequently they agree that … each of them, in the exercise of the right of individual or collective self-defence …, will assist the Party or Parties so attacked by taking forthwith … such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force, to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area."

Since Ukraine is not a NATO member, the Article 5 stipulations do not apply to the country. Nonetheless, this does not mean that NATO (member states) cannot exercise the right of collective self-defense for the sake of Ukraine. The right of collective self-defense is an inherent right of a state. The existence of a military alliance is not a precondition for exercising it. If a country (or countries) takes collective defense measures at the request of an attacked country, it has only to report to the UN Security Council on those measures it took based on its right of collective self-defense. Although a different interpretation would be possible under international law, non-intervention by NATO would mean that the NATO member states are not exercising their right of individual and collective self-defense in the current situation.

In other words, NATO members, including the United States, do not make any direct military intervention in the Russia-Ukraine war, not because "they could not because Ukraine is not a NATO member," but because they made political decisions not to do so. If they had a will to intervene, a NATO intervention would be possible at any time. Therefore, the argument that "Ukraine is not a NATO member" is used as a pretext for non-intervention.

It is worth noting that President Joe Biden and American society initially stood aloof from the Russia-Ukraine war. His remarks that the US defense obligation does not extend to Ukraine 1 is a factual explanation. Yet, when asked by a reporter about sending ground troops to Ukraine, he said explicitly, "There never were on the table." 2 This statement that seemingly expresses his firm determination not to send US troops decided NATO's stance of non-intervention.

Furthermore, the Biden administration's thinking was based on the assessment that in the event of a Russian invasion, the Ukrainian military would take flight, and the Volodymyr Zelensky government would collapse soon; that it would be unwise for the United States to be committed to Ukraine. This line of thinking should have also led to the US non-intervention stance. Such a US stance did not leave NATO the option of direct intervention. It would have been quite difficult for other NATO members to enter the war without US participation.

NATO's Defense of Member States

What mattered first and foremost to NATO, as Russian troops had been amassing at the Ukrainian borders since autumn 2021, was how to ensure the security of NATO member countries. This is quite natural since NATO is a defense alliance. To strengthen the defense of the Eastern flank, Poland and Romania, which border Ukraine, the United States, and major powers such as the United Kingdom, France, and Germany, deployed ground and air forces. 3

The Biden administration, which had emphatically reiterated that it would not send troops to Ukraine, began to emphasize its commitment to NATO in late January 2022 by announcing its readiness to send 8,500 troops to strengthen the defense of NATO countries. 4 It continued to increase the number of deployments to help defend front-line NATO member states such as Poland and Romania and to carry out joint training to provide reassurance to the allies. As a result, the number of US forces in Europe, which had numbered about 60,000 before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, swelled to 100,000. It is noteworthy that the number of US troops has sharply increased regardless of the absence of direct intervention in Ukraine. 5

Although particulars are not available, NATO launched, in response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, defense plans and crisis response measures regarding specific member states and regions, including the use of the NATO Readiness Force (NRF), 6 which would be used for the first time to perform its original mission of deterrence and defense. As many as 42,000 NATO ground troops have already been on deployment. According to General Tod Wolters, NATO's Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR), "Our land domain has seen a 10-fold increase" 7 along the eastern flank. For the defense of the eastern flank, battalion-sized NATO units had been deployed in rotation in the three Baltic states and Poland under the framework of the "Enhanced Forward Presence (eFP)" inaugurated in the wake of the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014. This time, deployments to Hungary, Slovakia, Romania, and Bulgaria have been newly added. Missile and air defense systems such as the Patriot missile system were also deployed in the border region with Ukraine to prepare for contingencies.

As a consequence, NATO countries are not exposed to direct military provocation by Russia. It may be possible to argue that from the outset, Russia had not intended to attack NATO members. But even if that were the case, there must have been a calculation on the Russian side that it would not be in Russia's interest to invite NATO intervention --- this is nothing but the effect of NATO's deterrence. Application for NATO membership by Finland and Sweden, which will be discussed later, was also decided because they believe that NATO's deterrence is working.

Assistance to Ukraine and Deterrence of Russia

At an early stage of the war, weapons provided by NATO states were anti-tank guns (Javelin, etc.) and anti-aircraft guns --- equipment to stop and resist the advance of Russian military units. They played a significant role in preventing the fall of Kyiv. However, after Russia announced in late March that it would effectively abandon the seizure of Kyiv and concentrate its main forces in the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine, the Ukrainian government had to prepare for large-scale ground combat operations and to recapture the areas under the control of Russian forces. To this end, weapons such as anti-tank and anti-aircraft guns that can only stop the enemy's advance are not sufficient; Ukraine's recapture of its territory will hinge rather upon heavy equipment such as tanks and howitzers.

As a result, NATO is now doing almost everything in its capacity other than sending troops. But there were twists and turns in the leading-up process. First, as noted above, NATO's full-fledged support was unlikely under the assumption that the Zelensky government would be overthrown at an early stage of the war. It remained a hard-to-address problem for the United States and other NATO member countries to decide what kind of weapons to provide, as Russia's war aims were not necessarily manifest. 8

Second, behind such discussion was the consideration that Russia should not be unduly provoked. Some argued that such a consideration is not necessary, but it is only natural for all parties concerned to want to avoid escalation of the war if possible. The Russians repeatedly warned that if NATO provided Ukraine with tanks, fighter aircraft, and long-range artillery, they would consider such a move as participation in the war and subject to attack. Undeniably, there were scenarios where NATO, apprehensive about an escalation of the war, hesitated to provide such military equipment warned about by Russia; NATO was in a sense deterred by Russia.

Yet, Czechia became the first NATO member to provide tanks to Ukraine, and other countries followed suit. Warnings from Russia continued; in April 2022, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov reportedly said, "We are warning that US-NATO weapons transports across Ukrainian territory will be considered by us as legal military targets." 9 His warning was reported in part as representing Russia's bullish stance; it could, however, be construed to insinuate that Russia would not (and could not) move unless US-NATO weapons entered the Ukrainian territory. Understandably, the most Russia should avoid is NATO intervention, and Russia is avoiding actions that would invite it. If that is the case, arguably, NATO deterrence is working.

In addition, NATO and the United States focused on providing intelligence to the Ukrainian government. Although many pointed out this earlier, the actual situation gradually began to be reported from March. For example, NATO's airborne early warning and control aircraft (AWACS) flew over Polish airspace right up to the Ukrainian border, collected information on the movements of Russian aircraft and ground troops, and provided it to the Ukrainian side. 10 Afterward, the US-led NATO provided information on the whereabouts of high-ranking Russian military officials and intelligence that helped identify, in advance, the location of Russian military deployments as well as targets of Russian missile attacks. There have been reports after reports about how the Ukrainian military utilized those pieces of information to make its defense and offense operations more effective. 11

The Biden administration admonished these reports in fear that they might provoke the Russians. 12 However, all those reports may not have been based on leaks contrary to the administration's intention. Behind their release must have been the administration's design to deal with criticism that NATO's and US support for Ukraine was inadequate.

The NATO Secretary-General has thus far enunciated that NATO would not allow the ongoing war to spill over to other countries nor deploy its ground troops in Ukraine. Conversely, his message indicates NATO's will to do everything possible short of direct military intervention. The Russia-Ukraine war and NATO's involvement have shown how many ways there are to support the war other than the traditional deployment of troops. As an aside, Starlink, a satellite communication service provided by Elon Musk, has also proven to contribute significantly to Ukrainian military operations. 13 Not just state actors but private corporations and even individuals have got involved as vital actors.

At the extraordinary Summit of NATO Heads of State and Government held on March 24, 2022, NATO warned, "Any use by Russia of a chemical or biological weapon would be unacceptable and result in severe consequences." 14 At the post-Summit press conference, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg stated, "Any use of chemical weapons will totally change the nature of the conflict." 15 It is now impossible to ascertain the effect of these deterring messages from NATO on Russia. Yet, it is certain that, as of late May at least, weapons of mass destruction have not been employed.

NATO's Growing Centrality

As the Russia-Ukraine war progresses, not just the environment surrounding NATO but also NATO itself is changing. First, the meaning of NATO membership has become visible, albeit unexpectedly. Neither the United States nor NATO could deter Russia from invading Ukraine. Their attempt to stop Russia, mainly through the intimidation of economic sanctions, has failed. Although, on the other hand, Russia has repeatedly threatened and warned NATO members, as discussed earlier, it has not made any full-scale military provocations against them. It may be concluded that NATO's deterrence against Russia is working. Arguably, Russia may have, from the outset, been unwilling to expand the war front; that said, it is undeniable that behind that unwillingness is Russia's desire to avoid NATO's participation in the war.

In other words, inequity between NATO allies and non-NATO states became pronounced. While it was a harsh reality for Ukraine, a non-NATO state, for NATO allies, the worth of NATO membership has been confirmed. The current Russian threat has reaffirmed the necessity of NATO; behind that is the trust that NATO's deterrence against Russia is working.

Second, on May 18, less than three months following the outbreak of the Russia-Ukraine war, Finland and Sweden officially applied for accession to NATO. Amid the worsening security environment surrounding Europe, including Nordic states, they decided to abandon their long-standing policy of neutrality or "military non-alignment" and to join NATO. The existence of non-NATO member states in Northern Europe had been a prominent feature of the European order in the post-World War II era. This is about to change.

The reason the two Nordic countries could make a momentous decision in such a short time is their accumulated cooperative relationship with NATO. Without this, their application would not have come true. Both Finland and Sweden have deepened their relations with NATO since the 1990s; since the 2000s, they have strengthened their cooperation with NATO through, among other efforts, the dispatch of troops to the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan, thereby improving interoperability with NATO. Meanwhile, Russia's December 2021 draft treaty proposal to the United States and NATO, which called for a ban on further NATO expansion, invited a backlash from both countries who esteem freedom of choice in the future. On top of that, the final thrust came in the form of the Russian aggression starting on February 24. 16

The Recep Tayyip Erdogan government of Turkey is opposed to Finland and Sweden's accession to NATO, criticizing the two Nordic countries' insufficient crackdown on the Partiya Karkeran Kurdistan (PKK, Kurdistan Workers' Party), which has allegedly become a breeding ground for terrorist activities. 17 The two countries' accession to NATO requires the approval of all member states (ratification of the accession protocol). As a preliminary step, the North Atlantic Council (NAC) has to make a decision to initiate accession negotiations; since the relevant procedures follow the consensus method, Turkey could wield its veto right in every stage of the procedures. However, continuing to oppose NATO enlargement on a "one versus 29" basis would be very costly for Turkey; it would not be an easy decision for the country to make. To overcome this predicament diplomatically, active diplomatic efforts are being made, especially between Turkey, Finland, and Sweden, involving heads of state and foreign ministers of the countries concerned.

Third, facing the Russia-Ukraine war, many European countries are increasing their defense budgets (defense spending). NATO member states have aimed at achieving defense spending worth 2% of their GDP. Germany, led by Chancellor Olaf Scholz, was quickest to announce a massive increase in defense spending. In his speech to the Bundestag on February 27, just a few days after the outbreak of war, Scholz announced the creation of a 100 billion euro fund (about 13 trillion yen) to make up for the long-standing budget shortfall to procure military equipment, while pledging to increase defense spending from the current 1.49% (NATO statistics 18) to over 2% of Germany's GDP. 19

Whether defense spending of European countries will increase as planned remains to be seen, as the European economy will continue to be severely affected by COVID-19 raging since 2020, in addition to the effects of a drastic hike in energy prices caused by the Russia-Ukraine war. Nevertheless, it is apparent that European countries have become more security conscious, and this trend highlights the value of NATO.


In the wake of Russia's invasion of Ukraine, NATO focused first on ensuring the defense of its members. As far as it is concerned, NATO is fulfilling its objective. Its significance should not be underestimated. NATO has become involved in the Russia-Ukraine war on a scale not initially designed while avoiding direct military intervention. Meanwhile, solidarity among NATO member states has been more intense than anticipated. As a result, NATO's centrality in the European security order appears to have further increased.

The next question is whether NATO's solidarity can remain intact in the future. Increases in defense spending of each country may contribute to strengthening NATO. On the other hand, many challenges are awaiting NATO: how to create a support system necessary to achieve war objectives agreed upon with Ukraine; and how to position Russia in the post-war European security order. The solidarity of NATO members will be put to further test.

(Associate Professor, Keio University)

(Translation by Tsutomu Inuzuka)

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