Main Image Credit President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg pictured in December 2021. Courtesy of president.gov.ua / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 4.0
The Alliance’s focus on the distinction between member and non-member states is undermining the security order to which NATO committed itself in the early 1990s.
Fearful of the war in Ukraine escalating into a direct – and potentially nuclear – confrontation between the US and Russia, the administration of Joe Biden has declared repeatedly that the US will defend ‘every inch of NATO territory’ but has no intention of putting boots on the ground or planes in the air over Ukraine. In repeatedly noting that Ukraine is not a NATO member and therefore not entitled to protection under the NATO Treaty, the Alliance has drawn a clear line justifying its refusal to engage more directly, but also reminding Vladimir Putin of the potentially grave consequences of escalating the conflict beyond Ukraine. As the war expands across Ukraine, however, this line between member and non-member states makes less and less sense. Putin might not yet have violated the territorial integrity of any NATO member, but he has already crossed a number of other lines and violated nearly every international norm that exists, ranging from violations of state sovereignty and territorial integrity to deliberate attacks on civilians. Over the past week, the Biden administration has warned that Putin might use chemical and biological weapons in Ukraine, and that Russia has requested both economic and military assistance from China.
As the conflict continues to escalate, NATO leaders must ask themselves the question: just what is it that NATO is defending? Is it simply territory? Or do the Allies take seriously the commitment they made in the early 1990s, when NATO proclaimed itself an ‘agent of change’ committed to building a Europe ‘whole and free’ – a new security order in Europe, anchored in the liberal democratic values that NATO pledged to ‘safeguard’ in its own founding treaty? Not only is that vision now under attack, but so are the core values underpinning it. Biden himself has repeatedly suggested that the contest between democracy and autocracy is the central challenge of our time. Ukraine might be an early battle in that contest, but it is hard to imagine that it will be the last. It is not hyperbole to suggest that the future of the West is now at stake. Whether the fight to determine the shape of the global order plays out on Ukrainian territory, or in neighbouring Poland or the Baltic states, the threat is the same.
As the US and NATO consider what to do next, it is also worth remembering that when the Alliance created the Partnership for Peace (PfP) in 1994 – an institution to which Ukraine does belong – it did so partly to soften the line between NATO member and non-member states. Recognising that NATO would not necessarily grow indefinitely, the Allies envisioned a borderless security community comprised of states committed to peaceful interaction with each other, grounded in shared liberal democratic values. The PfP was not only a tool for facilitating military cooperation with non-NATO states; it also served essentially as a political instrument for extending beyond NATO’s borders the liberal democratic values so critical to a new European security architecture – one constructed on something other than the balance of power or spheres of influence.
NATO would do well to remember that what has always set it apart from other military alliances is its professed commitment to use force in defence of shared values
Although the US, until recently, denied Ukraine lethal military assistance, NATO has for years – and particularly since 2014 – devoted considerable resources to enhancing Ukraine’s ability to defend itself. This has been done through a variety of programmes aimed at building the capacity of the Ukrainian military, both by strengthening ties with Ukraine’s defence and security sector and offering additional opportunities for joint training and military exercises, with the ultimate goal of consolidating civilian control of the military and facilitating political reform. For its part, Ukraine served as an active contributor to NATO’s military missions in Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as several maritime missions. In recognition of this demonstrated desire for closer cooperation with NATO, the Alliance designated Ukraine an Enhanced Opportunities Partner in June 2020, placing it among a small group of states (Australia, Finland, Georgia, Jordan and Sweden) that have been preapproved for a range of NATO military exercises as well as participation in the NATO Response Force, which NATO has now deployed as a demonstration of its determination to defend NATO territory.
Currently, however, it is the Ukrainians who are on the frontline, defending not only their own territory, but also NATO’s vision of a security order in which all states are free to ‘determine their own future, without outside interference’. For NATO, this is no trivial matter; it is the principle at the very heart of the security order to which NATO committed itself in the early 1990s. Indeed, former NATO deputy secretary-general Alexander Vershbow noted in 2014 that ‘Russia’s readiness to use force to redraw borders and create new dividing lines’ had made it ‘more important than ever to uphold the principle that every nation is free to choose its own fate’.
NATO might be banking on the belief that Putin will respect the line between NATO member and non-member, but that assumption is hardly a given. Thus far, Putin seems more intent on redrawing lines in Europe to serve his own interests than he is on respecting basic international norms and the line circumscribing the community to which Article 5 currently applies. Indeed, the current emphasis on maintaining that line actually minimises the threat to NATO members’ territory and their way of life, while devaluing the contributions of NATO partners who took seriously NATO’s commitment to building a new European security order. At this juncture, only risky options remain, but the Alliance would do well to remember that what has always set it apart from other military alliances is its professed commitment to use force in defence of shared values. One can only hope that the NATO Allies prove as willing as the Ukrainians to do just that.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
Have an idea for a Commentary you’d like to write for us? Send a short pitch to email@example.com and we’ll get back to you if it fits into our research interests. Full guidelines for contributors can be found here.