Since Russia’s second invasion of Ukraine starting on February 24th, anti-war advocates around the world and the Ukrainian government have pushed for NATO involvement. However, NATO is under no obligation to provide direct support and has decided against involvement in the conflict. The alliance has been criticized since the start for not interfering, so what are its motives for staying out against mounting pressure to step up?
The North-American Treaty Organization (NATO) was created in 1949 as a response to the Cold War to promote democracy and peace. Today, it has 30 member countries including the U.S., but the vast majority are European. The organization uses a collective defense strategy under Article 5 of its treaty, meaning if one country is attacked, it is considered an attack against all allies. This means all member states are required to provide assistance to the attacked country, which may include military action. It is important to note that this is often interpreted to mean if one NATO country is at war, its 29 NATO allies are automatically at war in its support, too.
As an organization, NATO is not required to provide any aid to Ukraine because it isn’t a member state. Individual countries are prevented from declaring war in support of Ukraine because it would mean full NATO activation. The alliance states it poses no threat to Russia and “does not seek confrontation”; to uphold this, all member states would have to stay out of the conflict until engaged by others. It has instead announced it would only join the crisis if there was an attack on a member country, which crisis experts say is unlikely.
In 2008, NATO leaders had agreed to eventual Ukrainian membership, but the efforts were halted two years later with the election of President Yanukovych, who advocated for closer relations with Russia. Furthermore, Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 sparked the Russo-Ukrainian war, which was in a stalemate until this full-scale invasion. The Crimean crisis dramatically increased Ukrainian support to join NATO because it would mean better protection from Russia; however, it made the organization much more hesitant because admission would mean NATO would be in direct conflict against Russia.
A NATO-Russian war could effectively spark World War III, which would be especially severe in the nuclear age. To prevent this, neither Russia nor NATO could fight against each other directly (this is part of the reason why Russia won’t invade former Soviet Union states that are now NATO members, and why NATO won’t enforce a no-fly zone over Ukraine, which would kill Russians).
Although it won’t spark a war over Ukraine, the alliance can still express opinions: it officially condemned Russia at the beginning of the invasion and supports Ukraine. Individual NATO members are still providing support, too- just not direct military action. Bordering countries including Poland have taken in hundreds of thousands of refugees, Germany is sending lethal weapons for the Ukrainian military in a stunning foreign policy reversal, and many countries are working to economically isolate and collapse Russia.
The question is no longer what NATO would do against the Russian invasion of a non-member state: the answer is nothing, to prevent a bigger crisis and possibly nuclear war. Moving forward, it’s now how foreign powers will use this inaction for future invasions, and how far Russia is willing and able to go past Ukraine.
Through Teen Lenses: Do you think NATO made the right decision by not engaging in the Russo-Ukrainian War?
“I’m not sure if it’s the right decision, but I know that not engaging will prevent a war… However, who’s to say Putin will stop at Ukraine after he thinks he can invade and get away with it…but NATO not going to war with Russia is preventing lots of casualties in a full out world war so to say.”
Al Orman, 17, Senior at Thomas Edison High School, Virginia
“Yes and no: I understand the argument against getting involved, but I’m also biased because I’m polish. If Russia continues their advances into Poland I’m scared that NATO will continue to treat us like how it treated Ukraine.”
Agata Colon, 15, Sophomore at Thomas Edison High School, Virginia
“Yeah, NATO is obsolete and should have been disbanded years ago. It operates on the idea of “peacekeeping” but is pretty explicitly anti_Russia. So yeah, if it engages in Ukraine then there would be all out war.”
Ashot Hovhannisyan, 17, Junior at Thomas Edison High School, Virginia