Call us

How effective has NATO been in Ukraine?

Paul Taylor

Date: 27/06/2024

NATO’s Washington summit will undoubtedly be the occasion for self-congratulatory speeches about how “the world’s most successful military alliance” has kept the peace and preserved its members’ freedom and security for 75 years. Yet the war raging near its eastern border in a country to which it has promised eventual accession raises serious doubts about its ability to project deterrence and protect its friends.

NATO’s 2008 Bucharest declaration that Ukraine and Georgia would one day become members of the alliance - without saying when or how - conferred none of the benefits of membership but all of the risks of being on an indefinite waiting list. It is no wonder that they soon became targets of pre-emptive Russian aggression. NATO did not act when Russia invaded Georgia that year following an ill-advised Georgian attempt to retake the breakaway region of South Ossetia in the misguided hope that the United States would come to its aid.

After Moscow annexed Crimea and fomented a separatist war in Ukraine’s Donbas region in 2014, NATO sought to reassure its eastern members by raising defence spending targets and, in 2016, agreeing to deploy small multinational rotating tripwire forces, the so-called Enhanced Forward Presence, in the Baltic states and Poland. Its collective help for Ukraine was limited to some officer training and joint exercises.

The United States and the European Union imposed limited economic sanctions on Russia, and a handful of allies - the US, the UK and Canada - provided bilateral military training and assistance to Kyiv. As Moscow massed troops on Ukraine’s borders in late 2021, there was no discussion of deploying a symbolic NATO presence, or a coalition of willing allies, that might have deterred military action.

Most allies still did not spend the pledged two percent of GDP on defence. It took until year three of Russia’s full-scale invasion of a European neighbour for 23 out of 32 NATO nations to eventually reach the spending goal.

When Vladimir Putin unleashed his all-out assault in February 2022, NATO’s first reflex was to reinforce its eastern flank substantially but not to get involved in halting or defeating Russia.  “NATO is not at war with Russia,” Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg proclaimed repeatedly. Ukraine was not a member and hence not entitled to the Article 5 mutual assistance clause. This strategic communication, intended to counter the Russian narrative of aggressive NATO expansion, may unintentionally have led Putin to conclude that the alliance would not intervene if he overran Ukraine.

NATO had quietly withdrawn all non-littoral naval vessels from the Black Sea in December 2021. They have not returned. NATO ally Turkey used its prerogative under the Montreux Treaty to deny passage through the Bosphorus Straits to warships of belligerent countries. This applied not only to Russian vessels but, informally, also to non-littoral NATO ships.

The allies decided that NATO would provide only non-lethal aid. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s plea for NATO to establish and police a no-fly zone over Ukraine was rebuffed to avoid a direct clash with Russia. Military assistance was channelled bilaterally and coordinated by the United States, not NATO.

From the outset, US President Joe Biden made clear his doctrine was to supply arms, cyber assistance and intelligence to help Ukraine defend itself on its own soil, but not to put US boots on the ground or take any action he deemed would risk triggering World War III. 

This constrained, and continues to constrain, the range of weapons provided and their use against targets on Russian soil or in Russian airspace. These restrictions were loosened following Russia’s May 2024 offensive in the Kharkiv region but continue to prohibit Kyiv from striking strategic targets deep inside Russia with US-supplied weapons.

Not all allies implemented the economic sanctions and energy boycott imposed by the European Union, the US and the UK. NATO member Türkiye demurred and acted as a financial, energy and import-export conduit for Russia while offering itself as a mediator in negotiations between Moscow and Kyiv, notably on grain exports and prisoner exchanges. The US had to threaten possible secondary sanctions to persuade Turkish banks to restrict financial flows with Moscow. NATO member Hungary, for its part, slowed and obstructed the EU sanctions. Both allies delayed Finland’s and especially Sweden’s accession to the alliance.

Despite their declarations of intent, NATO allies have failed to produce or supply sufficient ammunition and air defence missiles to protect Ukraine from devastating attacks on its energy infrastructure as well as civilian targets. Nor have they mounted the kind of offshore air defence operation that the US, UK, France and Arab allies did to help shield Israel from a missile and drone attack from Iran in April 2024. They should consider that possibility before it’s too late.

Only now are some European NATO states discussing sending instructors to assist Ukraine with training on the ground. Such suggestions initially drew strong criticism from the German government and a thumbs-down from Washington. They raise the question of what, if anything, NATO would do if Western military trainers in Ukraine were targeted and killed by Russia.

In an apparent U-turn from NATO’s hands-off approach, Stoltenberg has now mooted creating a long-term NATO fund to arm Ukraine and take over the task of coordinating of military supplies from the US. That proposal seems more driven by fear of Donald Trump than of Putin. NATO insiders question whether the organisation’s Brussels secretariat or the small NATO Support and Procurement Agency have the staff or capacity to manage such a programme.

War on NATO’s doorstep has been a rude awakening and an unprecedented challenge for the alliance. The conflict in Ukraine initially appeared to restore the alliance’s relevance as Europe’s security shield less than a year after its shambolic US-led retreat from Afghanistan in 2021. Yet the longer the war lasts, the more it exposes the limits of NATO’s ability to influence the security environment beyond its borders.

Measuring NATO’s effectiveness depends largely on what yardstick is applied. Has the alliance protected the North Atlantic Treaty area from attack and reinforced its forward presence from the Arctic to the Mediterranean? Yes. Did it rapidly respond to the Russian invasion by implementing reinforcement plans and granting the Supreme Allied Commander Europe more authority and troops? Yes. Has it adopted a new overarching concept for NATO's conventional defence, supported by dedicated regional plans? Yes, but most of the designated European high-readiness forces have yet to materialise. Has it admitted two new members, Finland and Sweden, which felt increased security risks from Russia's aggression in Ukraine? Yes, but it took a while. Have NATO and the EU cooperated to support Ukraine and build Europe’s defence industrial capacity? Not as effectively as they could have done.

So far, the alliance has not provided decisive assistance to enable Ukraine to defend itself successfully and repel Russian forces, despite incremental efforts. This failure to provide game-changing support has called into question the credibility of NATO’s ability to shape Europe’s security environment and deter Russian aggression more broadly, given Moscow’s escalating hybrid operations in Western countries and efforts to destabilise Moldova and Georgia.

After two years of avoiding direct involvement, shielding NATO’s members but failing to give Ukraine decisive assistance, allied governments have realised that their efforts may have been insufficient. Having overpromised and underdelivered to Ukraine, NATO is staring possible failure in the face. However, it is not clear if the alliance knows or can agree what to do. Working more closely with the EU to accelerate European arms production using EU money and NATO defence planning would be one vital step, rather than waging turf battles while Ukraine burns.

Unless they can deliver a more effective response soon, Russia may gain the upper hand on the battlefield just as populist opposition to active support for Ukraine is gaining ground on both sides of the Atlantic, with the risk that a change of incumbent in the White House could blow NATO’s entire Ukraine strategy - such as it is - out of the water.

Paul Taylor is a Senior Visiting Fellow in the Europe in the World Programme.

The support the European Policy Centre receives for its ongoing operations, or specifically for its publications, does not constitute an endorsement of their contents, which reflect the views of the authors only. Supporters and partners cannot be held responsible for any use that may be made of the information contained therein.

Photo credits:

The latest from the EPC, right in your inbox
Sign up for our email newsletter
14-16 rue du Trône, 1000 Brussels, Belgium | Tel.: +32 (0)2 231 03 40
EU Transparency Register No. 
89632641000 47
Privacy PolicyUse of Cookies | Contact us | © 2019, European Policy Centre

edit afsluiten