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NATO Prepares for Intervention in Ukraine

Feb 22, 2024
  • Fan Gaoyue

    Guest Professor at Sichuan University, Former Chief Specialist at PLA Academy of Military Science


Russia and Ukraine have been fighting for two years, but neither has achieved a decisive victory — and the fight will continue. On Jan. 24, NATO began its Steadfast Defender 2024 exercise, the largest maneuvers in scale and duration since the end of the Cold War. Lasting six months, the exercise will take place primarily in Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, Germany, Greece, Norway, Sweden and the United Kingdom, with more than 90,000 participants, more than 50 naval assets,1,100 combat vehicles and a variety of aerial fighting vehicles from 31 NATO member states and Sweden.

On the eve of the two-year anniversary of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, it is unusual for NATO to start such a large and lengthy exercise. What does it mean? Does it mean NATO is going to send troops to Ukraine to defeat the Russian aggressors? Very likely — because NATO has reasons to do so.

First, the huge military assistance NATO provided to Ukraine has not changed the basic posture of a strong Russia and a weak Ukraine. Russia’s population is 146 million, about 3.4 times that of Ukraine; before the conflict, it had a territory of 17.1 million square kilometers, about 28 times that of Ukraine; it’s military was about 0.9 million, about 4.6 times that of Ukraine’s. Moreover, Russia has a much stronger defense industry than Ukraine. After the conflict began, 1.3 million people fled Ukraine, and four areas of Ukraine have been annexed by Russia. Most of Ukraine’s infrastructure has been destroyed, as has its defense industry, rendering Ukraine weaker still.

From February 2022 to December 2023, NATO and other supporting countries provided more than $80 billion in security assistance to Ukraine. The U.S. gave Ukraine seven categories and 102 types of weapons and equipment drawn from active service and inventory by using its presidential drawdown authority 54 times, including air defense (16), ground maneuver (24), aircraft and unmanned aerial systems (16), anti-armor and small arms (8), maritime (4), and other capabilities (16). Other NATO member states, including the United Kingdom, Germany, France and Canada provided Ukraine with artillery, tanks, armored vehicles, combat aircraft, missiles, radar and more.

These military contributions enhanced the capabilities of the Ukrainian forces but did not change the basic posture of a strong Russia and a weak Ukraine. The strategic counterattack expected by NATO did not occur and the strategic objective to defeat Russia has not been realized.

Second, the capacity of NATO member states is not infinite; military assistance to Ukraine cannot persist for long. The U.S. is the leader of NATO and also the main supporter of military aid to Ukraine. But Ukraine’s military requirements are enormous, even a super military power as the U.S. cannot meet Ukraine’s requirements. For example, some advanced weapons and equipment to be sent to Ukraine require two years of manufacturing lead time. The Biden administration could provide further security assistance to Ukraine until the National-Security Supplemental (which includes $60.1 billion of security assistance to Ukraine) was passed by the Senate on Feb. 13. The U.S. obviously can’t make ends meet. In addition, there are 20 NATO member states saying they had provided all the weapons and munitions they could, and that it’s difficult to continue their assistance.

Third, Russia-Ukraine conflict is a war that NATO cannot afford to lose. In the conflict, Russia is on one side and Ukraine plus NATO and others (50 countries in all) is on the other. Morally NATO thinks Russia is the aggressor and a breaker of the rules-based international order (the unjust side), while Ukraine is the defender and international order protector (the just side). NATO’s support to Ukraine is a just and noble cause in its eyes, and it must win. The political, economic and military strength of the 50 countries combined is much stronger than Russia. With such tremendous advantages in morality and strength and fully supported by NATO, Ukraine should have won the war by now.

But the fact is Ukraine has not won, and it seems that it will never win if NATO does not send troops to help. If Ukraine were to lose the war, the world leadership of the U.S., the values and hegemony of the West and the credit, confidence, morale and leverage of the 50 countries would all go empty. NATO can’t afford to lose and has no choice but send troops to Ukraine to win the war.

Fourth, the U.S. general election is approaching, and President Joe Biden needs Ukraine to win re-election. A decisive Ukraine victory in the conflict is directly linked to Biden’s fortunes. Since hostilities began, the Biden administration has convened 19 meetings both online and offline to coordinate military assistance, 54 times employed the presidential drawdown authority to provide weapons and equipment from active service and inventory to aid Ukraine and committed $44.9 billion in security assistance over two years. If Ukraine cannot win after the U.S. has invested so much, Biden’s Ukraine policy will be severely attacked by Republicans, thus harming his election chances. If NATO were to send troops to Ukraine and subsequently defeat the Russians, it would be a highlight of Biden’s administration and help him win.

In reality NATO has been preparing to send troops to Ukraine from the very beginning, though refusing to say so out loud. Soon after Russia’s invasion, NATO deployed such crack troops as the 3rd Mechanized Division and the 101st Air Assault Division from North America to Europe to beef up U.S. forces to more than 100,000. It deployed 8 combat groups including 42,000 combatants, 120 fighter jets and more than 20 warships along the eastern flank of NATO member states to display its resolution to support Ukraine and deter Russia. It established temporary training organizations and facilities in Germany, the UK, Canada and the U.S. to teach Ukrainian forces how to use sophisticated weapons and how to conduct combined operations. It carried out a series of military exercises, such as Cyber Lock Shield 2022, Air Defender 2023 and Steadfast Defender 2024 to rehearse and improve its operations, plans and courses of action, and it called out Russia as the most significant and direct threat to NATO’s security and to peace and stability in the Euro-Atlantic area to mold public opinion.

If NATO sends forces to Ukraine to win the war, it will create two major risks that could pull the whole world into an abyss of suffering: It will escalate a conventional war into a nuclear war, and turn a local war into a world war.

I hope NATO will carefully consider the possible consequences before moving ahead.

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