NATO and its non-member partners must help defend Ukraine

By Anniki Mikelsaar

Note: The views expressed in this article represent only the author’s views and not necessarily those of The Beaver or anyone else.

The morning of February 24 started quiet and rainy here in London. Meanwhile, 1500 miles to the east of us, Russia launched a full-scale military invasion of Ukraine, with airstrikes on major population centres. As the sirens blared deafeningly in Kyiv, casualties of Ukrainian civilians and military personnel increased by the hour. Tanks are currently moving into Kyiv as Russia wants the democratic Ukrainian government to fall. It is safe to say the conflict will escalate in unimaginable ways.

The ball is in the court of NATO. A sovereign peaceful nation is under attack and, consequently, so is the liberal rules-based international order. Russia has violated the ceasefire agreements of the Minsk Accords and ignored the UN Charter’s prohibition of the use of force against other nations. This is not only geopolitical aggression against Ukraine, but also a severe threat to the rest of the world. We face a tough choice: either to surrender the ideas of international legal order and allow Putin to proceed, or to stand for the very same principles which have granted peace in Europe since World War II. Surrendering the ideas of the international legal order would mean acknowledging that ‘might makes right’, which would only enable belligerent powers like Russia in the long-term. Given that surrender is not an option, it is worth asking about what options remain on the table for NATO to prevent Russia’s aggression, and what can we as LSE students do to support Ukraine.

According to the famous dictum of military thinker Carl von Clausewitz: “War is a continuation of politics by other means.” Putin’s war against Ukraine is no exception, motivated by expansionist politics aiming to gain control over Ukraine’s territory. For Russia, the flawed axiom “Ukraine will never be able to stand by itself” has been the basis of their foreign policy for hundreds of years. When Ukraine gained its independence after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, its statehood was regarded by Russia as an abnormal formality. Thus, in Putin’s eyes, Ukraine has never deserved to be a state – instead, this status of independence is a matter of Russia’s give or take. The Euromaidan revolution marked a significant change in Russian-Ukrainian relations in 2014. As Ukraine started looking west, eyeing the prospect of joining the European Union, Russia was alarmed. In March that year, Russia mobilised troops to annex the Ukrainian territory of Crimea, and started backing pro-Russian separatists in the Donbas and Luhansk regions. A ceasefire agreement, the Minsk Protocol, was mediated by France and Germany in September 2014 but it bore little weight. A frozen stalemate has been the status quo in the area for years – until storm clouds appeared on the horizon in November 2021. US satellite imagery spotted a massive Russian military buildup on Ukraine’s border, consisting of 100,000 troops, tanks, and heavy equipment. On February 11, the US escalated warnings of an imminent Russian invasion and ordered a rapid evacuation of Americans. The storm began ten days later, as Russian troops claiming to be ‘peacekeepers’ moved into the easternmost Donetsk and Luhansk regions initially. February 24 marked the start of a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. An offensive of this magnitude has not been seen in Europe since World War Two. On that account, if war is a continuation of politics, how can the West respond, to prevent Russia from using violence to achieve political goals? 

It is of utmost importance that NATO allies, and non-member partners like Sweden and Finland,  act on this matter urgently for two reasons. First, Ukraine was the world’s third-largest nuclear power in 1994. Ukraine agreed to voluntary nuclear disarmament in exchange for a security guarantee from international partners, including the United Kingdom, United States, and Russia. Now that Ukraine is illegally under attack, it is time for other states to uphold their promises. Secondly, as already mentioned, supporting Ukraine ensures the vital protection of the international rules-based order, which guarantees long-term peace through the inviolability of borders.

This leaves us with three options:

The first option is sanctions: US and European officials have already sanctioned Russian financial institutions and individuals, and more economic measures are underway. The German Chancellor Olaf Scholtz has promised to suspend Russian gas imports through the Nordstream II pipeline. The most impactful form of sanctions, however, would be to ban Russia from the SWIFT payment system, disconnecting it also from the Visa and Mastercard systems. Strongly supported by the government of the UK, this measure would be an effective blow to the whole of Russia’s financial system. It would make international money transfers much more complicated for Russia, and it will directly increase the cost of war against Ukraine. Unfortunately the severest sanctions alone will not do much to help Ukraine at this point. Additional measures are needed. 

A second option entails partners sending more humanitarian aid to Ukraine. While some aid has been sent, due to the immense magnitude of the conflict, more medical supplies and food are urgently needed. NATO could establish a no-fly zone over Ukraine, as it has done for Libya in the past. This would prevent Russia from using airstrikes to kill Ukrainian civilians, an intimidation tactic currently being used. NATO should therefore urgently coordinate a humanitarian aid response from all allies, and non-member partners. The partners should also send fuel, weapons, and protective equipment which is currently lacking for people resisting the Russian invasion. 

Ultimately, though, the most effective response would be to give Putin what he most fears – a strong political blow. Vladimir Putin is motivated by his popularity and legitimacy much more than by economic repercussions. Arguably, his worst fear is having Ukraine turn into a strong democracy, which may increase Russian citizen’s dissatisfaction with the autocratic leadership of Putin. This is exactly what NATO, and the EU, should do: make it clear that Ukraine is still seen as a potential future member. The reason why Putin does not pick fights with smaller NATO member states like Estonia or Lithuania is because Russia stands no chance in a war against the West. Giving Ukraine the means and support to join NATO, as the Baltic nations once received, would ensure not only security for Ukraine but the entire rules-based order. This would be the ultimate power move, demonstrating the unity of the liberal democratic West, and revealing the insecurities of the nearly 70-year-old Putin. Writing this on February 25, Ukraine is still standing strong, with high morale and a well-trained army. There is still time to prevent a full Ukrainian annexation, with the help of supplies and international support.

This responsibility is not solely on leaders though, but also on us as LSE students. We can fight Russia’s disinformation campaign on Ukraine by educating ourselves with fact-checked sources, donate and share information about NGOs which provide medical aid in Ukraine (Help for Ukraine, Razom for Ukraine, Sunflower of Peace), and demand our governments to help Ukraine now. 

As of February 25, the world faces a tough choice of how to react to Russia’s illegal war in Ukraine. This conflict cannot be wished away, as Russia’s expansionist aims are here to stay if left unchecked. Tough sanctions, large-scale humanitarian aid to Ukraine, and military reinforcements are all needed to ensure peace in Europe. A clear message needs to be sent that Ukraine is still a prospective NATO and EU member state, pressing on Putin’s biggest insecurity. Importantly, the world cannot turn its back on Ukraine, but must fulfil their promises through defence. Idealistic as it might sound, if the West helps Ukraine become a strong democracy, it might inspire Russian citizens to stand against their authoritarian regime as well, bringing peace to Europe.

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