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Does NATO have any obligation to defend Ukraine against Russia? Why is it not sending NATO troops on the Ukraine border to defend against Russia? I thought the point of NATO is to defend against tyrannical leaders in Europe attacking other European sovereign states. Germany did this in the 1930s attacking smaller countries such as Poland first. What is the purpose of the organization at this time?

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  • There are some misconceptions: Europe is not a single country. NATO is not equal to Europe. Not all European countries are NATO members - and not all NATO members are European countries. Mar 12 at 9:40

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No. Obligations are listed under Article 5 of NATO.

Article 5

The Parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all and consequently they agree that, if such an armed attack occurs, each of them, in exercise of the right of individual or collective self-defence recognised by Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations, will assist the Party or Parties so attacked by taking forthwith, individually and in concert with the other Parties, such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force, to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area.

Ukraine is not currently a member, as the UK defense minister has pointed out:

In an interview with the Spectator, Mr Wallace said Ukraine was "not a member of Nato, so it is highly unlikely that anyone is going to send troops into Ukraine to challenge Russia".

NATO is a mutual defense pact between its members, who have perhaps not coincidentally, demurred in granting Ukraine NATO membership to date.

The idea of eventual Ukrainian membership has been floating around since 2008, pushed by then POTUS Bush. Perhaps related to Russia's invasion of Georgia in August 2008.

Now, going on, past direct obligations to wider considerations about ethics, maintaining peace and being firm to deter future wars, there could be different viewpoints depending on your opinions:

Possible effects of making Ukraine a formal NATO member:

(this is addressing to defend against tyrannical leaders)

  • Actual Ukrainian membership of NATO might cause it to be a flashpoint triggering a direct confrontation, of the type that the USSR and NATO avoided from 1960 to 1990. See also the fully-aligned defense blocs of 1914 and how a minor terrorist incident launched WW1.

  • Actual Ukrainian membership of NATO may fully dissuade Russia from meddling in its affairs. This would avoid the type of phenomena where France and the UK threw Czechoslovakia under the bus in 1938 to appease Hitler, thus enabling WW2 in 1939.

  • The possibility of Ukraine's membership is what's driving up tension in that area, as Russia has legitimate security concerns in increasingly being bordered by NATO countries. That's certainly Russia's official position. With regard to how justified Russia is in being concerned, one could always look at the USA's "tolerance" of Cuba during the Cold War (and beyond).

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Possible NATO responses to an invasion:

  • Ukraine could become too unpleasant a bone to swallow for Russia if NATO provided sufficient arms to Ukraine to sustain a prolonged guerrilla war, after an initial overrun. That does not require membership. See also: Afghanistan 1980-1989, Afghanistan 2001-2021.

  • Ukraine may not receive military assistance directly, but the West could fully embargo Russian gas, at considerable inconvenience to itself, but even greater damage to Russia. That also does not require membership, nor does it require an UN resolution (which Russia could veto). It could also restrict sales of high tech goods to Russia, like microchips. And banking systems, like SWIFT, could be denied to Russia. Gas aside, Russia is a relatively negligible vendor and customer to the West, but the reverse is not true.

  • The West could decide to cut Ukraine loose and risk neither military confrontation nor economic damage from embargoes. Against that are NATO members who intensely fear and dislike Russia, such as the Baltic countries and Poland. And such a lack of resolve would not go unnoticed by China.

  • Threats that Western troops would be directly engaged, as per this question. This doesn't strike me as very credible or dissuasive: no European leader would be the first to send their boys's boots on the ground to defend Ukraine.

I am sure I missed some. But a firm enough signal to Russia that actual attacks would be heavily penalized, somehow, may very well suffice to deter Putin from a real invasion of Ukrainian-held territory (that's my guess at this point).

Complicating this is no one really knowing what Putin wants or what he would need to call off his threats: he has a domestic political audience to play tough guy to and it may very well be that a successful and prosperous neighboring Ukraine, run on Western principles, would be an unacceptable indictment of his domestic failures, whether or not Ukraine was threatening Russia militarily (note: this last is predicated on a explicitly neutral military role for Ukraine, like Finland in the 70-90s, not on a partial NATO association).

Last his demands on withdrawal of NATO presence in existing NATO members are so off-the-top maximalist that it is hard to see them as genuine negotiation points: they don't allow for any partial concessions that would allow both parties to meet halfway.

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    their boys's boots — and women/girls boots; the time that the military were all-male are well in the past. And on your last paragraph: I believe Russia denies that military buildup near the Ukrainian border is a threat to Ukraine (just like how NATO stresses that military buildup in the Baltic states is not a threat to Russia, which Russia may see differently).
    – gerrit
    Jan 22 at 17:53
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    @gerrit Political correctness aside, the tip-of-the-spear troops are overwhelmingly male, especially in ground troops. Female personnel is often support troops, unless you are talking combat machines like helicopter/fighter pilots. A number of countries until fairly recently had regulations forbidding putting women in harm's way as direct combat troops. Re. threat perceptions, I've edited my answer. Jan 22 at 19:29
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    I wouldn't call the assassination of the Archduke "the thing that launched World War I". Austria-Hungary was looking for an excuse to throw their weight around in the Balkans; the assassination provided it. Russia was looking for an excuse to increase their influence; the invasion provided it. Germany was looking for an excuse to reclaim Alsace-Lorraine; the French alliance with Russia provided it. The British were looking for an excuse to cut the German navy down to size; the German invasion provided it. Europe was looking for an excuse to fight, and the assassination provided it.
    – Mark
    Jan 22 at 21:52
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    Well, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania becoming NATO members didn't trigger anything. Russia wasn't in its best shape back then, but it isn't much better now either.
    – fraxinus
    Jan 22 at 22:48
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    @JosefsaysReinstateMonica If Russia was only conducting maneuvers then there would be little cause for concern. I don't think the West is as much telling Russia where to put its troops as telling it not to invade (if it was only about the troops, then we'd already be seeing sanctions). Russia has form, having invaded Georgia in 08, Crimea in 14. Plus troop exercises in Baltic exercises are at the brigade level (i.e. 3-5000 men). Not 100K troops like Russia is doing now. Bottom line: if all Russia does is stay on its soil, no problem. Wanna bet that's going to remain the case? Jan 22 at 22:57
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It should be noted in context that NATO is not the only body that may protect European states from invasion. With specific regards to Ukraine, the Budapest Memorandum assures that the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Russia, and China will help defend Ukraine in the face of threats to the territorial integrity or political independence of Ukraine (and Kazakhstan and Belarussia as well).

Of course, one of the "protectors" of Ukraine is Russia itself. Furthermore, the remaining NATO states that pledged to defend Ukraine (US, UK, France) did not do so during the invasion of Crimea.

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    I'm reading the memorandum, and it seems to say they'll respect its borders and do SOME steps to defend it against nuclear attack. I do not see a clause that states they'll defend its borders against non-nuclear attack. Can you quote it?
    – Yakk
    Jan 24 at 17:21
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Does NATO have any obligation to defend Ukraine against Russia?

No, NATO is not obliged to defend Ukraine, since Ukraine is not a NATO member.

Why is it not sending NATO troops on the Ukraine border to defend against Russia?

Some NATO members did send their troops or equipment. However, it is worth noting that Russia, as well as three NATO members — USA, Great Britain and France — are nuclear states, and a direct conflict between Russian and NATO troops, even a minor border skirmish, may easily escalate into a full-blown nuclear war. So, even if some of these troops sent to Ukraine do enter conflict with Russian troops, it is not likely to be interpreted as an agression against a NATO member state (automaticlaly triggering NATO response), but as an internal affair of those states.

I thought the point of NATO is to defend against tyrannical leaders in Europe attacking other European sovereign states.

NATO was created during the Cold War, as a counter-balance to the Soviet Block (although, technically, the Warsaw Pact was concluded after the creation of NATO). NATO's role since the collapse of the USSR is rather vaguely defined. In any case, if NATO declared itself as an authority in deciding which regime is tyrannical and what aggression is justified, it would be pure vigilantism. Officially, this role belongs to the UN, of which all the NATO members are members (including three aforementioned nuclear powers having permanent seat and veto power in the UN Security Council, alongside Russia and China).

Germany did this in the 1930s attacking smaller countries such as Poland first. What is the purpose of the organization at this time?

NATO did not exist at the time of the German aggression that you are referring to. Moreover, comparison of Russia to Nazi Germany is highly objectionable — in terms of historical facts, in terms of current realities, as well as from the point of view of the basic respect for Russians.

As far as history goes, in the 1930s, the world powers (mostly Britain and France, with USA idly standing by) repeatedly conceded to Germany demands and didn't honor their obligations to their allies — notably during the Munich agreements (Czechoslovakia), and during the Phoney War (Poland). Moreover, the US entered the War only after the attack on the Pearl Harbor — when all of Europe was subjugated and the Soviets have already beaten off the Germans' first attempt to take Moscow. Moreover, technically, it was Germany who declared war on the United States (the US reciprocated the same day, and was likely planning to declare war).

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    It should be noted that, although the United States did not officially enter the war in Europe until the reciprocal declaration of war against the various Axis powers, and although US troops did not bear anywhere near the brunt of the fighting in Europe, US weapons and supplies (very much including food) under the Lend-Lease Act were vital to the Soviet Union's survival of Barbarossa and eventual conquest eastern Germany. This is an often-overlooked aspect of the ultimate Soviet victory.
    – S. G.
    Jan 24 at 16:26
  • @S.G. good point. Indeed, US was always in the clear on which side they were vis-à-vis Germany. Jan 24 at 17:25
  • Note that the UK conceded to some pre-WW2 German demands ... as it engaged in a rapid rearming program. Germany was more ready for continental war early on; the Phony war involved blockading Germany from supplies it would need while the UK and France grew stronger every day. Germany "ended" the Phony phase by attacking in the West before France+UK was strong enough to stop them. UK+France attacking earlier wouldn't have ended up better for the allies. The UK then proceeded to not accept any peace terms until Germany unconditionally surrendered.
    – Yakk
    Jan 24 at 17:26
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Does NATO have any obligation to defend Ukraine against Russia?

NATO members can only defend NATO members. Ukraine is not a member of NATO, therefore, NATO will not protect it. Moreover, Jens Stoltenberg constantly tells that NATO will not send troops to help Ukraine against Russia.

Why is it not sending NATO troops on the Ukraine border to defend against Russia?

There are several reasons, one of them is that all the hysteria about the possible invasion is primarily whipped up by the West itself.

Moreover, recently there has been a campaign of disinformation. For example, satellite images were thrown in, which were accompanied by phrases about a possible attack. A month or two ago, Russia was conducting military exercises, and the Western press whipped up hysteria and said that Russia was about to attack Ukraine.

At the same time, "We don’t see any great danger on our borders at the moment", said Secretary of the National Security and Defense Council Alexei Danilov (December 30).

Also, it is important for the US to delay the launch of Nord Stream 2. This is another reason why the US actively wants to make Europe believe in a possible Russian invasion. Also, recently, the President of Ukraine issued a public appeal to his citizens with the words that they calm down and do not believe the reports about the Russian invasion. Also, in Ukraine, there is no mass preparation for a war with Russia, absolutely nothing is happening there, except for the pulling of troops to the Donbas to prepare a military operation in the Donbas.

In addition, the United States wants to intimidate the President of Ukraine (talking about the Russian threat and a possible attack) and persuade him to implement the Minsk agreements, which he does not want to implement, because if he does, he will be immediately swept away by the nationalist parties. For 8 years, she has not made any progress in the implementation of the Minsk agreements. Instead of implementing the Minsk agreements, the Ukrainian authorities consider the use of force as the main solution, which the United States does not want, since in the event of a Russian victory, Ukraine will again come out from under the influence of the United States.

These are just a few reasons. There are others, but the main point is that no one from NATO was ever going to seriously stand up for Ukraine. Ukraine is just a bargaining chip in the new round of the Cold War between the US and Russia. If there is a war between Ukraine and Russia, then NATO and the US will benefit from this, since they will not have to fight with Russia - Ukraine will do it for them. And it does not matter that Ukraine loses, in any case it will harm Russia.

And Russia does not want a war with Ukraine, since a lot of Russians and Russian-speakers live in Ukraine. Trying to convince the public that Russia needs a war with Ukraine is part of a big campaign in the press.

The Russian authorities are afraid that Ukraine will join NATO and allow the Americans to build military bases near the borders of Russia. If Russia wanted to build military bases near US borders, then a military response would not be long in coming.

I thought the point of NATO is to defend against tyrannical leaders in Europe attacking other European sovereign states.

Initially, NATO was created against the USSR. NATO was created in 1949, it was already after the Second World War.

As for the "tyrannical leaders" - who will decide who is a tyrant and who is not? USA and NATO countries? On what basis will they decide? Will there be some kind of court or will it just be a joint decision, with no possibility to appeal? No one cares which country has which leader, this whole story is only about spheres of influence, money and underground resources.

If the United States considers the Russian authorities to be tyrants and wants to fight them, then obviously Russia will perceive NATO as a threat. If NATO wants to fight Russia simply because they don't like Putin, then it's not surprising that Russia will retaliate and fight back. This is exactly what we are seeing today.

Russia knows very well how NATO dropped bombs on Yugoslavia in 1999. Bombed the city and it was mostly civilians who suffered, including many children. Moreover, NATO dropped 15 tons of depleted uranium as bombs. Also, in Russia, they know how NATO invaded Libya on March 17, 2011 in order to help kill Muammar Gaddafi and replace him with a pro-Western politician. Etc.

It would be interesting to ask the opinion of Guantanamo prison inmates or Syrians, Libyans, Iraqis, Palestinians, Iranians and so on, about who is a tyrant.

In modern times, the one who screams louder is right, so propaganda is working at full strength. Soon we will know much more about Russia than about our own countries.

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    Why do you say NATO members can only defend NATO members? What about the Libya intervention? That was an operation by NATO countries to end attacks on Libyan citizens. Libya is not a NATO country.
    – JJJ
    Jan 24 at 1:19
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    "hysteria about the possible invasion" I'm puzzled. There is already an invasion and occupation of the territory of Ukraine going on, and Russia has moved 100,000 troops to the border. This is from a nation who is supposed to be guaranteeing the territorial integrity of Ukraine. Why is it hysteria that Russia would continue doing what it is currently doing, only more? Also, NATO members can defend whomever they want; they are only treaty obligated by NATO to defend each other.
    – Yakk
    Jan 24 at 17:20
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    NATO members can defend whoever they want. NATO members are not obliged to defend non-NATO members though.
    – Denis
    Jan 24 at 23:51
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    @Yakk - Yes, NATO members can indeed protect anyone. But in the case of their personal initiative, if it's not agreed with other members of the alliance, other NATO members will not be required to fight because someone decided to help on their own initiative. And the rest you are really right. Any country can protect anyone, for this it is not necessary to be a member of NATO. Jan 25 at 17:56
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    @TestablePotato NATO countries do not need to coordinate anything to defend anyone. Any NATO country can unilaterally use its armed forces without the need to coordinate any actions with their NATO allies. Whether they will do so is a completely different matter. I understand that modal verbs can be a challenge to you as a non-native English speaker but please don't present your opinion as facts.
    – Denis
    Jan 25 at 19:00

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