Commentary

NATO’s Help to Ukraine Could Deter Russia From Territorial Expansion

Leaders in the Baltic states tied the international reaction to Russia’s invasion to their own futures, linking the defense of Ukraine to the defense of NATO.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is being anxiously watched by nearby states who wonder if they are next. This question is of critical importance for the NATO members in the Baltics — will the alliance will stand firm if Vladimir Putin comes for them next?

They – like many other states – are using NATO’s response to Ukraine to gauge the alliance’s reliability. Ukraine is not a member of NATO, but its shared Soviet history and ties to Western Europe have led many to assume that the NATO response to Ukraine holds clues to the alliance’s response to territorial threats.

Even before the Russian invasion of Ukraine the credibility of the alliance was in question because of the Trump administration’s ambivalence and antipathy towards the alliance members and cozying up to Russia.

Baltic States

Leaders in the Baltic states tied the international reaction to Russia’s invasion to their own futures, linking the defense of Ukraine to the defense of NATO.

“We in Lithuania know it very well that Ukraine is fighting not just for Ukraine, but for us in the region, Europe, and everyone in the democratic world,” Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis said.

“It is our obligation not just to punish Russia for its actions but to help Ukraine with all and every means available. Now.”

Similarly, Latvian President Eglis Levits wrote on Twitter, “I condemn the full-scale invasion that President Putin has launched on Ukraine. A firm reaction from the international community must follow. NATO will defend itself and its values. We #StandWithUkraine.”

NATO’s Reaction

The Baltic states have reason to be concerned. In his February 21 “Grievance Speech,” Putin laid out a vision for restoring the pre-Soviet Russian Empire. Putin argued that the Soviet Union was mistaken to allow secession of republics like Ukraine or the Baltic states.

Russian President Vladimir Putin
Russian President Vladimir PutinPhoto: Ramil Sitdikov/AFP/Getty Images

Though Ukraine is not a member of NATO, Latvia and Lithuania believe NATO’s reaction to Ukraine is a harbinger for their own futures which might be threatened if Russia pursues broader revisionist aims.

That fear and uncertainty is partially why the Baltic states, joined by Poland, invoked immediate consultation under NATO Article 4, which applies whenever a member of the alliance feels its territorial integrity or political independence is threatened.

Efforts to Help Ukraine

The Biden administration and the most powerful NATO member states are aware that faith in the alliance needs to reinforced, and have taken steps to signal their resolve, both to push back Russian aggression and to reassure their fellow allies.

Some of the strongest signals concern arms transfers to Ukraine.

Countries beyond the Baltics are stepping up their efforts to help Ukraine, suggesting that the NATO alliance does see defending Ukraine as an important signal.

For the first time, the EU funded the purchase and transfer of weapons to a nation under attack.

Germany has agreed to arm Ukraine, and also increased its own military spending, a sharp reversal from its earlier decision to send medical aid and field helmets.

Turkey has called for NATO to be more decisive about Ukraine, and has discussed closing the Bosphorus under the Montreaux Convention.

The United States authorized $350 million in weapons transfers, including Javelin anti-tank weapons, in what Secretary of State Antony Blinken said was “another clear signal that the United States stands with the people of Ukraine.”

The US joins a growing list of countries sending military aid, which is of use on the battlefield and a strong signal of political support.

Putin Revisionist Aims

The signals that the alliance will stand firm are especially important in light of Putin’s clearly revisionist aims in restoring the Russian Empire. Standing firm is also likely to attract new members to the alliance, who seek the reliability and strength of NATO.

Finland is now debating joining the alliance, a U-turn from its January 2022 statement that it was not interested in NATO membership.

By helping Ukraine, NATO sends signals of resoluteness that could deter Russia from additional aggressive actions and attempts at territorial expansion.


Bryan Nakayama (@b__nakayama) works on the intersection between emerging technology and national security. He is a visiting lecturer in politics at Mount Holyoke.

Jen Spindel (@JenSpindel) works on international security, foreign policy, and signaling, and is an assistant professor at the University of New Hampshire.

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