The United States, NATO, and Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine

The world is now almost nine months into Russia full scale invasion of Ukraine begun on February 24, 2022. With the cold of winter coming and speculation that resolve of Ukraine’s allies in supporting the country may be severely tried, it is important to lay forth what the important interests of the United States are in Russia being unsuccessful in their attempts to conquer the Ukrainian people.

Critics of American military support for the defense of Ukraine from Russian aggression focus on NATO. These critics, from such politically disparate sources as the Democratic Socialists of America and Fox News’ Tucker Carlson, invariably place blame on the United States and NATO for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. To understand the utter illogic of their arguments an understanding of why NATO was formed and what it has achieved is necessary.

NATO is sometimes seen as a grouping of Western European and North American countries whose reason for being is to counter Russia, and earlier the spread of Communism. This is certainly part of the reason for NATO’s emergence but not the only reason. NATO initially grew out of a desire of France and Great Britain at the end of World War II to stop Germany from ever again dragging Europe into the wholesale destruction of the previous 30 years.

After the last seventy-five plus years of peace between France, Great Britain, and Germany, many have forgotten that these three powers fought some of the bloodiest battles in history in the prior thirty plus years. Both France and Great Britain fought against Germany, and with Russia (mostly) as an ally, during World War I from 1914 to 1918 and World War II from 1939 to 1945.

The original 12 founding members in 1948 of NATO included Great Britain, France, the United States, Canada, much of the rest of western Europe, and Italy. NATO expanded in 1952 with the entry of two countries with a great deal of historical animosity, Greece and Turkey. The next expansion was West Germany joining in 1955. Bringing West Germany into the alliance was as important for the alliance in curtailing Germany’s historical militarism as it was in adding another bulwark against the spread of communism.

The NATO alliance was intended to serve as a deterrence to war on the European continent and for the members of NATO it has served remarkably well for decades. Western Europe has been prosperous and at peace largely due to NATO and the inclusion within it of nations and peoples that historically have not always been on good terms with each other, to put it mildly. In addition, for all the tensions centered on the rivalry between the United States dominated NATO and the Russian/Soviet dominated Warsaw Pact, NATO and the Warsaw Pact never fought a “hot” war in Europe.

The Warsaw Pact came into being at the same time West Germany joined NATO in 1955. The Warsaw Pact was a military alliance between the communist countries of Eastern and Central Europe and was intended to serve as a counter to NATO. Whereas NATO has served to keep the peace between NATO members who were and sometimes still are bitter rivals, the same could not be said for the Warsaw Pact. Warsaw Pact member the Soviet Union invaded Warsaw Pact member Hungary after Hungary withdrew in 1956. The Soviet Union then clawed Hungary back into the military alliance. Likewise, the single largest military action the Warsaw Pact ever engaged in was when multiple Warsaw Pact members, led by the Soviet Union, invaded Warsaw Pact member Czechoslovakia in 1968 to crush the so-called Prague Spring.  Again, Czechoslovakia was brought firmly back into the fold. The beginning of the end for the Warsaw Pact came about with the toppling of the former communist regimes in Eastern and Central Europe beginning in 1989 and the Pact finally dissolved in 1991, along with the Soviet Union.

Once their communist overlords were deposed and the Russian dominated Warsaw Pact no more, most of the Pact’s former members as well as many former Soviet Republics could not join NATO quick enough. NATO was seen as the best way to assure the peoples of the former communist countries of Eastern and Central Europe that they no longer had to live under the thumb of Russia.

 The first former communist country to join NATO was East Germany, although East Germany did not technically join NATO but West Germany and East Germany reunified as Germany in 1990 as a member of NATO. In 1999, Poland, which had been invaded by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union in 1939, Hungary, which had been invaded by the Soviet Union in 1956, and the Czech Republic, which had been invaded by the Soviet Union and others while part of Czechoslovakia in 1968, all joined NATO. By 1999, the first two countries that Germany invaded in World War II, Czechoslovakia and Poland, were now in a defense alliance with Germany along with the two countries, France and Great Britain, that declared war on Germany as a result of its invasion of Poland.

In 2004, the three former Soviet Republics of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuanian in the Baltics joined NATO as did the former Warsaw Pact countries of Romania and Bulgaria and the former constituent part of communist Yugoslavia, Slovenia. The three tiny Baltic nations bordering Russia all had been forcibly incorporated into the Soviet Union and have sizable Russian minorities. All three feared Russian domination in the future.

Russia’s former allies have largely sought membership in NATO to protect themselves from future Russian domination. Russia, though, considers NATO expanding its defensive umbrella to include countries Russia has invaded with impunity in the past to be a threat.

Which brings us to Ukraine. The Ukrainians suffered immeasurably under Russia domination as part of the Soviet Union, particularly in the early 1930’s. During the so-called Holodomor millions of Ukrainian peasant farmers were starved to death by Soviet Dictator Joseph Stalin during his forced collectivization of agriculture in 1932-1933. Because Ukraine is a former Soviet Republic that Russia feels especially close to historically and culturally, Russia has claimed to be particularly threatened by Ukraine joining NATO. Russia was so threatened by the prospect of Ukraine joining NATO that it felt the right to preemptively attack the country and forcibly annex Ukraine, in whole or in part, to Russia. Russia sought to prove that it was foolish for Ukraine to seek to put itself under NATO’s defensive umbrella by attacking Ukraine.

So what now should the policy of the United States be, as the dominate military force in NATO, now that Russia has invaded a non-NATO country?

As stated above, NATO has been instrumental in bringing an unprecedented period of peace to the countries under its protective umbrella. Russia understands that Article Five of the NATO Charter means that an attack upon any one NATO member is to be treated by the alliance as an attack upon all NATO members. Russia had the courage to attack Ukraine precisely because it is not a member of NATO. Those NATO members with firsthand experience of Russia aggression in the recent past and who are Russia nearest neighbors, Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, Poland, the Czech Republic, are the NATO members most concerned about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and what a victorious Russia may mean for them. These are the NATO countries most at risk from an expansionist Russia and consequently the most supportive of the Ukrainians in their time of need..

One of Russia’s goals in their invasion was to undermine NATO by showing that the former communist countries under its defensive umbrella were not truly protected. Russia wanted to show that when a cold war turned hot the United States and the Western European powers would not or could not come to the aid of Russia’s fellow Slavs. The United States has a vested interest in proving the Russians wrong. The United States has a vested interest in a peaceful and stable Europe, both East and West. The United States has a vested interest in showing to all NATO members, including those peoples formerly under Russian domination, that our commitment to the sovereignty of all NATO members is strong.

As stated above, though, Ukraine is not a NATO country. But many of Russia’s near neighbors are members of NATO and a successful Russian invasion of Ukraine would be seen as a real threat to those NATO members. A Russian victory in Ukraine would destabilize the whole region and threaten the commitment of Eastern and Central European NATO members to the alliance. Poland has accepted millions of Ukrainian refugees for altruistic reasons but also because Poland realizes the danger to them of Russia defeating Ukraine. Ukraine’s defeat would greatly diminish the influence of the United States and greatly enhance the influence of Russia.

The United States support for non-NATO Ukraine should not put at risk our ability to meet our commitments to defend our NATO allies. In supporting Ukraine the United States must balance the level of support for Ukraine to the risk that our support for Ukraine threatens other NATO allies, or even ourselves. Russian President Vladimir Putin has threatened from the very beginning that any support of the United States to Ukraine risks Russian retaliation. Like many of Russia’s threats, Russia’s bark has been far worse than its bite. Russia knew even before they even invaded almost nine months ago that arms for Ukraine were being funneled through Poland and has done nothing to strike that NATO country. Russia is scared of NATO and for good reason.

The United States does not need to supply Ukraine with our most advanced weapons or even vast quantities of our less advanced weapons to tip the tide of battle in Ukraine’s favor. The Ukrainians have been very creative and have done the whole world a great service by exposing the incompetence, disorganization, and corruption plaquing the Russian military. Ukraine has driven the Russians from Kyiv, Kharkiv, and Kherson not with our MQ9 Reaper Drones, Abrams tanks, Apache Helicopters, or even our ancient B-52 Bombers. Ukraine has effectively defended themselves against the Russians with Javelin missiles, night goggles, and body armor. Most of the weapons our NATO allies have supplied Ukraine with are old Soviet weapons that the Ukrainians are trained on and familiar with.

The one American weapon that is given the most credit for helping Ukraine push back the Russians is the HIMARS system, or High Mobility Artillery Rocket System, developed in the late 1990’s. The United States sent Ukraine less than two dozen HIMARS out of our stock of 400 plus. The munitions for the HIMARS that the United States supplied to Ukraine are not even the longest range munitions HIMARS is capable of firing that we have in our arsenals. The range of the munitions we sent is approximately 50 miles, which has greatly increased Ukraine’s punching power but is far short of the range of 185 plus miles of munitions we possessed but have not given the Ukrainians.

The United States has not written the Ukrainians a blank check to supply them with our weapons systems. The United States, relative to our stores of weapons, has given the Ukrainians only a very small percentage of our arsenal, and not even our most advanced and powerful weapons. But even with these very limited additions to the weapons the Ukrainians already possessed or those supplied by others the Ukrainians have beaten back a Russian army which was once lauded as the second most powerful in the world. I would like to see the United States provide Ukraine with a greater quantity and more advanced weapons, especially in air defense capabilities, but not a blank check or “boots on the ground.”

The United States should continue to supply Ukraine with the weapons they need to drive out the Russians while balancing the risks of a wider war. A primary concern when considering providing Ukraine with a particular weapons system should be the Ukrainians ability to be trained on and effectively deploy those weapons in combat, not the bellicose threats of Putin and the Russian ultra-nationalists.  Despite all the posturing and verbiage, Putin and Russia know that their military has been exposed as largely hollow and ill lead. Russia could not hold the Ukrainian city of Kherson which is less than 400 miles from the Russian city of Rostov on Don. The Russians are not a real threat to NATO, unless their aggression is allowed to go undeterred.

Every Russian tank destroyed by a non-NATO Ukrainian soldier wielding an American made Javelin missile is a Russian tank that will never roll into NATO members Poland, Estonia, Latvia, or Lithuania. With certainty we can predict that no Russian plane or helicopter felled by a Stinger missile in Ukraine will ever fly over NATO members Czechoslovakia or Germany. It has been said many times since Russia began its full-scale invasion of Ukraine earlier this year, but the Ukrainian people truly are fighting our war, and their successes benefit all of us. If the Ukrainians defeat the most aggressive military in Europe today, we won’t have to fight them tomorrow.

The Ukrainians defeating and pushing Russia out of their sovereign territory, with our material and diplomatic support, is in our best interests, NATO’s best interests, and the best interests of the whole world.