NATO and the Invasion, One Year On

Next year will mark 75 years since NATO was founded in 1949. The Atlantic alliance has faced many challenges over seven decades, but Russia’s war of conquest in Ukraine might be its biggest test yet.

One year on from Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, NATO has played two important roles: enabling Ukraine to defend itself and containing the conflict through strengthening its own deterrence. The war in Ukraine is tragic enough; a wider conflict with Russia would be truly catastrophic.

NATO’s two roles are also interdependent. The emerging specter of equipment or munitions shortages among allies suggests NATO may need to choose in future between strengthening Ukraine’s deterrence or its own.

Stronger deterrence also supports Ukraine by enabling allies to transfer arms to Ukraine without fear of reprisal. Yet one year on from the invasion and eight months after its summit in Madrid, progress in implementing the commitments to strengthen NATO’s defense and deterrence has been mixed.

With this in mind, another important anniversary for NATO—and Ukraine—is the one in July when Lithuania will host the next NATO summit in Vilnius, where allies must show credible progress in implementing the historic commitments they made in Madrid.

Supporting Ukraine’s Self-Defense

While NATO-Ukraine relations date back to Ukraine’s independence in 1991, NATO’s practical support for Ukraine was dramatically increased after Russia’s full-scale invasion. Since Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, NATO has supported Ukraine through the 2016 Comprehensive Assistance Package for Ukraine—which included nonlethal equipment, training, capacity building, cyber defense, logistics and interoperability with NATO forces—and the provision of training and defensive equipment by NATO allies.

This package was strengthened at the June Madrid summit in two ways. First, with around $100 million of further nonlethal military assistance—such as fuel, medical supplies, anti-drone systems and counter-mine equipment. Second, to include longer-term support for postwar reconstruction and reform of Ukraine's defense and security institutions—such as helping Ukraine transition from Soviet-era equipment to modern NATO weapon systems. In response to Russia’s cynical bombing campaign aimed at civilian infrastructure over the winter, NATO also extended its support to help Ukraine rebuild its electrical infrastructure and cope with power shortages.

To support Ukraine’s self-defense NATO allies have provided around $150 billion in military and financial assistance and levied massive sanctions on the Russian economy. Most of the military assistance has been organized bilaterally rather than through NATO to avoid fueling any “Russia versus NATO” narrative. The main forum is the U.S.-led Ukraine Defence Contact Group of over 50 nations that met last week for the ninth time since the war began and has committed nearly $50 billion—or “more than eight combat brigades” worth—in military aid to Ukraine, including air defense systems, heavy artillery, modern main battle tanks, and now training for Ukrainian fighter jet pilots.

However, after a year of assistance at least two problems with this model are becoming apparent. The first is that matériel is not getting there fast enough. To make the support count, equipment must get there before Russia’s spring offensive gains momentum. According to NATO secretary general Jens Stoltenberg, “It is clear that we are in a race of logistics. Key capabilities like ammunition, fuel, and spare parts must reach Ukraine before Russia can seize the initiative on the battlefield. Speed will save lives.”

The second problem is the impact of weapons transfers on NATO’s own stockpiles of equipment and ammunition. This is compounded by allies’ limited industrial capacity to quickly produce more. According to Secretary General Stoltenberg, Ukraine is using up ammunition much faster than its allies can produce it. NATO defense ministers took stock of the problem at their meeting last week. While they agreed to work with defense industry and reviewed NATO capability targets for munition stockpiles, no solution to the production gap was offered. This looked even starker against the announcement that eight nations joined the Multinational Ammunition Warehousing Initiative to store the very munition stockpiles that are fast disappearing.

Made in Madrid: NATO’s Commitment to Strengthen Deterrence

The munitions stockpile problem highlights the link between NATO’s support to Ukraine and the defense and deterrence of NATO’s eastern flank. Strong deterrence enables arms transfers by NATO allies to Ukraine by removing the fear of intimidation or attacks. Yet if NATO allies sustain their current pace of arms transfers “for as long as it takes,” resultant equipment or munitions shortages may result in NATO strengthening Ukraine’s deterrence at the expense of its own.

Strengthening deterrence was the centerpiece of NATO’s Madrid summit in June. It was also central to the new Strategic Concept, which commits to “deter and defend forward with robust in-place, multi-domain, combat-ready forces”—in other words, moving away from a “trip-wire deterrence” to a Cold War-style forward defense. NATO made several commitments in Madrid to strengthen conventional deterrence against armed attack, including more forward deployed combat formations, a much larger high readiness force, prepositioned equipment, and preassigned national forces.

When making these commitments, Secretary General Stoltenberg admitted “the biggest overhaul [of] our collective defence since the end of the Cold War” will not happen straightaway: “We'll take the decision now and then we'll start implementation and then they will be available and ready next year.”

Eight months on, Madrid implementation looks mixed. Some progress has been made standing up new battlegroups and preassigning NATO response forces. For example, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, and Canada have all pledged high readiness brigades to eastern Europe. Yet at least three gaps are apparent.

The first is deploying more combat forces. An important Madrid pledge was to scale up the eight existing multinational battlegroups (around 1,000 personnel) to “brigade-size units where and when required” (up to 5,000 personnel). Yet none have yet been upgraded—even if Germany has deployed a 100-strong Brigade headquarters to Lithuania and the United Kingdom will surge one to Estonia in support of Exercise Spring Storm in May. In Romania, the French battlegroup appears at half strength given additional forces from other nations “are not integrated into the NATO battlegroup.” Meanwhile, minilateral formations like the Joint Expeditionary Force may offer a more flexible way of moving allied forces into areas of concern.

The second is filling NATO’s new force model. One headline-grabbing commitment made by NATO in Madrid was to increase its response force of high readiness units from 40,000 to over 300,000 personnel through a new force model. This initiative got off to a bad start with some allies taken by surprise at the scale of the plans. There are few signs the ambition is on track to meet its goal of being completed this year. For example, according to one analysis the scale of forces required by Germany will be difficult to generate given that “since 2014, Germany has been unable to provide NATO with a single brigade . . .  providing two more brigades in the brief period remaining will require a superhuman effort.”

The third gap is the one between rhetoric and reality on “forward defense”: Is NATO’s level of ambition high enough to deter a more aggressive and unpredictable Russia—even if it has less capable land forces in the short term? During the Cold War NATO’s military planners based their defense and deterrence posture on the Soviet Union’s “maximum intentions and capabilities.” By agreeing “new guidance for NATO’s defence planning” at last week’s meeting of defense ministers, today’s NATO planners have now enshrined the Madrid level of ambition in the first step of the alliance’s four-year-long defense planning process. They need to be sure their guidance—and the force posture and capability targets that result—is sufficient to deal with the Kremlin’s maximum intentions.

Toward Vilnius: One Year On From Madrid

Another milestone on the horizon for NATO is the July summit in Lithuania. The Vilnius summit matters because it gives NATO a target for implementing the historic decisions taken in Madrid—on defense and deterrence, but also on the wider aspects of its new Strategic Concept.

Foremost is the accession of Finland and Sweden. Hungary and Turkey are yet to ratify and continue to impose conditions on membership—the latter may hold off on a decision until after presidential elections in May.

Another priority in the concept is NATO-EU cooperation, which was given a boost by their recent joint declaration. Deterring hybrid threats has also seen progress with a new NATO-EU resilience taskforce and NATO Critical Undersea Infrastructure Coordination Cell. On partnerships, NATO defense ministers agreed to step up vital support to “other partners at risk, including Bosnia and Herzegovina, Georgia and Moldova” as they experience escalating pressure from Moscow.

The largest space project in NATO’s history—which will use a virtual constellation of national and commercial space assets to provide Alliance Persistent Surveillance from Space—shows the potential of emerging technologies and innovation. The NATO secretary general’s visit to South Korea and Japan also demonstrates the concept’s increased focus on the Indo-Pacific, where Beijing is closely watching events in Ukraine—and NATO’s response.

Finally, neither stronger defense and deterrence nor any of the ambitions in the new Strategic Concept will be possible without rising defense investment. At the top of the agenda in Vilnius may be a new defense investment pledge to replace the one made in 2014 (which runs out next year)—something Secretary General Stoltenberg hinted at last week.

The first anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is important. It offers an opportunity for the world to reflect on the horror of Russia’s actions, the resilience of the Ukrainian people, and the solidarity of Western nations. But for NATO another anniversary looms, which may matter more: the Vilnius summit in July, by which the alliance must implement the targets it set one year ago in Madrid. Looking even further ahead, another big milestone is on the horizon: NATO’s 75th anniversary in Washington, where it all started.

Sean Monaghan is a visiting fellow in the Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Gabriella Bolstad is the Stuart Center visiting fellow with the Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program at CSIS.


Sean Monaghan
Visiting Fellow, Europe, Russia and Eurasia Program
Gabriella Kristine Bolstad

Gabriella Bolstad

Former Stuart Center Visiting Fellow, Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program