Analysis |

Ukraine Needs More Than Just Sympathy to Fend Off Russia. Here's Why It Won't Get It

NATO has refused to combat Russian aggression because Ukraine is not a member state. This cold policy, however, hasn’t stopped the organization intervening in past conflicts

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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People paint the figures of Soviet soldiers using Ukrainian flag colors at the base of the Soviet Army monument in Sofia, Bulgaria, this week.
People paint the figures of Soviet soldiers using Ukrainian flag colors at the base of the Soviet Army monument in Sofia, Bulgaria, this week.Credit: Nikolay DOYCHINOV / AFP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

“Prove to us that you’re with us. Prove to us that you won’t let us go. Prove that you really are Europeans so that life will overcome death and light will overcome the darkness,” pleaded Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy through a screen, before members of the European Parliament, which convened for a special session to discuss the crisis in Ukraine. The respected members, sporting small Ukrainian flag lapel pins on their suits, rose and applauded in honor of the president who is fighting for the life of his country as well as his own, and carried on discussing Ukraine’s official request to join the European Union.

At the same time, in London, a center was opened to collect food and clothing for some half a million refugees who have already fled their homeland, most of them to Poland. Social networks are filled with declarations of support, sympathy and pledges to volunteer. The strongest of the economic sanctions imposed on Russia by the international community have already gone into effect and are throwing the Russian economy into crisis. Only one body – the only one that can significantly threaten the Russian occupation – is still playing hide and seek.

The NATO alliance is still not ready to enter a war for Ukrainian independence. The president of the United States, and like him the leaders of all the members of the alliance established after World War II, have determined that there “will be no Western boots” on Ukrainian soil. Nor will there be planes, tanks or cannons.

The official reason is that Ukraine is not a NATO member and therefore the organization is not obligated to defend it militarily. The unofficial reason is that the United States and the West in general are afraid of a third world war that could escalate into a nuclear conflict. Legally, NATO’s position is well enshrined in its treaty. As long as no member country has asked to activate Article 5 of the treaty, which defines the essence of collective defense, namely that an attack on one country is regarded as an attack on all the member countries—the alliance is exempt from taking action.

Members of the European Parliament applaud Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy at the end of his speech, on Tuesday.Credit: Virginia Mayo/AP

But this chilly legal stance didn’t stop NATO from attacking three countries in the past, none of which were members of the organization. To this day, it is debatable whether such wars presented a threat to NATO countries.

In 1995, NATO was asked by UN Secretary General Boutrus Boutrus-Ghali to immediately start shelling the Bosnian Serb army (the army of Republika Srpska), which had violated the borders of the no-flight zone in Bosnia that was defined by the United Nation as a safe area for Bosnian refugees.

Ghali sought to protect human life and prevent ethnic cleansing and genocide, though the war did not threaten the security of NATO countries or UN member countries. In spite of that, NATO’s activity was considered legitimate, because the organization was asked by the United Nations and authorized by the UN Security Council. Prof. Sharon Pardo, president of the Israeli Association of International Studies and a lecturer in the Department of Politics and Government at Ben Gurion University of the Negev, explained to Haaretz that according to the UN Charter, “Any use of force by a country or an organization against another country requires the authorization of the Security Council. Without the approval of the Security Council such an activity will be considered illegal.”

U.S. President Bill Clinton, however, did not secure such authorization in 1999, when together with NATO forces he ordered an attack against the forces of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, which were perpetrating what was described as the genocide of the Albanians in Kosovo. Although Clinton turned to the UN Security Council to receive its authorization for the military action, the request was rejected by a veto of Russia and China. In spite of that, in contradiction to the UN Charter, and despite the fact that the war in Kosovo did not threaten any of the NATO countries, Clinton activated his army and the NATO forces. Here, too, the threat of genocide and violation of human rights served as the basis of the U.S. president’s decision.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg speaks during a press conference at the NATO headquarters in Brussels, last month.Credit: Kenzo TRIBOUILLARD / AFP

Prof. Pardo explains that over the years, a number of UN resolutions and legal decisions have become part of international law. According to them, violations of human rights undermine international security and therefore can serve as a basis for military intervention, and can indirectly activate Article 5 of the NATO Treaty as well. But “Even in this case there is an obligation to receive the authorization of the Security Council for every action that does not constitute the self-defense of those activating it in an exceptional manner.”

NATO forces were activated for the third time even when these two basic conditions – the protection of human rights and/or a threat to a NATO country – did not exist. In 2011, NATO aircraft attacked the forces of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya that were fighting those rebelling against him—marking a turning point in the conflict that led to Gaddafi’s downfall and murder. U.S. President Barack Obama was harshly criticized at the time for his decision to attack Libya along with NATO forces, but the president rejected the criticism. He asserted that he had acted according to the 2005 UN General Assembly resolution, which was signed by all the countries in the organization and determines “the responsibility to protect its populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity,” implemented when the country where these crimes are committed is incapable of taking responsibility. This doctrine was activated for the first time in Libya, but in a typically selective manner it was abandoned when the civil rebellion took place in Yemen and Sudan.

In Ukraine there are increasing signs that the government is incapable of protecting its citizens from a massive Russian attack—one that threatens human rights and includes actions that can be defined as crimes against humanity, only to worsen when the Russian forces take control of additional parts of the country. But as opposed to the NATO intervention in Bosnia, Kosovo and Libya, where there was no danger or threat to NATO members or to “world peace,” international protection of human life or human rights in Ukraine presents a tremendous threat to world security, due to the potential of a military confrontation with Russia.

Ukrainian soldiers in Luhansk, on Tuesday.Credit: ANATOLII STEPANOV - AFP

This consideration is now nullifying the validity of humanitarian considerations and creating two categories of citizens: those who can benefit from international protection and those who will be forced to make do with words of encouragement and consolation, alongside shipments of food and clothing. The dividing line between these two types of citizens is determined by their geographical proximity to Russia. In this division, the basic principle that guides NATO and Western countries in general is likely to collapse: namely, the principle that requires all the countries of the organization to come to the defense of a member country that is attacked.

Although in Ukraine there is a legal excuse for non-intervention, will NATO and its members be willing to go to war against Russia if Russia decides to attack “marginal” countries such as Lithuania, Latvia or Estonia? Will it be worthwhile to bring about a world war because of them, or can they expect a fate similar to that of Ukraine: to fall through the tortuous cracks of the interpretation of international treaties?

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