“Russia has attacked Ukraine,” Stoltenberg told reporters from NATO headquarters in Brussels. “Peace in our continent has been shattered.”
Stoltenberg’s remarks followed an extraordinary meeting of NATO members and formal requests by officials in eight Eastern European and Baltic nations, including Poland and Estonia, to hold a security consultation under Article 4 of NATO’s 1949 founding treaty. The measure lets allies register their defense concerns in a way that stops short of a formal request for assistance after an attack.
Russia launched a military assault against Ukraine early Thursday, with attacks coming “from the north, east and south,” according to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who declared martial law and broke off diplomatic ties with Moscow, as Ukrainian forces tried to push back Russian forces advancing toward the capital, Kyiv.
Ukraine is not a member of NATO but has expressed a desire to join. Russia contends that the eastward expansion of NATO – which has accepted nearly a dozen Central and Eastern European nations as members since the breakup of the Soviet Union – poses an existential threat.
The North Atlantic Council, the alliance’s main political decision-making body, said in a statement Thursday that it has decided “to take additional steps to further strengthen deterrence and defense across the Alliance,” as it warned that “Russia will pay a very heavy economic and political price ”for its actions.
Details of NATO’s new plans are scarce. Stoltenberg told reporters in Brussels on Thursday that the alliance has activated its defense plans at the request of its top military commander, Gen. Tod Wolters. The plans, Stoltenberg said, “will enable us to deploy capabilities and forces, including the NATO Response Force, to where they are needed.”
Justyna Gotkowska, a program coordinator at the Center for Eastern Studies, a Warsaw-based think tank, said next steps may involve sending troops from the Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF), a contingent of about 20,000 rapid-response forces, to NATO’s eastern flank. She expects to see “more European allies involved in enhancing military presence on the eastern flank,” she said.
NATO does not have a legal obligation to defend Ukraine from an invasion, Gotkowska said. Yet NATO and Ukraine are partners, and since Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, the alliance has invested in programs to help Ukraine ensure its own security.
Earlier Thursday, NATO member states called for security consultations to be held under Article 4 of the NATO treaty, which states that countries “will consult together whenever, in the opinion of any of them, the territorial integrity, political independence or security of any of the Parties is threatened.”
Member countries did not invoke Article 5, which outlines a common pledge from all NATO countries that they will come to one another’s defense if one of them is attacked. It has been invoked only once – in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the United States. However, Stoltenberg said NATO’s commitments to the security of its eastern European members show “that our collective defense commitment” under Article 5 “is ironclad.”
The United States is the most powerful NATO member and has agreed to come to the defense of all NATO allies if they are in need. Earlier this month, President Biden pledged that “the United States will defend every inch of NATO territory with the full force of American power,” and characterized the US commitment to Article 5 as “sacrosanct.”
Gotkowska said NATO would be expected to invoke Article 5 only if Russia attacked one of its member countries directly – what Stoltenberg on Thursday referred to as a “spillover” of the conflict into nearby NATO member states, such as Hungary, Slovakia or Poland.
Biden has deployed extra military resources to Central and Eastern Europe, including sending US troops to Romania and Poland, but has said they will not fight in Ukraine. The Pentagon on Tuesday detailed a new round of deployments to Eastern Europe, sending fighter jets, attack helicopters and infantry as it bolsters security in the region.
On Thursday, Stoltenberg said that “there are no NATO combat troops inside Ukraine at all” and emphasized that NATO has no intention of deploying NATO troops to fight in Ukraine. But the head of NATO said Thursday’s attack could change the long-term balance of power in Europe and dramatically alter NATO relations with Moscow.
“We do not have all the answers today, but there will be a new reality,” he said. “It will be a New Europe after the invasion we saw today.”
Jennifer Hassan and Dan Lamothe contributed to this report.