WASHINGTON – NATO members on Friday pledged to continue building up the alliance’s eastern flank, positioning Russia’s attack on Ukraine as a stress test for democracies in eastern Europe.
“The Kremlin is trying to make NATO and the [European Union] provide less support to our partners,” Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg told reporters in Brussels Friday. “So our collective answer must be more support — to countries like Georgia, Moldova, and Bosnia and Herzegovina — to help them succeed with their democratic reforms, and pursue the path that they have freely chosen.”
The second day of Russia’s Ukraine invasion brought more pledges of support to Kyiv — the Estonians are sending more Javelin antitank weapons, for example — as well as a NATO-wide push to strengthen at-risk members formerly part of the Soviet Union.
Speaking to reporters in Washington on Friday afternoon, Ukraine’s ambassador to the United States, Oksana Markarova, acknowledged Ukrainian forces have been using Javelin anti-tank and Stinger anti-aircraft missiles supplied by allies.
“We are using them actively and very effectively,” she said, adding that Ukraine is requesting more, “working very closely” with U.S. and other allies.
In Brussels, Stoltenberg trumpeted the alliance’s raised defensive posture. “The United States, Canada and European allies have deployed thousands of more troops to the eastern part of the alliance,” he said. “We have over 100 jets at high alert operating in over 30 different locations, and over 120 ships from the High North to the Mediterranean, including three strike carrier groups.”
The measures come as Western leaders grappled with the unpredictability of President Vladimir Putin’s military operations against Ukraine.
German Defense Minister Christine Lambrecht said there’s a glimmer of hope, though “no certainty,” that Putin would shy away from crossing additional boundaries, according to a report by German press agency dpa late Friday. Speaking to German TV channel ZDF, she said it is hard to predict where “someone with such a pronounced grand-power addiction wants to go.”
Germany announced it would deploy a company-strong Army formation for an “enhanced vigilance activity battlegroup” to Slovakia that would grow to a full battlegroup size by April. Berlin also committed to sending Patriot air-defense capabilities to the country, which borders Ukraine in the east, Poland in the north and Hungary in the south.
Friday also brought more discussion as to whether Finland, which borders Russia, and Sweden might eventually join NATO. Until recently, both countries have praised their partnership with the alliance, but leaders have demurred when asked about full membership.
After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on Thursday, that may be poised to change. Finnish news outlet YLE News reported Thursday the nation’s prime minister, Sanna Marin, said that while Finland “is not currently facing an immediate military threat ... it is also now clear that the debate on NATO membership in Finland will change.”
Sweden, Finland and top European Union leaders attended a NATO meeting of leaders on Friday afternoon. During that meeting, Russia’s foreign affairs ministry warned that Helsinki’s accession to NATO would end in “serious military and political repercussions.”
Russia’s actions are pushing Finland closer to NATO membership than ever before, said Alexander Stubb, who served as Finland’s prime minister from 2014 to 2015. “Our security has been partially based on an option to join. At this rate we have no other option but to join,” he posted on Twitter. “Finland’s accession would strengthen the alliance and help keep Northern Europe stable.”
Meanwhile, Ukraine’s armed forces were putting up a fight on Friday against Russian troops closing in.
“We do assess that there is greater resistance by the Ukrainians than the Russians expected. They are fighting for their country,” a senior U.S. defense official said.
But Russia has so far employed only a third of its ready forces, and leaders are bracing for the fighting to intensify and Kyiv to be overrun in the coming days. Further south, Russia launched an amphibious assault to the west of Mariupol in southeastern Ukraine, with the potential for thousands of naval forces to come ashore there.
An adviser to Ukraine’s deputy prime minister, Olena Sotnyk, said the next 48 hours would be pivotal and that without decisive action from the West, it is “almost not possible” for Ukrainian forces to defeat Russia’s full military might. “That’s why we are asking the international community to interfere not just with diplomatic means, but with particular military support and financial support.”
Sebastian Sprenger is associate editor for Europe at Defense News, reporting on the state of the defense market in the region, and on U.S.-Europe cooperation and multi-national investments in defense and global security. Previously he served as managing editor for Defense News. He is based in Cologne, Germany.
Vivienne Machi is a reporter based in Stuttgart, Germany, contributing to Defense News' European coverage. She previously reported for National Defense Magazine, Defense Daily, Via Satellite, Foreign Policy and the Dayton Daily News. She was named the Defence Media Awards' best young defense journalist in 2020.
Joe Gould is the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He served previously as Congress reporter.