When NATO leaders meet for an “extraordinary” summit in Brussels on Thursday, the top priority will be Russia’s war in Ukraine — and how far the alliance is willing to go to deter Russian President Vladimir Putin.
But while the summit will likely lead to new commitments for military and humanitarian aid to Ukraine, experts say harsher measures that could be seen as direct military engagement with Russia remain off the table. That’s despite increasing international pressure to intervene in what’s becoming a protracted and bloody conflict.
“NATO’s unity has been so important in shaping this conflict in Ukraine, and this meeting will be an important symbol of that,” says Timothy Andrew Sayle, director of the international relations program at the University of Toronto.
“So far, they’ve reached an equilibrium between supporting the Ukrainians and not providing the Russians an opportunity to escalate the war, and I expect that will continue.”
That unity may be tested, however, as some NATO members closer to Ukraine push for a stronger stance. Poland says it will raise the deployment of a peacekeeping force in Ukraine, while Estonia has passed a resolution supporting Ukraine’s long-sought-for request of a no-fly zone.
Western leaders making the trip to Brussels — including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and U.S. President Joe Biden — will likely push back on those moves and ensure NATO remains on the same page.
But some experts say time is running out for the people of Ukraine, and more needs to be done.
“The problem with NATO’s unity is that it hasn’t deterred Putin from attacking Ukraine,” says Andres Kasekamp, a professor in the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy at the University of Toronto.
What is on the table?
From the beginning of the war more than three weeks ago, NATO has been steadfast in walking the line between helping Ukraine while not getting involved in the conflict directly.
One of the goals of Thursday’s summit, experts say, will be to ensure any further military aid commitments, including weapons and other equipment, don’t get too far ahead of NATO as a whole.
“There will be some states, particularly those closer to Ukraine, who feel compelled to do more and take more significant actions, and that would create strains in the alliance,” Sayle says.
Such a strain was already seen earlier this month, when Poland’s offer to supply MiG-29 fighter jets to Ukraine was publicly rebuked by the United States.
Supplying the jets, which Ukraine has said are needed to bolster its air force after suffering losses to Russian forces, could be seen as another direct provocation and escalate the war, U.S. officials have said. Such a move would differ from smaller arms supplies, experts say, as it would involve more direct coordination between Ukraine and NATO allies.
Sayle says the summit will be a chance to not only clear the air about the fighter jet issue, but also air any other disagreements before coming to a consensus.
Poland has also said it will raise the prospect of sending a peacekeeping force into Ukraine, made up of either NATO troops or other international bodies like the United Nations, to ensure the supply of humanitarian aid while also having the ability to defend itself.
That will also likely be rejected by the wider alliance, Kasekamp and other experts say, as sending any Western troops to Ukraine — even peacekeeping ones — could provoke Putin. That fear will also ensure a no-fly zone remains a non-starter for the alliance, they add, despite Estonia’s recent public support.
That leaves continued military aid as the issue likeliest to get broad support. The question will come down to what that aid looks like, as Ukraine looks to counter a Russian military that has become more brutal in its attacks.
“There has been discussion of sending the Ukrainians longer-range air defence systems, stronger anti-tank weapons,” says Allen Sens, a professor of political science at the University of British Columbia.
“The issue is, finding the kinds of weapons that Ukrainians have been trained to use. And if they need equipment that’s more advanced, that requires additional training, how to obtain that and get the fighters trained quickly. So all of this, I think will be up for discussion.”
What will Canada's role be?
Trudeau’s presence at the Brussels summit will be important, Sens says, as Canada seeks to take a leadership role in the humanitarian crisis unfolding.
More than 10 million people have fled Ukraine since the war began, according to the U.N., most of them to neighbouring countries like Poland and Moldova. Canada will be seeking to assure those countries that it is there to help.
“I think there’s an opportunity or a window to be at the forefront of a broader international effort to provide greater assistance to those countries,” Sens says.
That will mean not just Canada accepting some of those Ukrainian refugees itself, but also ensuring the countries bearing the brunt of the influx have the resources it needs, he added.
The Canada Border Services Agency confirmed late last week that nearly 3,400 Ukrainian nationals arrived in Canada between Feb. 21 and March 13. The number includes Canadian permanent residents.
Canada will also need to address NATO’s long-term goal of making changes to its long-term security, which NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said last week will be a priority of Thursday’s summit.
Defence ministers from allied countries met on Wednesday and tasked their military commanders to draw up options to bolster NATO’s defences “across all domains,” Stoltenberg told reporters after that meeting.
Sens says it will be important for Canada to align itself with countries like Germany, which has announced major increases to its defence spending. Such a commitment would also underline Canada’s importance to the alliance, and vice versa.
“It will be for the good to remind NATO that we also have Russia as a neighbour, in the north, and that our sovereignty and the security of the Arctic now is in much greater jeopardy than it was just three weeks ago,” he says.
“We are now, no matter how this turns out, going to be facing an isolated, dangerous Russia moving forward. And that’s going to require attention to our defense capability along with our partners.”
Aurel Braun, a professor of international relations and political science at the University of Toronto and an associate of the Davis Center at Harvard University, says such long-term planning is important as the threat from Russia escalates.
The concern now, Braun says, is what happens on the ground in Ukraine in the days leading up to Thursday.
“This summit should have been held yesterday,” he says.